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November 14 2000 : Book Review of Women At Play, by Barbara Gregorich

women-at-playDid you know that since the beginning of any kind of organized baseball in America, there has been organized women’s baseball? That is, until the 1952, when minor league teams were outright banned from drafting female players–a ban that has never been rescinded. In 1974 girls were allowed into Little League, but since the fifties, there’s been pretty much no opportunity for women to be baseball professionals at any level.

What’s startling for many modern readers to realize, when reading Barbara Gregorich’s “Women At Play: The Story of Women In Baseball,” is that before the fifties, and dating back to the mid-1800s when the rules of Base Ball were nailed down, there were always women who enjoyed the sport, and that professional women’s ball did not start and end with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (featured in the movie A League of their Own, starring Geena Davis). In an era when women couldn’t vote, couldn’t own property after being married, and mostly couldn’t read, they could play baseball.

Back in 1869, when the first professional men’s baseball club, the Cincinnati Red Stockings was founded, all players, men and women, pitched underhand, and the ball didn’t fly very far. Women played baseball at all-women’s Vassar college in 1866, with Smith and Wellesley soon to follow. They played in floor-length skirts and ran to first with the skirts bunched in their arms.

But by the 1890s, teams of “bloomer girls” (wearing Alice Bloomer’s innovative leg-covering that bore her name), were barnstorming the country, playing exhibition games for pay against local teams.

Gregorich’s book gives the history of women in baseball, beginning with these teams and carrying on through the AAGBL and the modern era struggles of women to play college ball and to umpire today. With short readable profiles and biographies of the game’s prominent players and figures, interspersed with many photographs and sidebars, the book is a good off-season read. When I first bought it in a used book store, I worried that it might be a bit dry and academic, but Gregorich relates these women’s stories, and the tales of their pennant races as well as legal battles, with easy prose and evocative detail. Lots of photos, too.

I bought the book intending to use it as a distraction from the lack of baseball during the winter, and it held up to that task admirably–taking me just about the same amount of time to read as it takes to listen to the average Yankee game (three and a half hours, not counting the pre- and post-game shows).

The book is still in print according to Amazon.com, and was originally published in 1993. At this point, Gregorich could add a few more chapters. Ila Borders is a woman pitching professionally in the independent Northern League–she broke in with the St. Paul Saints in 1996 and is now with the Madison Black Wolf, I think. (She has a web site at www.ilaborders.com).

No, I take it back. I just looked at Ila’s site myself, and she’s now in the Western Baseball League, pitching for the WBL 2000 champions St. George (Utah) Pioneerzz. (Yes,with two z’s.) Last I heard, she still held out hope to be scouted to a men’s major league team.

There are also nascent attempts to start women’s leagues in the US–the WNEBL and the AWBL are getting going. In Canada there is the COGBL. We are a long way from seeing a WMLB along the lines of the WNBA in basketball, and probably still very far from seeing a woman in the major leagues, but progress continues to be made. The WNEBL has six teams in the New England area, and… here’s something sort of funny/ironic … if you’ve read the entry about the batting cage I posted here last week–the WNEBL held their annual awards banquet at Good Time Emporium about an hour after I had taken my swings there. Interesting coincidence, to say the least.

Anyway, I’m deeply intrigued by the questions raised in the book about why women aren’t playing baseball now (the establishment of softball as the “women’s game”, changes in the way the American entertainment dollar is spent, etc…). “Women At Play” is a great introductory book about the subject and an excellent way to spend an offseason evening.

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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