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Women in Baseball Panel at #SABR45

SABR’s national convention very often features a panel discussion on “women in baseball.” (I have spoken on the panel in the past.) The speakers vary from former female players in the All American Girls (AAGPBL) and Negro Leagues to current women trying to make it in baseball or in umpiring to writers, front office personnel, and wives. As moderator Leslie Heaphy put it, “We take the broadest possible view of women’s participation in baseball.”

With such disparate experiences, sometimes there is not a lot of direct back and forth between the panelists, but each one always has fascinating and insightful things to say about the game we love. So here I present a smattering of quotes from today’s panel. I didn’t come close to writing down everything that was said by everyone, so it’s only a pithy percentage of the complete experience. (You should all get to a SABR convention someday if you love baseball. No really.)

Today’s panel included:

  • Caroline Phillips from the Cubs — working on the premiere club seating/renovation development
  • Martha Jo Black from the White Sox — working in Fan Experiences (and btw Joe Black’s daughter)
  • Christy Spisak, player for the South Bend Blue Sox (all women’s team)
  • John Kovach: former chair of the SABR women in baseball committee, curated the Diamond Dreams exhibit, longtime coach and advocate for women’s baseball
Christy Spisak, John Kovach, Martha Jo Black, Leslie Heaphy, Caroline Phillips at the SABR 45 Women in Baseball panel

Christy Spisak, John Kovach, Martha Jo Black, Leslie Heaphy, Caroline Phillips at the SABR 45 Women in Baseball panel

Leslie opened by asking each panelist how they got their start in baseball.

Caroline: [After interning for some minor league teams for a summer in retail and such,] I emailed every single department head at the Reds saying I only had class two days a week and that I would work three days a week. I got into Premium Seating, but after a full year on intern pay ($7 per hour with no benefits) they were still on a hiring freeze, so I moved to the Dodgers.

Martha: My dad used to say “You need to get a job” and I would pretend I couldn’t hear him. He finally took me to meet Mike Port for a “job interview.” What it really was was my dad interviewing Mike Port to make sure that the position was okay for me. Then after the Arizona Fall League was over, he was like, okay let’s got and get you a real job. So he wrote to Jerry Reinsdorf and Ted Turner and I ended up with the White Sox. All the writers were saying we were going to the world series in 1994 but the strike happened. Even with the strike and the money problems Jerry Reinsdorf only let two people go. I didn’t play baseball softball or anything. The cool girl over here has that covered.

Christy: Yes, my dad tells a story I could throw a ball before I could walk. I was always athletic and very competitive, soccer, golf, volleyball, I did it all. I started T-ball when I was 4 or 5 and then played with the boys my whole life. There were some girls when I started but the older I got the less and less girls there were until I was the only one. When I was in high school I got involved with women’s baseball, the Chicago Pioneers, we played all boys teams and we played about a .500 record, mostly with pitching. Never for a second did I consider switching to softball. I never considered it. I always figured I liked what I was doing, why change? Now I’m with the Blue Sox and we play in women’s tournaments all around the country. Since I’m in college it’s hard for me to do the ones during the school year. I grew up playing second base and catching. My dad and uncle and cousin were catchers, but my best position is second base. For Coach John I mainly play outfield now.

John: Historically I went back to figure out when John first became involved in baseball and I found this stone tablet… (laughter) I was about 6 or 7 actually and there was no T-ball or Coach-pitch yet. You just played in your neighborhood until you got to be 10 and joined Little League. As a child I was a diehard Cubs fan. But then 8-8-88 happened, the day they sold out, and added lights, and I became a Boston Red Sox fan.

Leslie: John, why women’s baseball?

John: There were always girls playing when we played in the neighborhood but I noticed as I got into more organized ball that there were no girls. All the girls I knew loved baseball! Why were they not on the field playing! They told me they weren’t allowed to. That was before Title IX. It seemed so wrong. I had two female players on my team in a Mexican league we were in but otherwise there weren’t any. In 1996 we tried to create a midwest circuit modeled on the AAGPBL in the Great Lakes Region, and that’s how I got into that side of things.

Leslie: [to Christy] What’s it like playing for John?

