For women in baseball, progress steady but slow
Panel discussion at SABR conference indicates opportunities have increased over time
MINNEAPOLIS -- Progress has come slowly for women in baseball, but there was a time when it looked like it might not come at all. The Society for American Baseball Research celebrated change Thursday, when it hosted a panel discussion that highlighted the game's growth of gender equality.
Four accomplished women -- two writers, a historian and a business executive -- spoke about their love of baseball at SABR 42, the group's annual conference, and while they concluded that things have gotten exponentially better, they also agreed that there's a long way to go.
Laura Day, an executive vice president of business development for the Twins, verbalized that sentiment palpably, explaining that there was a time when she was alone in the front office.
"Having been in the sports industry now for just over 20 years, I can tell you it's changed dramatically," she said. "Back in 1991, I can tell you from the Twins perspective, I could count on one hand the number of women in the front office. I will tell you today, there's more women, more people. Major League Baseball, from a league perspective, has made a huge commitment to ensure that we have appropriate and diverse representation, and not just on the field of play but in the front offices."
Day, one of four members of the panel, said she believed that her baseball DNA came from her mother, who loved the game and once went on a blind double date with all-time great Hank Aaron. And that, at the time, was just about the closest a woman could get to immersion in the game.
Another panel member, Dorothy Seymour Mills, could actually claim to personify that change. Together with her late husband, Harold Seymour, Mills collaborated on a three-volume history called "Baseball: The Early Years" but the full extent of her contribution wasn't felt until decades later.
Mills, who has since remarried and written several more baseball books, only felt free to claim authorship of the book after her husband had passed away. Once it became clear how much she had contributed, SABR elected to award both her and her late husband the Henry Chadwick Award.
And with that background, you can understand her position. Mills, who claimed to have socks older than some of her fellow panel members, spoke passionately about the game, and she noted ruefully that at least three women had signed Minor League contracts only to have them invalidated.
"The same thing happens in other aspects of women's lives. They were rejected before they had a chance to show what they could do," said Mills. "I began to think about this. Why did those women just disappear and not do something about it? Because it was a different era. We were raised differently. These people were doing what they were taught to do. They were taught to be quiet, go home ... don't say a word and do something else. That's what women did in those days, and I know, having been born in 1928. We were taught not to object when we were discriminated against."
The other two panel members -- Leslie Heaphy and Cecilia Tan -- both had intimate connections to SABR, and they spoke about how the game has made room. Heaphy, a professor at Kent State and the co-chair of SABR's Women in Baseball Committee, said it never occurred to her as a youth that women were discriminated against in baseball, but time and research made the dilemma clear.
Tan, the publications director for SABR, said her own ambitions made the point for her. She recalled first trying to break into the baseball business as a writer a decade ago, and though she struggled at first, she created her own opportunity by blogging and finding freelance work wherever possible.
"There's much less resistance than there once was," she said. "When I first joined a group called AWSM -- the Association for Women in Sports Media -- most of the newsletter was about how hard it was, and now there's much more talk about our successes. ... There's much more diversity in the media overall, and there's much more opportunity. And if you can't do that, make your own opportunity."
And while that may be possible for writers, it remains virtually impossible at this point for women to play baseball at a high level. The four women on the panel agreed that women can only make complete strides in baseball once they're allowed to play the game in high school and in college.
Tan said that around a million young women are involved in Little League baseball programs, but the number drops to 10,000 at the next level. Part of that, she said, is the notion that baseball is for men and that softball is for women, a concept that is rooted in sexism and seemingly intractable.
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.