Women pitching for their place in baseball
Long excluded from working or playing in MLB, women have made great strides in America’s pastime over the past decade, but there is room for improvement
Baseball is a funny business. Staid and conservative, slow to adopt change, and often duplicitous when change is thrust upon them. Integrated a full two decades before most of the United States, yet baseball was not without its ugly share of discrimination. Both beautiful and disgusting almost in equal measure, this game that we so adore, these heroes that we all fawn over, are in fact human after all.
Famously, there never was an official rule against teams hiring black players. The racial segregation was maintained for the better part of a century by a gentlemen’s agreement between the owners. Once the hard-nosed, and thoroughly racist, Kenesaw Mountain Landis was installed as the league’s first commissioner, the gentlemen’s agreement took on an air of officialdom. But even that could’t hold back the tide and when the Dodgers fielded Jackie Robinson, the flood gates were opened.
Landis also saw that the gentlemen’s agreement was extended to exclude women. On April 2, 1931, a 17-year-old in the Reds AA affiliate Chattanooga Lookouts named Jackie Mitchell struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game. Landis immediately voided her contract declaring that women are unfit to play baseball as the game is “too strenuous”.
During the Second World War, as men were drafted in the Army, the owners attempted to recoup their lost revenue by establishing the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. But as soon as the war ended, the league instituted a ban on signing women to contracts, a ban which remained in place until the White Sox drafted left handed pitcher Carey Schueler in 1993.
With the doors firmly closed to them as players, some women nevertheless made it into baseball via the front office. All modern ballparks can trace their design and planning roots to the historic redevelopment of Camden Yards by Orioles then-Vice President of Planning and Development Janet Marie Smith. Going on to redevelop Turner Field, Dodger Stadium, and Fenway Park, Smith’s work has set the standard for the entire league and beyond.
Slowly turn the wheels of change, but in the past decade, the number of women in the Major Leagues has gained momentum. Now working in every area of the sport, from broadcasting to coaching, from executives to scouts, this is very likely the front edge of the wave of women pursuing a career in baseball.
In November of 2019, four teams announced new hires of women in significant positions within the organizations. The Minnesota Twins brought on Andrea Hayden as an assistant strength and conditioning coach. The Chicago Cubs hired Rachel Folden as a hitting lab tech and the New York Yankees went one better, bringing on Rachel Balkovec as a full time hitting coach, and just over a year later, she would be named the manager of the Single-A Tampa Tarpons, making Balkovec the first woman to manage a major league-affiliated team. Rounding off this astounding month, the Baltimore Orioles hired Harvard graduate and former Astros exec Eve Rosenbaum as their director of baseball development.
The following year saw two big splashes in the big leagues with Alyssa Nakken becoming the first woman to hold a coaching position on a MLB staff when she joined the San Francisco Giants. And at the end of the season, the Florida Marlins made history with naming Kim Ng as their General Manager, making her both the first woman to be GM of any professional men’s team in American sports as well as the first woman of Asian descent to lead a baseball club’s operations.
After the covid-shortened 2020 season, teams around the league began hiring in earnest, kicking things off in January with the Brewers naming Sara Goodrum as their Minor League hitting coordinator and the Red Sox naming Bianca Smith to coach in their Fort Myers, Florida affiliate, making her the first black woman to serve as a professional baseball coach.
A flurry of broadcasting positions were filled around the league all season and as the play drew to a close, Sara Goodrum was poached by the Houston Astros to become their director of player development, making her one of the highest ranking women in baseball. The year closed out with the Rays appointing Chanda Lawermilk as VP of baseball operations and the Pirates hiring Caitlyn Callahan as a development coach.
As we waded through the lockout and focused on a deal that would get players back onto the field, several front offices were busy making preparations for the 2022 season. The Blue Jays took on Jaime Vieira as a minor league hitting coach. At the same time, the Red Sox named Katie Krall as a player development coach in their Double-A team in Portland, making them the first organization to have two active female coaches. The Chicago White Sox rounded out the spate of new appointments by hiring Jasmine Dunston as their directory of minor league operations.
All-American and Olympic gold medallist Jenny Finch had such success in softball that many questioned why she would not be given a shot in MLB, an idea much-derided by the more conservative minded. It must be noted, however, that those naysayers do not include the baseball legends like Albert Pujols, Mike Piazza, and Cal Ripken Jr, all of whom she struck out as part of her This Week In Baseball segment for ESPN. Brian Giles called her fastball “the fastest thing I have ever seen, from that distance.”
French shortstop Mélissa Mayeux, who currently plays softball at the University of Louisiana Lafayette is the first woman ever to make it onto the MLB international registry, making her eligible to be signed with a major league team. It was not that very long ago when the presence of a woman in baseball was noteworthy at any level. Great strides have been made throughout the game, but a woman playing a marquee position like short stop in the Show would be the icing on the cake. Maybe Mayeux could be the one. And the way she can play, why not?