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A national pastime for only half the nation

In a new book, college professor and social critic Jennifer Ring makes a compelling case against gender bias in baseball.

July 19, 2009|KURT STREETER

The Dodgers and New York Mets were playing like girls.

Small ball was in full effect. There'd been no home runs, nothing hit deep to the warning track. This was about pitching, defense and fundamentals.

What a perfect game to watch with Jennifer Ring. "Look at this," she said, just after the second inning, the Dodgers ahead of the Mets, 2-0, on a warm May evening at Dodger Stadium. "What a cathedral! Look at that big, beautiful field . . ."

Ring, a baseball fanatic who doubles as a social critic and political science professor at the University of Nevada, then tosses a grenade: "I love baseball, but baseball has a big problem. It's just a sham that our national game basically excludes half the population. Women are pretty much shut out of this game."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, July 20, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Kurt Streeter: In Sunday's Sports section, Kurt Streeter's column about women playing baseball identified Harvey Schiller as president of USA Baseball. He is president of the International Baseball Federation.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 26, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Kurt Streeter: In Sports on July 19, Kurt Streeter's column about women playing baseball identified Harvey Schiller as president of USA Baseball. He is president of the International Baseball Federation.

I have to hand it to Ring. She's willing to hit a line drive -- straight into the system's teeth. This is why I invited her. Having read her book, "Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don't Play Baseball," I had come away deeply impressed by her sharp, thoroughly researched examination of gender discrimination in the sport. So impressed that I put out the call: Dodgers game, professor, on me.

There we sat, up in the cheap seats, chomping on hot dogs, talking shop. By the third inning, with the game already a war of attrition, I'd had the history lesson: how in the early 1900s, a mythic narrative was shaped that echoes to this day. Baseball in America was connected with being aggressive, orderly, religious, militarily strong and, most of all, manly.

Women? As far back as the mid-1800s, they played baseball. Yet, by the 1930s, they had been, for the most part, not so gently excluded from the game.

"This was the thinking: Girls needed exercise," Ring said. "But not too much because it could make them like men. And besides, by the '30s, baseball was being sold as the national sport. Back then, you don't want a national sport that is for girls. . . . Hasn't changed all that much."

Softball, an imperfect facsimile in the minds of many, became the fallback. The field was smaller, the ball trundled in padding. Soft-ball. How perfect, went the tired old saw; after all, women are delicate little creatures.

For decades, nothing changed. It wasn't until the 1970s, when lawsuits partly opened the doors, that girls were sanctioned to play Little League baseball with boys.

There has been little progress since. Today, once they hit age 12 or 13, almost every last girl baseball player in America is forced to give up her dreams. Baseball is a man's dominion.

Down on the field at Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers-Mets game marched on. By now the action was devolving: scoreless inning after scoreless inning after misplay.

"When kids are little, they ought to play together, girls and boys," Ring said, watching another popup. "When they reach adolescent age, there's a difference in strength that develops, that is when the idea begins of who can play what. The question isn't, 'Girls should be playing major league baseball and we need affirmative action.' The question should be, 'If they are good enough, at any level, why shouldn't they get the chance?' "

Ring, 60, knows her stuff. She grew up in L.A., loving baseball but, like so many her age, never getting a chance to play anywhere but in pickup games. Her daughter, Lilly Jacobson, faced similar obstacles. A solid Little Leaguer in Reno, Lilly got short shrift when she tried to play in high school.

"People were saying, 'How come you are not preparing her to play softball, what in the heck is wrong with you?' " Ring recalled. "Look, all she wanted was to play baseball."

Lilly found a home at Wooster High in Reno. At the time she was the only girl, and likely the first, to play varsity in the division for Nevada's biggest schools, says her coach, Ron Malcolm, who called her a solid contributor on top-flight teams.

College brought more battles. After struggling for respect and playing time at Vassar -- and getting what is thought to be the first hit by a female in college baseball since the mid-1980s -- Lilly grew frustrated and this year transferred to California. . Now 21, she plans to play in a club league while continuing to star on the little-known USA Baseball women's national team.

Given their back-seat status, you've probably never heard of that team, or know that women's baseball is making an official bid for inclusion in the 2016 Olympics. It's a longshot, true, but also a nod to the fact that in many countries -- Japan being the prime example -- women's baseball is taken seriously. The Olympics "would bring a huge difference in the popularity" of the game in America, said Harvey Schiller, president of USA Baseball, which is leading the bid.

One of Schiller's goals: break down barriers at the high school and college levels. He envisions women's baseball teams thriving at both levels.

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