While Major League Baseball was going through a lockout, barriers were still being broken in the league. Just a few short months ago in January 2022, it was announced that Rachel Balkovec would become the manager of the Tampa Tarpons, the New York Yankees’ Low-A affiliate, making her the first woman to be named full-time manager at the Major or Minor League level.
Barriers continued to be broken since Balkovec’s announcement. A few weeks ago, the New York Mets named Elizabeth Benn their new director of baseball operations, becoming the highest-ranking woman baseball operations employee in franchise history. But it isn’t just at the professional level that women are making baseball history. There are plenty of milestones being reached at the collegiate level as well.
Starting on March 19, the first-ever Women’s College Club Baseball Championships took place in Los Angeles. The event was organized by Baseball For All and will feature teams from the University of Washington, Occidental College, Cal State Fullerton, and Montclair State University. During the four-day event, teams had the opportunity to network with one another, had training sessions with members of the Los Angeles Dodgers Training Academy staff, had a chance to use some of the latest technology available to baseball players, and compete in a tournament hosted at the MLB Youth Academy.
“We already have teams who are interested in participating in the championships next year,” said the founder of Baseball For All Justine Siegal. “We knew that once this event happened, it was going to explode. There are enough women at the college level who want to play baseball, but don’t have the opportunity to play.”
Running through March 22, this historic event comes months after Baseball For All hosted the first-ever Women’s College Baseball Invitational in August 2021. Similar to that event, one of the goals of the championships will be to increase the number of women’s club baseball teams around the country.
“This will help create more visibility and show that this is something women can do and it will be supported,” said the founder of the club team at the University of Washington Katie Firestone. “A big barrier for me when I was considering playing baseball or softball in college is that you don’t see a lot of opportunities for women to play baseball at a higher level. But this shows that it is possible to develop other club teams at different colleges across the country. It gives them something to work and train for.”
It isn’t uncommon to see girls play baseball when they are at a young age. But it’s often the case that around the time they reach middle school or high school age, girls are forced to switch to softball due to a lack of opportunities to continue playing baseball. That was the case with Carly Mitchell, who founded the club team at Occidental College. Mitchell played in little league when she was younger, but her parents had her switch to softball when she was just 10 years old.
“For high school girls who are about to go into college and played baseball when they were younger, and want to keep playing baseball, they can see this event and realize that they don’t need to go into softball,” Mitchell said. “They can keep playing baseball in some capacity.”
There are people out there who may be questioning the need to create more opportunities for girls and women to play baseball when softball already exists. The two sports, while similar, are completely different. The way to properly hit, throw, and catch a softball is different from the way to properly hit, throw, and catch a baseball.
Of course, there are plenty of softball players who have been playing the sport their whole life, but there are also plenty of softball players who started out their careers in baseball. The only reason these players had to switch to softball is that they couldn’t keep playing the sport they grew up with, and softball was the next best option. Contrary to popular belief, softball isn’t a substitute for baseball — it’s a fallback option for some players.
“The fact that teams from New Jersey and Washington are competing in these championships shows that there are girls all over this country who have a desire to play baseball,” Mitchell said. “I hope the visibility this tournament brings will show other girls in college that this can work and they’ll start their own teams.”
The ultimate goal of creating more women’s club baseball teams is to eventually get women’s baseball to be an NCAA-sponsored sport. While there are currently women who are playing on NCAA-sponsored baseball teams, Siegal believes that creating a separate league for women will help encourage more girls to stick with baseball.
“While our end goal is NCAA status and we are very supportive of women playing with men at the college level, we know that more women and more girls will have a chance to keep playing if women’s baseball is its own sport,” Siegal said. “There are a lot of college club baseball teams out there that are technically co-ed. It’s very strong, but it’s not building our sport. We need nine-year-old girls to know that if they keep playing baseball, they have a chance to have a spot on a team in college. Too often, girls are told they have to switch to softball to get a scholarship. We need to change that narrative because girls should have the same opportunities to follow their dreams as boys do.”
As mentioned before, women’s baseball is not an NCAA-sponsored sport yet. That doesn’t mean however there were never any women’s college baseball teams. Throughout the mid-19th century and well into the 20th century, women’s baseball teams were commonplace on college campuses. The first teams, Laurel and Abenakis, emerged from Vassar College shortly after the end of the American Civil War.
