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The Women in Baseball Panel at #SABR49

The Women in Baseball Panel at #SABR49

Wow, has this panel has grown in stature as the field of women in baseball has grown. I was on this panel myself at a SABR convention back in the 2000s… over ten years ago. (I retired from playing women’s baseball when I turned 40, so it had to be around 2006… this blog probably has an entry on that panel but I’m having connection issues and can’t load my own blog…) The panel has upgraded drastically from me (a women’s park-league player and occasional baseball instructor for the AAU and Girl Scouts) to multiple women who have both played and coached actual professional men’s baseball.

On the panel:

Perry Barber, well-known former pro umpire

Janet Marie Smith, who now works for the LA Dodgers, best known for leading the design and building of Camden Yards in Baltimore, as well as the renovation of Fenway Park and the conversion of Turner Field from Olympic venue into baseball stadium

Ila Borders, former professional pitcher with the St. Paul Saints and other men’s independent teams

Justine Siegel, founder of Baseball for All and coach for several men’s teams including the Oakland A’s

Kelsie Whitmore, current pro pitcher with the Sonoma Stompers and member of USA national women’s baseball team

Jewel Greenberg, documentary filmmaker, just finished a documentary on women in baseball (now called “Hardball: The Girls of Summer” coming out September 24th)

Moderator: Jean Ardell, author of several books relating to women in baseball

(What follows is a partial transcript of the panel discussion, which I typed in real-time as the women spoke. This only captures about half of what was said. Any errors are mine.)

Jean: In 1993 I attended my first SABR convention right here in San Diego. There were exactly 2 women presenting, me and Barbara Gregorich. [*Note: there are enough this year I couldn’t count them easily. 6-8 at least.] Where were all of you in 1993? Well, Kelsie you weren’t even born yet…

Kelsie: Yeah, I was born in 1998. I grew up playing baseball since I was 6 years old. It was always fun for me. My dad really got me involved and I stuck with it ever since. I was not looked at differently at the youth level. I felt like one of the guys. But later the boys started to realize I was different. They see hey, that’s someone with long hair.. that’s different. It was mostly positive, but there were some negatives as well as positives growing up.

Perry: In 1993 I was working NCAA baseball games and high school double headers and I was about to get married. I told my husband I needed to be on dry land on the weekends because he wanted to be on his boat! By then I was 12 years into my umpiring career and I was realizing I was never going to break what I called the “stained grass ceiling” of baseball. I wasn’t going to make it to the big leagues, but I thought someday someone would and I could be a part of that.

Janet: In 1993, Camden Yards had just opened! Baltimore was going to be hosting the All-Star Game that year. When I first started working in baseball, I didn’t think it was going to be a career trajectory for me. My work was about civic architecture and urban planning. I am about cities and civic spaces, and creating ballparks that are civic spaces. I thought after the Orioles I’d move on to other urban planning, but I stayed with baseball.

Ila: I was a senior in high school and I was all about baseball, and playing golf and so on to stay in shape. I had my coach Charlie [missed the last name] sign my letter of intent and give me recommendations. I applied to a lot of places and most didn’t even get back to me. Only one gave me a free ride.

Justine: I just learned that Kelsie was born the same year was my daughter. I was playing high school baseball as a senior, at the same Ohio school where they wouldn’t let me even try out as a freshman. I pitched against them at Bucky Dent’s baseball school and [after beating them] then they let me play.

Jewel: I was growing up in Saudi Arabia and discovered baseball as this very “American” family thing. We’d get all out family together in these gatherings and that was how I found out about it.

Jean: I’m struck by the recent opening of the play about Toni Stone that just opened in New York off broadway. Baseball is full of rich stories and literature. What stories have resonated with you?

Kelsie: It’s always been America’s pastime sport. Whether you play or just watch, it’s always there. Baseball creates friendships, it creates relationships. It’s about how you speak the game and it lets you connect. It’s a way for me to get away from the old world and focus in on a new world. Baseball has opened a lot of doors for people and is a cultural gathering.