Christy: It’s been amazing. I’ve played a lot of sports and had a lot of coaches and he’s the best. When I started with him I was coming from another team where I was on the bench a lot, wasn’t getting a lot of playing time, but when I came to the Blue Sox I was a founding member of that team. We won a tournament together and I sat on the grass after that tournament and told him “I feel happy again.” And so I switched teams.

Leslie: You said you have been on a team that was the only girls team in a boys league. But what was that like?

Christy: It was a summer league and we played in Skokie and Willamette, places that were far from me. We would show up to a place and the boys would laugh. Like they would see one person get out of the car with a ponytail and they’d say oh there’s a girl on the team, and then they’d realize oh, they’re ALL girls. One particular time we showed up to the field and there was a family riding bikes around the park, and they noticed us, and they ran home and got all their friends to come back and see us play. There would be moms and dads on opposing teams sometimes who would root for us instead of their own sons! So it was great. I have mostly positive memories and positive feedback. There were the negative people who thought they didn’t have to take us seriously and thought they would run right over us, but mostly it was great.

Leslie: Caroline, what do you do working in baseball?

Caroline : With the Reds I started in special events, and then I got into the customer service side which I didn’t think I wanted to do. I just didn’t want to deal with people complaining about cold hot dogs. But then I found out that there was a “premium seating” customer position, I gave it a try, and I loved it. So for C-level executives and above, and I get to interact with a really interesting group of people, all our clients sign multiyear deals for their seats and you have to build that relationship with that client so that they’ll keep buying these incredibly expensive seats. With the Dodgers I worked on that also, in celebrities, entertainment, and very high net worth individuals, while in Cincinnati it was mostly banks and corporations. Now here with the Cubs we’re suddenly getting the celebrities and high net worth individuals, and I’m creating the new premiere seating department, a second tier of service and amenities that regular season ticket holders don’t get. Hopefully the clubs we’re building are going to really be a big thing with private bathrooms, in-seat service, some of them will be underground, that kind of thing. We’re doing a lot of focus groups and are building what they want. I keep in touch with the Dodgers and I hear how it’s going there. They didn’t listen and I’m hearing that the new club they built there, the people hate it. So we make sure we’re delivering what should be there. I’m the one saying there should be phone chargers built into the seats and I want them to be padded and not plastics, etc.

Leslie: Martha Jo, how about you?

Martha Jo: I started in the ticket office in 1993, then the strike happened in 1994. I went into premium suites from there, and they made me into a manager of suite holders. They took me out of suite operations–like figuring out who has the most beer–and into the relationship-building. Then I left the White Sox in 2000 and worked at a law firm running their private parties at the Drake, and then I came back in ’04 at a very good time. Aaron Roward, even Carl Everett, all those guys really meshed together.

Martha Jo: It was such a different day back [when my dad played]. My dad rode the train to the ballpark and no one recognized him. He would play ball in the streets with neighborhood kids because no one was telling them they weren’t allowed to because they might get injured. Now with fan experiences I do stuff like batting practice access or dinner with Jerry Reinsdorf. With Reinsdorf, the Bulls are his mistress who makes a lot of money, but the White Sox is his wife, his true love, because it’s baseball. We set things up where people can go out and drag the infield with the grounds crew. It gets people closer to the game. You can ask our third generation groundskeeper Roger what he thinks. He had a Saudi prince invite him to do his grounds and he was like, sure, I’ll do it. He didn’t even want to be paid, he just loved it. The prince sent him a Porsche. I was like, oh dang I wish I had a green thumb!

Leslie: Christy, tell us why baseball over softball.

Christy : For me it was just I loved baseball. Everyone was telling me I should switch because I could get scholarships, “they’re no future in baseball.” But that only made me want to fight harder to keep playing baseball. Maybe there is no future for me in it, but maybe I can be a part of what makes a future for the next girl coming up. I never liked softball. It was too girly for me. I didn’t like all the ribbons in their hair and singing songs during the games. That wasn’t for me. I prefer good old traditional hardball.

Martha Jo: My dad was playing for a team in Plainfield, New Jersey. Everyone there was poor: Italian, Jewish, black, everyone all played together. Then this scout came to see his team and he was like why aren’t you looking at me? And the scout was like “You’re colored.” My dad said “Yeah not only am I colored my last name is Black.” And the scout said “Colored people can’t be ballplayers. It’s not allowed.” And he went home and looked at all his baseball cards and realized they were all white! He tore up all his cards except for one, which was his favorite player, Hank Greenberg.

