A league of their own


By: Scott Hokkanen

In 2014 the sporting world was captivated by the story of a 13-year-old baseball player named Mo’ne Davis.  Davis was one of two girls participating in the Little League World Series of Baseball (LLWS), the highest level of competition for baseball for adolescents.

She became the first girl to register a win in a LLWS start and the first girl to pitch a shutout.  Davis became a cultural phenomenon. She was the only female, along with one other girl who good enough to compete in the male-dominated sport.  She received the 2013 Breakthrough Athlete of the Year Award at the ESPN athletic awards-ceremony the ESPYs, and became the first LLWS player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. In an interview with ESPN’s Hannah Storm, Davis said, “My dream is to play college basketball and then play in the WNBA.”

While it isn’t a rare occurrence for a talented athlete to be gifted in several sports, one would think that Davis would continue to play the sport that had thrust her into the international spotlight. Yet she plans to pursue a career in basketball, which provides more opportunities for female athletes to gain fame and fortune. Davis made the switch because there is not an even playing field between females and males when it comes to finding success in the sport of baseball.  There is however another option for women to play ball professionally, and that is to switch to softball.

The last major professional women’s baseball league, The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), held its last ball game in 1954. When the United States entered World War ll, a group of major league executives started a new professional league with women players in order to maintain the popularity of the sport, while the men of the MLB were off fighting in the war. The story of the AAGPBL inspired the 1992 film A League of Their Own.  In 2016, professional female-only baseball is history with the exception of fictionalized productions such as the Fox television series Pitch, in which a female pitcher plays her way into the MLB.

Humber College softball head coach Duaine Bowles says that fictional series like Pitch aren’t helping the cause, because they divert women away from finding success in the sport of softball.

“Whenever you plant a seed that Major League Baseball is an option for women, a career in softball is lost,” he says. “There’s just no opportunities [for women] to play baseball at a pro level after high school, you’re planting a seed that won’t grow. Everyone goes back to Mo’ne Davis, but she wouldn’t have had to quit baseball, if she had been playing softball all along. She could have been a great athlete in softball, and she could have been paid for it, but baseball drew her away from that.”

In July 2016 the Sonoma Stompers of the Independent Minor League Baseball association, announced that two women, 17-year-old Kelsie Whitmore and 25-year-old Stacy Piagno, would join their team in starting positions, making them the first professional baseball team to employ multiple women since three women played in the racially-segregated Negro Leagues in the 1950s.

The National Pro Fastpitch League (NPF), formerly known as the Women’s Pro Softball League is the only professional women’s softball or baseball league in the United States and it currently features six teams. In a report from the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA), it was found that the 2015 Women’s College World Series of Softball averaged more television viewers than the men’s 2015 College World Series of baseball. Duaine Bowles believe with the growth of popularity of softball south of the border, the sport is bound to grow.

“Once you get those good television ratings from the NCAA game into the pro game, then you’ll start to see financial support from private companies, the league will grow, and then it will be self-sustainable for a long time,” he says.

While these television ratings can be seen as an advancement for females in the sport of softball, the problem still remains that women have to play with men to play baseball professionally. Coach Bowles says that there are more similarities than differences between baseball and softball. He says that the swing mechanics are exactly the same, and besides shorter basepaths and a larger ball all of the skills from softball translate over to baseball.  Dividing women and men into two different yet similar disciplines seems fundamentally unnecessary.

Many other major sports have entirely female professional leagues such as the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). For the time being the only professional option for women to play fastball, is to switch to softball.

The groundwork is there to facilitate the growth of females-only softball, but how do women feel about the division of softball and baseball? Justine Pike is a veteran softball player for the 2015-16 OCAA softball champion Durham Lords.  “Growing up I have only ever played rep softball.  I love the game, I love the sport and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”  Pike is one of many women who have found success within the sport of softball.

“Growing up I never really had any famous athletic role models,” Pike says.  “I looked up to my older sister who was also a softball player and also a member of the Durham Lords.”  Female role models were important to Justine in her upbringing.

“I find female coaches a lot easier to get along with because they better understand what goes through the minds of other female athletes.” 

She’s optimistic about women in softball in general too.

“I think there are more professional and collegiate opportunities within the sport of softball because I feel like more women are interested in the game and have the passion for the sport compared to men,” she says.

In examining the gender division in the sport of baseball it is important to consider that it can be an advantage that softball has become a safe-place for women to compete against other women rather than trying to break into the male-dominated sport of baseball.  However the main issue at hand is that there should at least be opportunities for women to play other women at hardball baseball professionally if they were inclined to do so.

Hugh Mitchener, CEO of Softball Canada said that there may be more opportunities for women within the sport of softball, because at the grassroots there are more club opportunities for girls softball and moving up the ladder. Colleges and universities also provide opportunities for girls to play softball competitively.  Mitchener added that there are Olympic opportunities for women in softball with the sport returning to the Olympics for Tokyo 2020.

The competitive opportunities for women to play softball is expanding internationally.

The perplexing division of the genders between softball and baseball remains unanswered. For now, many athletes like Justine Pike are content with competing in softball and the possibilities for women to succeed in softball are growing before our eyes.