Softball: Baseball for the girls

My daughter Annie, 12, has managed to resist the siren song of lacrosse in Middlebury and is playing seventh-grade softball this spring, under the tutelage of Brett Ringey, son of Mike — the patriarch of the Cornwall Ringeys, the first family of Addison County baseball (and now softball).
Mike has handed Annie the “tools of ignorance,” so now she is ensconced behind the plate as catcher. Her team, the Middlebury Union Middle School Tigers, have split their first two games, winning one and losing one.
She is participating in something of a family tradition. Annie’s half-brother, David, played baseball in high school in Boston and on Bill Hageman’s crack Legion teams in his summers in Vermont. Her brother Peter, 14, is playing baseball for the Tiger JV team in high school.
Why can’t Annie play baseball too, like her brothers?
Well … because. That’s the way it is.
Softball is girls’ baseball. But, again, why isn’t baseball “girl’s baseball”?
Because, as I already said, that’s the way it is.
Baseball and women have a long and interesting history in America, though one that speaks always to second-class status. The women’s colleges in the East — Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley — all had lively intramural baseball programs as far back as the 1860s and ’70s.
So-called “bloomer” girl teams barnstormed the country at the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. When I was researching baseball in Addison County in the 19th century at the Sheldon Museum, I found a broadside (poster) advertising “The Great and Only Ladies’ Baseball Club, The Champion Lady Ball Players of the World! Admission 25 cents.”
The Middlebury Register on Aug. 15, 1890, provided this account of their game: “A young ladies’ base ball club, said to be from Cincinnati, played an exhibition game with the village nine on the college grounds yesterday afternoon. There was quite a crowd of spectators.”
The ladies must have won, as no score was reported.
Unlike baseball, softball does have an actual origin story, a creation myth, dating back to the 1880s. The game was originally called “indoor baseball,” and it was played with a big, soft ball (so not to break any windows) and bats smaller than a baseball bat. It was played initially by men, often firemen, but over time was perceived to be ideally suited for the “weaker sex,” not too strenuous and competitive.
There’s no question that “soft” ball was developed from attitudes about gender that no longer apply. These days, it’s a total misnomer — the ball is decidedly not “soft” anymore, though that identification remains and is disparaging; in sports, generally, soft is not as good as hard. Girls play softball. Boys play hardball.
I don’t get too worked up over the inability of Annie and other girls to play actual baseball. I’m content that softball is indeed “girls’ baseball,” albeit a modified version, but not inferior. It looks a lot like baseball to me — four balls, three strikes, innings and outs, nine to a side, four bases, and so on.
Title IX assures that female athletes in our schools are provided genuinely equal opportunity — playing fields, equipment, coaching, number of contests, officiating, the works. That’s most important to me, for Annie. I want her to have a “level playing field,” so to speak, with boys.
Dr. Jennifer Ring, professor of Political Science and Women’s Studies at the University of Nevada, would take me to task and call my attitude about softball’s “suspect egalitarianism.” She is furious that baseball has been “stolen” from girls, substituted for by softball, which she asserts was “foisted” on them.
She writes in her book, “Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball,” about the systematic exclusion of girls and women from our national game. “(American girls and women) are socially and institutionally deprived of the right to choose to play baseball,” she writes. “Just as there is nothing inherently masculine about baseball, there is nothing inherently feminine about softball.”
There’s no question that girls at the high school and college level these days are physically able to play baseball — that is, to pitch the ball overhand to a batter 60 feet away, to play defense on a diamond with bases 90 feet from one another, a regular boys’ diamond. But there is no infrastructure for girls to play baseball after Little League (where they are hardly encouraged), so it’s play softball or change sports.
To be sure, there is an “underground” of women’s baseball, and an international competition, a World Cup of sorts, with teams from Canada, Australia, Japan, China and Cuba, as well as the USA competing.
So I don’t know whether to say to girls and women who lament they can’t play baseball to “accept the inevitable, embrace softball” — or to hope that over time some momentum is gained so baseball becomes a viable game for girls.
As for now, however, I’ll say to Annie, with enthusiasm, “swing hard, run everything out, be a good teammate.
“Have fun, playing ‘softball.’”

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