Jean: When I started writing, I wanted to be like Roger Angell. Who are your favorite authors?

Perry: Larry Gerlach! He’s right there! (points at Larry in the audience) I was reading his book about umpires and my mother decided that meant I wanted to be an umpire. Funny, she didn’t think that when I read a book about serial killers… (laughter). I also read a book on baseball so I could beat a friend and baseball trivia.

Janet: I worked on baseball parks and it’s noteworthy how special they are. Other sports don’t refer to their places to play as cathedrals. Think of the audacity of that. We resonate with baseball parks as more than just a home of a sport. That each outfield is shaped by the city it’s in makes it unique and civic in its grounding. It draws it to literature and poetry. You never become an expert in a park except from fans who go to dozens of games a year, they know it all and you better listen to them. How do they eat, how do they do the natioanl anthem… All that is part of the experience.

Ila: I was inspired by Jackie Robinson’s story. First thing I was told when I got into baseball was “Ila, if you go out there and fail you’ll be setting all women back!” At twenty years old I just wanted to go play baseball, and I was OK with failing myself, but failing all women, everywhere? That was a lot of pressure. Neal Karlen [author of Slouching Toward Fargo, about the 1996 St. Paul Saints] gave me Jackie Robinson’s book. When you get a death threat what do you do? His autobiography was my Bible and I just tried to emulate what he did.

Jean: If we talk about story, we have to talk about voice. You’re all familiar with the few female announcers we have out there. There was just an article about the 5-6 announcers are coming up now through the minors (out of 256 teams). And we have our filmmakers like Aviva Kempner (new film on Moe Berg is The Spy Behind Home Plate) and of course Jewel Greenberg with us here…

Jewel: Documentary filmmaking is about giving other people a voice. About giving the women in our documentary a voice, from women in the 1950s up through eight year old kids who are trying to play right now. It’s their voices of experience, new and old, that is really exciting.

Kelsie: It’s funny you ask that, because I was in Jewel’s documentary and I’ve been able to share my voice through her. It’s important for me to know that young girls have someone to look up to. Growing up for me I didn’t know of many I could look up to, so I want to be that. Having a voice, whether it’s interviews or articles written about me, I hope it inspires girls and even women to be passionate with their dreams.

Jewel: We got to follow Kelsie through a couple of years and show a throughline that isn’t often seen, from Cal State Fullerton to USA Baseball and then the Sonoma Stompers.

Justine: It was painful for me growing up and always being the only girl. I had to ask to try out, ask permission to just sit on the bench. It was about always having to ask for permission to be there. My daughter also wanted to play baseball and I didn’t want her to go through that pain. So that’s why I started Baseball for All, so hundreds of girls would play baseball together and they wouldn’t be alone.

Jewel: Having a collective voice is really important. So many of the owmen we spoke to felt alone and isolated. For my stepdaughter, coming to Baseball for All was a huge boon to her, it was massive for her self confidence and her ability to be with a group of girls and play together.

Perry: I, too, was also alone, except for my twin sister I forced to go to umpire school with me so I wouldn’t be alone. I started umpiring at age 26 which was relatively late. It’s very important to have support system as an umpire because you take a lot of abuse (regardless of your gender). Most of what umpires do isn’t about that, but it’s there.

Jean: Perry, what’s changed in the umpiring world since then?

Perry: When I started, there was active resistance. 10-15 years later there was no longer active resistance, but there was passive inertia. Twiddling of thumbs, waiting for women to magically show up ready to go. They now realize there has to be active recruitment and training for women as well as for men. The infancy of those infrastructures are now being built for women in umpiring. All that is finally now being put into place. There is foreward movement. People are realizing that it is not a zero sum game and we are not going to chase men off the field like a bunch of estrogen-crazed banshees. (laughter) It’s about damn time.

Jean: Do you have some numbers?

Perry: There was one woman umpiring in [minor league] pro ball when I started. Now there are TWO. But in five or six years you might see them serving as vacation umpires going up and down between Triple-A and the major leagues. Youth ball and amateur baseball has been more progressive about it. But I think minor league and major league baseball will soon be catching up.