Martha Jo: When you work for a team you don’t get paid like the players. But Jerry Reinsdorf paid for any employee who wanted to go to the World Series to go, he put up in hotels, and he chartered a bunch of United planes, and when they won the world series, we all got rings and we were all on the plane.

Caroline: I was with the Dodgers during the divorce and then MLB taking over the team and the sale of the team. At the end of that I didn’t seem much opportunity for growth there, and I got the offer from the Cubs and my boss told me “you can’t pass up this opportunity.” He was so supportive to me. He said “I don’t want you to leave and I’ll counteroffer as much as I can, but I really think you should go for it.”

Leslie: Can you comment on the possible drafting of French infielder Melissa Mayeux, who registered for the draft?

John: Mayeaux if she does get drafted won’t be the first female ever drafted. [Former White Sox GM] Ron Schueler drafted his own daughter, Carey Schueler, as a tribute to her baseball ability. But what I should say about women playing in MLB is that if women were given the same opportunities to play at every level of their lives [as boys] then they would be ready for the major leagues. But can they actually be ready for the major leagues the way it is in the United States where you just can’t get that necessary experience? We can’t answer that question.

John: Do you know about the Pitch, Hit and Run competition that MLB runs? It used to not be segregated: girls and boys were allowed to do anything they wanted. But now the boys are only allowed to do the baseball parts and the girls are only allowed to do softball. I asked why did they do this and they said they wanted to make it so more females could “make it to the finals.” While that does have some good sentiment behind it you’re asking girls who do play baseball to switch to softball to compete. So we’ve been talking with them about maybe letting every participant choose whether they hit a baseball or softball. And so on. But this is what we’re up against.

Leslie: What advice would you all give to someone like Moné Davis who is just coming up?

Christy: I would say don’t listen to what people try to tell you. Things would happen like I would get picked for an all-star team and the coach would be like “but you’re a girl” and they wouldn’t take me seriously. And I say you just can’t listen to those people. Do what you love. If that’s softball, so be it, but do what you love.

Martha Jo: I would say to anyone who wants to get into the business side of baseball is do an internship and send those resumes NOW. We start hiring for the following year before the graduates start coming in. It is not a glamorous life, you work long hours, but men and women to get your foot in the door, be an intern. We probably have 10 interns every season.

Caroline: I definitely agree. What I would say also is don’t get stuck on any one area. You don’t necessarily know what “sales” entails. You have to try things out, do whatever is open, don’t worry about whether it’s paid or unpaid, they expect you to have a second job to support yourself. Let me tell you if you have the entitled mindset that you won’t take an unpaid internship, then front office people won’t want to hire you. They’re looking for people who are willing to do the grunt work. Also, when people come in and tell me they want to be in “sports marketing” I steer away from them because they often don’t know what they want, they don’t know what “sports marketing” is. They think it’s a glamor position when it’s actually stuff like fan research.

John: There are some things that could accelerate the position of women in baseball. When the Little League was forced to integrate in 1974, they thought about creating a separate BASEBALL league for girls. They decided to elevate softball instead and every other organization went along with that as the new norm. If they had done created a separate girls hardball league in 1974, we would have women’s baseball in high school and college right now, I guarantee it. You have to have a major youth league that would create a separate girls league. If it’s the Babe Ruth program for example? They’re going to draw players from Pony and from Little League. How many of you realize that Little League has on their books a boys softball program? That was done in 2000, and it was created as a “wonderful new athletic opportunity for boys.” Check the Little League website. In that year, a few thousand boys played softball. At that same time they had over a hundred thousand girls playing baseball, already. Guess who got the short end of that stick? Right now USA Baseball has a women’s team, but they are totally uninterested in creating a feeder system of talent into that team. They don’t flip over that roster, so if you went to 2 or 3 tryouts why would you actually go to a tryout? I understand that soccer people actually run USA Baseball. The woman who runs the women’s division was a soccer person. To have a national team with no feeder system is absolutely crazy.

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