War Minus the Shooting: No Crying in Baseball

It has been sportswriting law since 1992 that any article dealing with women in baseball must quote that line from A League of Their Own, and I have never been one to swim against the tide.  (Though, of course, it was written by someone who’s clearly never spent any time inside an MLB clubhouse, where tears are shed with gender-annihilating frequency.)

Judging from some of the reaction to this interesting article by Steven Goldman that appeared a few days back at SB Nation, there may be no crying in baseball, but whining in baseball fandom is still in copious supply.  In keeping with the internet-era dictate that all information must be filtered through the lens of one’s own personal rooting interests, a few women got in their digs (womanhood is not equal to motherhood, don’t you know), but the majority of complaints against Goldman’s speculations about the future of ladies in professional baseball came from men, toting their off-brand interpretations of logic and science as maces to guard the moat that separates the men from the girls.

Now, I’m not particularly champing at the bit to see women and gays in baseball merely for the sake of diversity.  Just as right-wing apologist/bow-tied geek George Will confessed in Ken Burns’ Baseball that when it came to his favorite sport, he was uncharacteristically Marxist and pro-union, so too do I depart from my normal egalitarianism when it comes to sports.  All I ever care about is whether or not someone can add to the number in the W column come year’s end; I’m all about meritocracy in this particular area of life.  If I really believed that women were incapable of performing at a major league level in baseball, I would have no wish to see that one last barrier be crossed.  (Gays in baseball aren’t really an issue, as they have populated the sport since its founding; the issue, rather, is acceptance of gays in baseball, which is not the responsibility of gay players, but of fans, media, and management.)

However, the arguments arrayed by inexplicably nervous men about the entry of women into one of the last realms they consider exclusively theirs may take the form of meritocratic arguments, but their purpose is plain old-fashioned bigotry, and their methods — most particularly the pseudo-science they toss around in a naggingly familiar game of pepper — are the same ones we heard over and over again before Jackie Robinson was finally given the opportunity to eradicate the sport’s color barrier.  While certain biological realities will assert themselves at various levels, the idea that there will never be a woman physically or mentally capable of playing top-level baseball against men is nonsense, and every argument deployed against the idea is pseudo-science of the same sort we heard 70 years ago against blacks:  they lack discipline.  They’re not smart enough.  They’re soft.  They’re weak.  They’re undisciplined.

Are men and women physically different?  It would be foolish to deny it.  But just as there is more difference within racial categories than there is between races, there is more difference between athletic and unathletic women than there is between athletic women and unathletic men.  Certainly there will be few women who are ever able to compete against the best men on a baseball diamond; but those who can will be infinitely superior to most men.  After all, most men aren’t good enough to play professional baseball, either; the fact that we may ultimately cultivate only one MLB-level female player for every hundred male players is itself no reason to keep women out entirely.  Of the 750 players currently active in the majors, only two are Korean, but no one would suggest that Koreans should be banned from the game because it is rare for them to have the ability to compete at its highest level.

The “upper body strength” argument is also often brought up, as if that was the only muscle group ever exercised in baseball.  Women’s generally superior leg muscles and hip torsion are never mentioned.  It may even be likely that the greatest players will always be men, but do we not let Ryan Zimmerman play because he is not Babe Ruth?  If no woman ever has the combination of upper-torso muscle power and height to be able to pitch like Randy Johnson, that is not to say no woman could ever pitch at a major league level.  I have personally seen plenty of women with craft and guile enough to strike out plenty of male hitters despite lacking 90mph velocity, and that’s a quality more needed than ever in an era when relief pitchers have assumed an extremely important role.  (For that matter, I’ve seen women bigger, stronger, and more overpowering as pitchers than the slight, clever Jim Parque, and he was good enough to win bronze in the Olympics and guide my White Sox to a playoff berth in 2000.)  If no woman ever has the power of a hulking slugger like Jim Thome, there is a long and rich history of little guys with strong wrists and keen eyes able to slash hits all over the ball yard.  Jackie Robinson was a great hitter, to be sure, but what was so disruptive about him was his gamesmanship, his speed, and his ability to manufacture runs out of sheer willpower; none of those are qualities stemming from the possession of a Y chromosome.  We have yet to see what kind of havoc a good female player could wreak, given the chance.

And the chance is what is not offered.  If women try to compete against men and fail, then they fail, but it should not be because they were not given the chance to try.  As Goldman observes, most women who show talent at baseball are shunted from a young age to the sport of softball instead; playing a different game with different tactics against other women instead of men, they never get the opportunity to find out how good they could be.  In any sport, one rises to the level of one’s competition; if women do not now play competitively against men, it is because they have not been allowed to do so.  This, of course, was the great tragedy of the MLB color barrier; we not only never got the chance to see how good many Negro League legends truly were because they were banned from competing against whites, but the white players of the era, too, must forever bear the asterisk indicating that they never truly played against the best of the best.  If we aren’t repeating that tragedy now, it is likely only in degree and not in kind.

In 1931, a minor league player for the Chattanooga Lookouts named Jackie Mitchell faced the New York Yankees in an exhibition game.  The Yankees of that year would go on to score more runs than any team in MLB history, and its two best hitters were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.  Mitchell struck them both out.  Jackie Mitchell was a woman; the reaction to her astonishing feat was rather electrifying.  Ruth’s nice-guy demeanor vanished; he argued about the calls and later complained bitterly, wiping the juice of sour grapes from his chin, that it would be the end of baseball if women were allowed to play.  Commissioner  Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball who was responsible for relentlessly enforcing its color barrier, agreed, and enacted a ban on women playing professional baseball in the MLB system that stands to this day.  Mitchell was, even more astoundingly, only 17 years old when she sat down two of the most powerful sluggers the game has ever seen; if she was that good that young, who can say how good she might have gotten later on, if allowed to work out her talents against the best the game had to offer?

Most of the rest of the arguments against women in baseball reek of the same old sexist condescension that we’ve heard about every other minority group (and still do; just last week, Hawk Harrelson was off on one of his occasional tirades about how Latin hitters lack plate discipline and can’t perform in cold weather).  Women are too emotional (black lack discipline), women don’t have the willpower to play a hard game (blacks aren’t tough enough to play every day), women lack mental toughness (blacks are intellectually inferior).   Particularly absurd are the arguments that take the form of the gender barrier being “for their own good”; women shouldn’t be allowed to play, so the story goes, because men will resent them, because they will suffer discrimination and hatred and catcalling, because they will be sexually threatened.  Not only would a woman good enough to play in the majors be more than willing to take that chance for the historical opportunity that went with it, but these aren’t women’s problems.  They’re men’s problems.  If management can’t keep their teams from treating a woman with the same comradeship they do players of any other stripe, or make them stop harassing her and threatening her, then the league should take action against the team accordingly; the prejudice of others should never be a barrier to equality of opportunity.

Separate but equal is never really equal, no matter how it’s practiced.  It may very well be that the breaking of the gender barrier in baseball will be ugly, fraught with incident, and unfathomably difficult.  It may very well be that it is costly, painful, and rife with resentment.  It may even be the case that it produces only a very few female players at the major league level.  But if even one woman is kept out of the game for no good reason other than that she’s a woman, then equality of opportunity has been denied, justice has been ill served, and some team has cost itself a chance to win more games.  And that’s not something a real baseball fan can countenance.

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