There was a lot of backlash to the formation of university-sponsored women’s baseball teams, but teams were still formed at schools such as Smith College, Wellesley College, Mount Holyoke College, and Carleton College. During the 1920s, softball, then known as “kittenball” or “mush ball”, gained popularity, and softball teams began to replace women’s baseball teams on college campuses.
“We are not creating a wheel — we are bringing [baseball] back,” Siegal said. “Women have been playing baseball since before they could vote.”
Another school that had a women’s baseball team in the 19th century was Miami University of Ohio. These days, Miami University has continued to pave the way and a women’s college club baseball team was formed by Callie Maddox, an assistant professor in the Department of Sports Leadership & Management at the school.
“I did some research and found out that as early as 1896, women were playing baseball at Western College, which was a women’s college that merged with Miami in the 1970s,” Maddox said. “There was another college in town that had a women’s baseball team. I kept finding all of this cool historical information and found it so interesting that this tiny town in the middle of nowhere Ohio had women’s college students who were playing baseball. And then I asked myself ‘why aren’t we doing this now?’”
Maddox also explained the importance of having opportunities for women to play baseball in college, which would help fill the gap of opportunities that exist for women baseball players between little league and the professional level.
“We’re seeing more young girls who are high school age playing baseball and having the opportunity to keep playing through Baseball For All tournaments,” Maddox said. “But then there’s almost nothing after that in college. After I graduated, I played in an adult women’s baseball league in the Washington, D.C. area for a bit when I was in grad school and it was an incredible experience. But where is that in between? How can we ensure that there’s a developmental pipeline to a national team? We have our U.S. National Team, but we don’t really have a clear, well-established talent pipeline like Japan, Canada, and Australia. [Those countries] do a much better job than we do in that regard.”
Maddox, who holds a Ph.D. in Kinesiology and Physical Cultural Studies from the University of Maryland, and a master’s degree in International Sport Policy from the University of Brighton, formed the Miami University women’s club baseball team in 2017. The newly established team was originally going to attend the championships, but ultimately was unable to make the trip. Maddox explained that while it is great to provide women with an opportunity to play baseball at the collegiate level, creating and managing a club team comes with a variety of obstacles.
“Funding is always an issue — we have struggled to secure funding for things such as travel,” Maddox said. “Here at Miami, we have a very successful women’s ice hockey team. But players have to pay thousands of dollars to join the team to pay for things such as booking a rink. We don’t want to have that initial cost barrier because we want people to come in and we don’t want anyone who is committed to this movement to feel turned away because the dues are too high.
On top of funding issues, Maddox discovered the difficulty of merging the passion for the social movement with having the skills to actually play the game, stating that “some women have baseball experience, some have only softball experience, and some don’t have experience in either sport and have never played.”
Another obstacle Maddox highlighted is the lack of local competition. Since the formation of women’s college club baseball teams, traction has been gained only over the last few years and it has been difficult for teams to find other teams that are close enough in the playing field to compete against. The closest teams for Maddox and the club are a couple of adult recreational teams in Chicago — the club tried to compete against the rec teams, but Maddox said more obstacles were created due to weather, time of year, and school.
Unfortunately, Miami University isn’t the only team that has this issue. In fact, the three teams that will be competing at the championships were formed last fall, but this will be the first time they have an opportunity to play against other teams outside of scrimmages and practices.
“As we start this process, one of the barriers is trying to find teams to play,” Mitchell said. “You can find a lot of women’s softball leagues and recreational softball groups, but it isn’t that way with baseball. We are one of the first teams to start up, so hopefully, once other schools start forming teams, we’ll be able to have more games and more people to play. But for now, it’s a pretty small group.”
Although there are struggles that come with being among the first women’s college club baseball teams, some of the club founders have been very encouraged by the interest and amount of support they have received. According to the founder of the club team at Montclair State University Sabrina Robinson, getting a team started was half the battle. But because of all the interest, Robinson and her team have come a long way, and are now able to field a full team.
“The thing that has struck me over the last few years while trying to get this going is the amount of support that is out there,” Maddox said. “I don’t know if I went into this being a little cautious because of my own experiences playing baseball, but I thought we were going to be met with more resistance. I have been pleasantly proven wrong. There are, of course, always going to be naysayers. But I think we are seeing a turn in the way society is approaching us, and it gives me great encouragement.”
Photo credits: Shutterstock, Seattle Mariners, Sabrina Robinson, Baseball For All / Centenary University