By Aimee Crawford
Ella Bruning just wants to blend in, to be—in her words—“one of the guys.” As the only girl to compete at this year’s Little League World Series, however, she can’t help but stand out.
Bruning, the starting catcher for the Wylie Little League team from Abilene, Texas, has become one of the tournament’s breakout stars. But her newfound celebrity has more to do with her play than with her gender. Bruning, 12, has shined both at home plate and behind it for her team, otherwise known as “Ella and the Fellas.”
“We came up with that name when I was on the 10-year-old All-Star team,” says Bruning, flashing a smile that reveals both a mouth full of braces and her self-effacing sense of humor. “My teammates thought it was funny. But they don’t treat me any differently on the field.”
Bruning is the 20th girl ever to play in the Little League World Series, youth sports’ brightest stage. And only two other girls have done what Bruning did in her team’s opening game in Williamsport: collect multiple hits in an LLWS game. Bruning scored the first run in Texas’s 6–0 win over Washington after roping a single to left field in the fifth inning and then stealing two bases. She added an RBI on her team-high second hit, a line drive to right field that put Texas up 6–0 in the sixth inning.
Baseball is a family affair for the Brunings. Ella wears No. 8 in honor of her mom, Lindi, who was a star softball pitcher for Wylie High School. Her dad, Bryan, is one of her coaches. Her younger brother, Dillon, is an outfielder and second baseman for the team.
“I grew up watching my older brother, Collin, play All-Stars for Wylie,” says Bruning, who often shagged balls in the outfield for her big brother’s team. “I made a couple of good catches and someone said that I should play for his team. It started as a joke, but then my parents signed me up. I started playing, then I made the All-Star team—and now we’re here.”
Bruning caught every inning of her team’s first three games in Williamsport, blocking more than 25 pitches in the dirt and routinely sprinting down the line to back up plays at first base. After taking a foul ball off her left knee during a 6–5 loss to Michigan on Monday, Bruning was tended to by a trainer but asked to stay in the game—and promptly made diving blocks on the next three pitches she saw.
That toughness has earned her fans in Williamsport and beyond, wowing everyone from Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras to former New York Yankees great Jorge Posada to softball legend Jennie Finch, who even sent Bruning a video message before she left for Williamsport.
“She told me that I did a great job of representing women,” says Bruning. “And she told me to go kick butt at the World Series.”
Other members of the select LLWS sorority Bruning has joined are rooting for her, too. Mo’ne Davis, who made history in 2014 as the first girl to pitch a shutout and win a game, returned to the Series this year as an in-game analyst for ESPN’s KidsCast. On Tuesday, Davis threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Bruning—teaming up to form a battery with serious girl power.
“It’s cool to see her doing such great things,” says Davis, who now studies journalism and plays softball at Hampton University. “I’m cheering for her and hoping that she makes it a fun tournament, and really hoping that she enjoys it, because it’s such a fun experience.”
Bruning is also only the second girl to start at catcher—widely considered the most demanding position on the field—in the LLWS. The first, Krissy Wendell, backstopped the Brooklyn Park (Minn.) American Little League team in 1994.Like Bruning, Wendell (now Wendell-Pohl) followed her older brother into baseball.
“My brother was a pitcher, so I was his catcher,” says Wendell-Pohl. “I enjoyed being a catcher because I was always part of the action. And if I made a mistake, I didn’t have to wait 10 batters for the ball to come to me again. I liked being involved in every play.”
Bryn Stonehouse, a Texas native who played in the LLWS as an infielder for Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in 2009, now lives and works in Abilene. After watching the hometown team advance through the Southwest Regional tournament, Stonehouse reached out to Bruning’s parents to congratulate them, and to offer her support and advice to Bruning herself.
“At 13, I didn’t quite recognize the significance of being one of the few girls to play in the Little League World Series, or how awesome it was to represent girls in this sport,” says Stonehouse, who still hears from other young women who aspire to follow in her footsteps and play baseball. “But I do now.”
Little League has come a long way from the days when Kathryn “Kay” Johnston Massar tucked her hair under her cap and disguised herself as a boy just so she could play baseball.
Little League Baseball was officially founded In Williamsport in 1939. In ’47, the league’s board of directors organized a national tournament for its 17 existing teams that later became known as the Little League Baseball World Series. By ’64, Little League Baseball was granted a Federal Charter and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
When the organization was formed, it didn’t include any formal rules about the gender of the players who participated. In 1950, 13-year-old Kay Johnston signed up to play for her local Little League team in Corning, N.Y., under the pseudonym “Tubby Johnston.” She made the squad, but after a few practices, she went to the coach and came clean. Johnston was so good, however, that he didn’t care, but parents on other teams made such a fuss that the next year the leagueadded an explicit ban, known as “The Tubby Rule.” It said: “Girls are not eligible under any conditions.”
