Why is baseball a boys’ sport and softball where the action is for girls? There isn’t a good answer to that question, says Justine Siegal, founder of Baseball for All, a nonprofit dedicated to ending an ingrained stereotype in athletics.
Siegal is an avid hardball fan. She played baseball until 13 before being told it was time to transition to softball. That moment shaped her life, in which she continually swings for equal opportunities. Siegal’s record speaks for itself:
- Assistant baseball coach for Springfield College
- The first woman to coach for a professional men’s baseball team (Brockton Rox, 2009)
- The first woman to throw batting practice to a Major League Baseball team during Spring training (Cleveland Indians, 2011)
- The first woman to ever coach for an MLB organization (Oakland Athletics, 2015)
Her lasting legacy may very well be Baseball for All, which assists communities in creating women’s baseball teams. The organization’s national tournament has grown from 12 teams to about 800. There’s reason to expect the number of participants to keep growing.
“It’s been a slow journey, but I do believe we’re at a tipping point,” Siegal says. “This is an exciting time.”
Women have been playing baseball longer than they have had the right to vote, notes Siegal. The best-known example of organized women’s baseball is The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, featured in the hit 1992 film and current television show streaming on Amazon Prime.
The Midwest-based league began in 1943 as a pinch hitter when World War II sidelined Major League Baseball. It lasted until 1954. As the women’s league was on its way out, Little League prohibited girls—a rule that wouldn’t be challenged until 1972, when the family of Marie Pepe, an 11-year-old growing up in New Jersey who was denied access to a team, joined with the National Organization of Women to sue Little League.
Girls gained the right to play baseball, but Siegal laments what came of the ruling. Little League developed its Softball World Series and marketed that for girls. In Siegal’s eyes, the move strengthened the preconceived notions that challenged her ability to play the game she loves. Her passion is evident in championing girls baseball.
“We need to the remove systemic discrimination that is happening across the country for girls who want to play baseball, and that starts from ending a blue flyer boys for baseball and a purple flyer for girls softball,” Siegal says. “This is a social rights issue.”
Siegal, who has a daughter who is not surprisingly fiercely independent, is essentially the face of the women’s baseball movement.
She has assumed the leadoff spot in many battles on this front, playing the long-term game that her experiences will open greater opportunities to future women and girls. Her time on the A’s staff was brief, but impactful.
Without forerunners like Siegal, Kelsie Whimore, a 24-year-old from San Diego, would not be playing for the Staten Island FerryHawks of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (equivalent to single-A or double-A). Others are breaking through on college teams. Thousands of children are playing hardball across the country, particularly in large cities on either U.S. coast.
“It’s possible for women to play in the major leagues” someday, predicts Siegal. “Women have to be given the opportunity to show what they can do.”
Siegal was back coaching recently, serving as a consultant on the TV version “A League of Their Own,” airing two decades after Tom Hanks declared that there is no crying in baseball.
Her hope is the show further spurs interest from parents and coaches to start their own girls team. Siegal says she gets about four calls per week from volunteers to do just that. Softball, she says, is a totally different sport—and players should be able to choose between the two.
“We need to make sure that all 7-year-old girls have a chance to play in our local leagues without being told that they need to switch to softball,” says Siegal.
Photo Courtesy of Baseball for All