Jean: Ila, you started back in the 1980s. How have things changed?

Ila: Yeah, there was no one else playing in the Little Leagues or in high school besides me. Now college coaches are calling me and saying “hey, did you see anyone at the Breakthrough Series who we can recruit” or at GRIT and so on. Some of them are sending coaches to help out at these other events and they are looking for new players. We have male [pro] players coming and coaching women and girl players but I’d love to see women coaches going to the men’s Breakthrough Series and GRIT to teach the men. You have the women’s national team helping these girls. USA Baseball and MLB are both supporting it. The Breakthrough Series in Florida, Justine has seen it, and Kelsie came through that system. But I believe though we really need to infiltrate the men’s side. I’m a firefighter, obviously a male-dominated field, and I’m the captain. They listen to me.

Jewel: For those who don’t know, GRIT and the Breakthrough series are MLB-supported tournaments and series. It leads up to development camp and tryouts for the USA national team.

Justine: I’ve been talking to MLB for ten years. It’s so great to see them [finally] supporting this development for female players. I agree with Ila though, it’s important to coach men. I just came back from coaching in Japan [for a men’s team]. Those guys just want to know if you can help make them a better player. They don’t care that you’re a woman. I had my Jackie Robinson moments. Years ago, I had a coach berate me with a bunch of swear words who didn’t want me on “his” baseball field, ending with “You’re nothing but a doll and I can go to a bar to get a doll.” (audience groans) I wasn’t going to quit. That didn’t even enter my mind. But I had to figure out what to do. So I thought, like Jackie Robinson, you can’t fight back. I decided what to do was be nice to the guy. [The “kill ’em with kindness” approach.] And seven or eight years later he wrote me a recommendation letter to get a pro job.

Kelsie: The first negative thing was when I was on a boys team and a guy was like… ‘why is Kelsie going to the gym? She’s ever going to be as strong or as fast as us, she’ll never get stronger.’ I heard this from one of my friends on the team who was like “don’t worry, I got him, I put him in his place” which was nice to have the support, but I couldn’t depend on him all the time. I decided I had to do my talking with my bat and my glove. Once I got to the Stompers, it was tough, when fans would rip me apart on Twitter. I had a female teammate, Stacey Pigano, and she told me you can’t listen to that. You have to ignore it and it will pay off. I decided I just had to work hard and do my best.

Justine: I have to tell you, Kelsie, in Japan, there was a guy on my team there who had played with you and all the guys on the team knew about you. They were all like “Kelsie is awesome!” So you went international. (applause)

Jean: All right, one minute each, what’s your hope for the future?

Perry: You in the audience can be like my mother was for me. You can say to girls and women “you can be an umpire” or a player and inspire them. Get the message out that there is a US women’s national team. A lot of people don’t even know that. Join the Women Play Baseball Facebook page. I promise we women won’t stop liking you or having sex with you because we’re in baseball. (laughter)

Janet: I am always struck how few women have careers in baseball front offices as well as architecture and planning. I’m often asked if the projects I’ve worked have been successful because of my woman’s perspective. In designing a stadium, I just try to represent the collective voice of the fans which is not gender specific. Everyone wants a safe, clean, nice place to watch the game from. There are so many skills throughout the industry–in broadcasting, coaching, umpiring, etc.–that are not dependent on your gender. You’ve probably heard about issues like old stadium that didn’t have enough women’s bathrooms. One thing we thought about in clubhouse design and stadium design was how can we support female umpires, clubbies, etc…? Often the space we put in gets taken over by the mascot because there isn’t a woman there to use it. We had a woman head trainer in our Dominican facility and she didn’t even realize we had designed a room for her! Someone had used it as a storage closet! Our facilities have to be welcoming at all relevls.

Ila: I would love to invest in our women’s national team more. I was around when the WNBA was starting. Women’s teams would go over to Europe [to play teams there] and then come back and be phenomenal. But it took time to grow. It’s not sustainable if we are only in the United States. We need people all over. We need to be able to send the US women’s team to Australia to play, to other countries to play, and really have a fully international effort. Australia has a great winter program! It would be perfect to partner with them.