In 1972, 12-year-old Maria Pepe played three games for the Hoboken (N.J.) Little League before the national organization threatened to revoke the town’s charter if she continued to participate. Heartbroken, Pepe turned in her uniform and hung up her cleats, but the National Organization for Women (NOW) took up her case, filing a gender discrimination lawsuit on Pepe’s behalf. In 1973, Sylvia Pressler, a New Jersey judge, ruled in Pepe’s favor, forcing Little League to amend its Federal Charter and remove the gender clause the following year. By then, Pepe was too old to play Little League. But today the batting cages at the main Little League field in her hometown are named after Pepe, and an annual all-girls baseball tournament is held at the field in her honor.
Eleven years after the court ruling, Victoria Roche, a reserve outfielder for the European Region champions from Brussels became the first girl to play in the Little League Baseball World Series. Five years later, Victoria Brucker, a first baseman for Eastview Little League of San Pedro, Calif., became the first U.S. girl to play in the LLWS—and the first girl to get a hit in the tournament.
The LLWS has been a springboard to further success for many of the girls who followed in their footsteps, including Wendell-Pohl, who went on to become one of the best hockey players in U.S. history. She led the University of Minnesota to two national championships, won the Patty Kazmaier award as the nation’s top collegiate player, then captained the U.S. women’s national team that won a silver medal at the 2002 Olympics and a bronze at the ’06 Games. Wendell-Pohl was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in ’19.
She says that her time in Williamsport helped prepare her for the other challenges to come, in sports and in life.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a huge, life-changing experience,” says Wendell-Pohl. “It forced me out of my comfort zone. It also opened my eyes and introduced me to different cultures and athletes from different countries, which was good preparation for the Olympics down the road. It also showed me how sports can unite people.”
In 2013, Eliska Stejskalova played shortstop for the first team from the Czech Republic to win a Little League World Series game.
“It was such a big tournament for a little girl from a little country and little city,” says Stejskalova, who hailed from South Moravia. Stejskalova made Little League history the following year by becoming the first girl to compete in two baseball World Series, when her team reached the Little League Intermediate (50/70) Baseball World Series in Livermore, Calif.
Fast-forward to this past May, Stejskalova helped Florida SouthWestern win the NJCAA National Championship in softball, hitting .308 as a freshman, including a home run that sent her team to the semifinals.
“Playing in the Little League World Series helped shape me into the player I am today,” says Stejskalova.
Stonehouse’s baseball career ended in high school, but she now channels her competitiveness into running and works as a counselor for victims of violent crime. She says that playing alongside boys prepared her to face challenges off the field, too.
“That experience has helped me as a woman in the workplace,” says Stonehouse. “Sometimes our voices are silenced, or we’re not valued in certain spaces simply because we are women. Getting to play at the Little League World Series taught me to stand up for myself, and to recognize that, ‘Hey, I deserve to be here.’ I can see now that it was a touchstone event for who I am today.”
Despite all the positives they gleaned from the experience, the women who played in the Little League World Series also acknowledge that the attention could be overwhelming.
“The only time I felt singled out for being the only girl on my team was at the Little League World Series,” says Wendell-Pohl. “Maybe that was just because it was my first time really dealing with a lot of media. I had been the only girl on my hockey team since I was 5, so I was used to playing with boys. Nobody in my community thought it was weird or unusual.”
In Williamsport, on top of feeling singled out, Wendell-Pohl sometimes felt like she was also missing out on the fun.
“My dad was my coach, and I remember him saying, ‘You need to go and do this interview. We’re representing the community,’ ” says Wendell-Pohl. “And I remember being so mad because while my teammates were swimming in the pool or playing Ping-Pong, I had to go do another interview. I wanted to go and do the fun stuff. About halfway through the tournament, my dad was like, ‘O.K. … she’s done with the interviews.’ ”
Others also felt the weight of expectations—and feared being singled out on the field.
When Stonehouse was the only girl in Williamsport, she says she felt an added pressure. “After every mistake, big or small, I was really hard on myself,” she says. “I was so focused on those things that I didn’t maybe fully enjoy the opportunity just to get to play there, on that stage.”
Stejskalova echoed Stonehouse’s fears, adding that it felt like if she made a mistake, everyone would see it. With the benefit of hindsight, however, Stonehouse realized that most of the pressure she felt was internal.
“It’s incredible just to be there at the world series,” says Stonehouse. “I hope that Ella has fun—and that she realizes that, no matter whether she makes a great play or a not-so-great play, she’s still an amazing player, and she deserves to be there.”
Bruning also plays basketball, volleyball and softball, and even skipped an All-American softball showcase to play in the Little League World Series. With her team’s best chance at taking it all the way, she couldn’t pass it up. “This is once in a lifetime,” Bruning told the media after Texas’s win against Washington. “I’ll have softball for the rest of my life.”
Bruning and Texas beat Nebraska, 10–0, Wednesday to stave off elimination but ultimately lost to Michigan, 15–6, Thursday. Even though Bruning’s team’s run came to an end before the championship, Stonehouse says that Bruning has made a lasting impression on girls—and boys—across the country.
“I hope that she recognizes the significance of this,” says Stonehouse. “Younger girls are looking up to her, hoping to be able to play on that stage one day. She is helping change the sport. And she’s changing the world for the better.”
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