In 2018, the idea that a national baseball team from the Dominican Republic would be qualifying for the sport's largest international tournament for the first time in history might surprise those who know baseball well. After all, the Dominican Republic is home to a large number of Major League players and has enjoyed success in international competition. But in late March, this was the reality for the Dominican women's national team after their undefeated run through the Pan-Am qualifier handed them one of the 12 spots for the Women's Baseball World Cup (WBWC). The international profile of the tournament, which will be held in the United States for the first time this August, is sizable: The 2016 edition held in Korea drew fans from 198 countries. These fans, either online or in person, viewed at least some part of the competition, chalking up 6 million online views alone.
Baseball is still a sport primarily associated with men. Social and institutional restrictions on who can play baseball have funneled many women athletes into softball instead. This shift intensified under U.S. Title IX legislation, which prevents discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally-funded educational setting, including sports programs. To satisfy their requirements under Title IX, many schools classified softball and baseball as equivalent sports, reinforcing the cultural conventions that for decades had closed off baseball to women. But women's baseball has a rich history and continues to be played today on an international scale. While the state of women’s baseball in the United States and overseas has ebbed and flowed over time, it has often reflected the shifting beliefs about gender and sports and their place in the broader socio-cultural context.
Unlike the myth of Abner Doubleday's famous game in Cooperstown, which has served as the well-known origin story of the sport (despite evidence of the game dating back to the 1840s and its evolution from various other bat-and-ball games), women's baseball doesn't have a neatly packaged tale with a famous name to describe its beginnings. Instead, women's baseball grew out of the changing cultural context and evolving gender roles in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Baseball, a Game not Only for Men
In the late 1800s, the cultural and social roles of women in the United States began to change, with the Gilded Age ushering in a new measure of freedom unencumbered by Victorian prescriptions for feminine behavior. This led to changes in fashion and entertainment and in other areas of culture, including sports participation. The idea of "healthful beauty" — as described by historian Susan Cahn in her book Coming on Strong — along with more active leisure practices, especially for middle- and-upper-class white women, helped create an environment in which women's sports participation, albeit limited, could become a reality. This was the social context surrounding the development of the first women's baseball teams. These often started out at women's colleges but soon included squads playing for paying crowds and sponsored by local companies. Initially marketed and viewed by many spectators as a novelty or a curiosity, the strong performances of the athletes helped attract a sizeable fan base. In the 1910s and 1920s, as suffrage movements burgeoned and women's participation in the labor force increased, many women baseball players found opportunities on factory teams and in community organizations like the YWCA. Aligned with these movements, the women's sport grew in popularity with the rising interest in social welfare programs in the early 20th century.
With the coming of World War II, social expectations for women eased, partly driven by the need for capable substitutes for enlisted men in industrial and cultural life, and professional baseball followed suit. Major League Baseball's executives became concerned about a decline in the sport as players were lost to the draft, with no ready pool of substitutes available. That led to the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — a history made popular by the movie A League of Their Own. In the beginning, the league's games were a hybrid competition somewhere between baseball and softball, but as the league wound down in the 1950s, the only difference between its games and the men's version of the sport was the length of the basepaths. The league, which featured over 600 players, reached a peak attendance of nearly 1 million in 1948. After the war ended, the country's male population returned, and the growing popularity of television, which aired Major League Baseball games, gave that league a boost, providing it with an unmatchable resource in terms of drawing fans, sponsorship and interest. The All-American Girls league, suffering from declining attendance and a lack of media exposure, lasted only until 1954.
Throughout the early 1950s, opportunities in baseball continued to expand for white women, as in the men's game. However, racism limited opportunities for women of color. In the late 1800s and first few decades of the 20th century, some black women played on barnstorming teams or on squads associated with local social organizations — beginning with the Philadelphia Dolly Vardens in the 1880s. The All-American Girls' league, however, had no black players throughout its tenure, although the league did sign seven Cuban women, mirroring developments in the men's game in which Latino players broke the color barrier years before Jackie Robinson's MLB debut. While black players were turned away from All-American Girls league tryouts, some went on to make names for themselves with men's teams in the Negro Leagues. Effa Manley was the co-owner of the Newark Eagles, a Negro National League team, and Toni Stone, Mamie "Peanut" Johnson and Connie Morgan all played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the early 1950s (Stone replaced Hank Aaron in the infield after he moved to MLB). This was all prior to the decline and eventual dissolution of the Negro Leagues as a result of integration, later in the decade.
Much as men's baseball spread around the globe in the late 1800s and early 1900s through the influences of globalization, education and empire, women's baseball followed a similar path.
What the Future Holds for Women's Baseball
In the United States, the period of flat interest following the demise of the All-American Girls league appears to be over. The 2018 Women's Baseball World Cup, which will be played at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Florida, will provide U.S. fans with a great opportunity to see the globe's top women's talent in action, and the future of the game looks bright. The performances of pitcher Mo'ne Davis in the Little League World Series and other women's players in semipro and independent leagues have led to speculation that women players could eventually take the field for an MLB team — an idea popularized in the in the recent Fox network TV drama Pitch.
Women are participating in the men's game in off-the-field roles as well. The Oakland A's employed Justine Siegal as the first female MLB coach in 2009. The pioneering coach also served on the coaching staff of the Israeli national team in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Women have served as umpires in Minor League Baseball and in MLB spring training games, too, and have been in the broadcast booth to provide commentary for MLB transmissions.
Even as women continue to make inroads into MLB, one of the biggest factors in the continued growth of the women's game will be media coverage. While a lack of media coverage helped hasten the demise of the All-American Girls' league, continued exposure to modern women and girls playing and otherwise participating in baseball will help foster interest in the game. The work of outreach organizations such as Baseball For All, which help grow access to participation opportunities, can also play a major role at the grassroots level. Additionally, there is still a level of social stigma associated with girls and women playing what is typically thought of as a men's sport; in order to see real professional success for women's baseball, it will likely take an ongoing cultural shift toward full acceptance and promotion of women as elite athletes, just as we've seen shifts in ideas about gender influence women's baseball in the past. As interest and participation in women's baseball continue to increase, the women and girls who play and work in the sport can rely on their own rich history and continue to demonstrate their aptitude and love for a global pastime.