Jean: We have to get to Q&A so I hope the other three of you who havent spoken yet can address the future during the questions I have from the autience (On notecards). For Perry, recently Kenley Jansen commited an intentional balk. Can teams refuse to take the extra base?

Perry: There is no declining a base on a balk. They can decline on catchers interference, but not on a balk.

Jean: Here’s one from a woman journalist in the audience who has taken a lot of hate on Twitter. I think probably from jealous people who think she knows more than they do. How do you deal with it, Justine?

Justine: I chose kindness because that would let me dictate where I could go, instead of being overcome with anger. Your anger would let them control you. Don’t let them control you and dictate your feelings or behavior.

Kelsie: If they’re jealous of you, they don’t want the best for you. So you have to focus on your own path and try your hardest to ignore it. Surround yourself with people who’ll support you.

Jewel: There’s this idea that you can divide your audience into thirds. One third is supporters of you, the midde third could be converted, but a third will never like what you do. So put your energy into those two thirds and don’t waste your time with the final third.

Jean: Okay, three minutes left. One minute each to finish the question on your thoughts for the future for Justine, Kelsie, and Jewel.

Justine: It’s an honor to make history, but it’s much mosre important to make the future. I want to have a granddaughter one day who could just sign up to play baseball, the greatest game on earth.

Kelsie: Ask yourself why you do what you do every day. If you don’t have love and passion for it, you need a support system. Both men and women have to support it, and so growing that support system is the most important thing.

Jewel: While working on the documentary, I was blown away with how many people thought we were doing a film on softball. Just pepper your conversation with the fact that baseball for women exists. Then when they say “don’t you mean softball?” say no, I mean hardball. Yes, women play baseball, yes they play hardball. If everyone does that, then ten years from now it won’t be a problem anymore

* – * – * 

The panel was followed by the annual meeting of the SABR women in baseball committee. A couple of notes from that meeting about projects that might be of interest:

Current film on Amazon Prime about women in baseball: Shut Out (also has a podcast)

Aviva Kempner: is working on a film called Pissed Off about how the US capitol building was built without thinking there would ever be a woman in the House or Senate and so there aren’t enough bathrooms. This also relates to sports stadiums and other public spaces.

IWBC: International Women’s Baseball Center: this is a group dedicated to housing and restoring the history of women’s baseball and women’s participation. Their goal is to build a museum in Rockford, IL, with a conference center and umpire training facilities. They are seeking donations and you can join as a member. (I joined as a lifetime member.)

SABR’s own women in baseball committee seeks donations for scholarships and supporting the Dorothy Seymour Mills Award, the annual award to leading figures in women’s baseball. Perry Barber won last year. This year the award went to Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, who has run the Robinson Foundation since his death.

Ann Keene, author of Cloudbuster Nine, is working on her latest book and she is looking for WWII vets who played MLB. There are about 30 still living, mostly around 95 years old. If you have contact for any of them please contact her.

AJ Richard — grad student writing about baseball playing experience of girls who stopped by age 18. Please send any women you know who stopped playing baseball by age 18 to be interviewed for research.

Tyrone Brooks from MLB, who also just joined the SABR board, spoke about how in 2017 MLB launched the MLB Diversity Fellowship program. This is an 18-24 month fellowship (not an internship), fully salaried with benefits, for women and people of color. It’s for a recent graduate to work in a major league front office. The first class of 22 were selected last year, including 9 women. The next class application goes live on August 19th and is open to Oct 15th.

Teams are looking for all kinds of talents, including technical anaylsts and developers, math, economics, sports management, and former college athletes, too.

In December MLB also hosted Take the Field, a program for building the pool of women candidates working in baseball. The idea is to take women fand transition them from spectators to working in baseball. Last year 47 women came in and learned about areas including umpiring, coaching, etc. This year it happens during the winter meetings Dec 6-7 in San Diego right before the winter meetings.

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