"How Baseball Made Me into a Feminist" was the title of a presentation I made at the Forum in the Unitarian Universalist building on Jan. 29, 2012. About fifty Naples residents were curious enough to attend, even though I spoke at 9:15 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Their enthusiasm for my revelations was infectious, and some people clapped whenever I made a point they agreed with.
The most unusual member of the audience was Perry Barber, the well-known female umpire, who lives not in Naples but in Clearwater, about a three-hour drive from Naples. She cheerily supported my remarks with a few of her own, explaining how badly she and other women umpires are often treated by baseball professionals because of their gender. Perry left right after the meeting because he had to get back to umpire a game.
Perry brought me a special gift: a set of T-shirts bearing an image of the cover of my book, A Woman's Work, a book she loves. Perry had screen-printed the images of the book's cover onto these T-shirts the night before my presentation. They are beautiful. If you would like to get in touch with Perry, let me know. She lives in Clearwater only in the winter; the rest of the year she lives in New York.
How Baseball Made Me Into a Feminist
Presentation delivered Jan. 29, 2012, at the U.U. Congregation, Naples, Fla.
This is not the Vagina Monologues. It's about baseball and me. I have a deep connection to the National Game, because the world of baseball has made me into a feminist. Baseball is the culprit in two different ways: first, through the cultural climate that made my late husband, a baseball historian, and me into the people we were, and second through my research discoveries related to the history of women in baseball.
The first factor was my early marriage to the man who became the first historian ever to write baseball history. That turned me into the first woman ever to write baseball history. But it also gradually made me realize that I was being used, because my husband solicited my skills in writing, organizing, and research to develop the classic three-volume history of baseball for Oxford University Press but he never credited my work appropriately by placing my name on the title pages of the books along with his name. He died of Alzheimer's Disease in 1992, still refusing to recognize me as he should have, and not until 2011 did Oxford finally make the decision to recognize that I was co-author of those three books and to produce a new edition bearing my name as co-author.
Young people always want to know: why did my late husband, Harold Seymour, act that way, and why did I put up with it? The reason is that we were the products of centuries during which men were considered the only people of any consequence. As I'm sure you know, women have at least since the times of the Greeks and Romans been considered entirely secondary to men. In ancient times and extending up nearly to present times, women could not own property and were often themselves considered property. In most societies women were handed off from fathers to husbands, with no time in between for self-development. Who gives away this bride? is still the question in many marriage ceremonies, because women could not give themselves away. In this country, women could not even vote until 1920, eight years before I was born. No wonder my mother, a textile worker, never even thought of voting.
You may recall Kathleen Korb's well-thought-out sermon of last November called "Philosophy or Religion," with its careful definitions of each. Not long ago, if you were a women it didn't matter whether you preferred Religion or Philosophy, since traditionally, neither one held women in high regard. A religion might declare that the first woman was merely created out of a man's rib. Women were directed to become men's helpers. They were sometimes considered temptresses who led men to evil. Some religions still classify women as less important than men, as we've become aware in current newspaper stories.
Philosophers were likely to view women in the same way as religions did. The other day I picked up a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which had been recommended highly to me. I found that Marcus spends most of the book recommending how a man should act. I was wondering when I would find some recommendations for the way a woman should act, when finally I found a mention of a woman, but all Marcus said was that he was grateful to the gods for giving him an obedient wife. I closed the book.
I was raised in the 1930s, in a family where women were trained to fit into a certain place in society, a place that is well below that of men. I learned early that men were the leaders and women were the helpers. I began working on the Oxford baseball project with my late husband, Harold Seymour, as a helper, though I soon changed from helper to co-author. I made the project my own, even taking it over entirely when my husband became terminally ill. Yet virtually nobody knew my real function related to this work.
But I believe in the adage that when life hands you a lemon, you can turn it to your advantage and make that proverbial lemonade. One of the pitchers of lemonade that came out of this experience is my interest in women's baseball.
Discovering the history of baseball women is the second factor that made me turn toward feminism. Through research I found out that women have been playing the national game since at least the 1870s, but few people know that because the history books used in high schools and colleges generally pay no attention to women's long interest in the national game, preferring to emphasize professional men's baseball. Textbooks link women with men softball, which began as a men's indoor sport fifty years after women began playing baseball.
Women's baseball, like my own work in baseball history, has long been invisible. Women interested in playing baseball were eventually steered into softball instead, but there have always been some women who refused to give up baseball. As I found out more and more about these women, I began to identify with them. Although I never played baseball, I empathized with their determination to enjoy the kind of work they strongly desired to do and to be recognized for it. Tracking down their experiences enabled me to write five ground-breaking chapters on early women's baseball for the third book in the Oxford series, a book called Baseball: The People's Game.
I think Americans need reminding that it's not only men who are often obsessed with baseball. In 2010 McFarland Publishing brought out a book I wrote called Chasing Baseball: Our Obsession with Its History, Numbers, People and Places. In that book I included five more chapters on women, bringing my research on women's baseball into recent times. Most readers were amazed to learn the secret story showing how active women have been in recent baseball history. Enlightening the public about the way women have successfully penetrated the American national game has been very satisfying for me. That's the second pitcher of lemonade I made.
But squeezing those lemons also produced books that were more personally gratifying. At the request of McFarland Publishing Company I wrote a book revealing to the baseball-reading public that Harold Seymour was not the sole author of the celebrated Oxford series. In it I explained exactly what I did in developing that series and how I did it. The book was called A Woman's Work: Writing Baseball History with Harold Seymour, and it's highly autobiographical.
The researcher who wrote the foreword to A Woman's Work called this book "an extraordinarily personal essay, bearing witness in sometimes painful detail to remarkable achievement tarnished by haughty injustice." A review of this book, posted on amazon.com says, "When Mills determined to tell the truth of her unacknowledged collaboration with her much-lauded husband, baseball historian Harold Seymour, she did it in her own style: with meticulous documentation and lucid prose....While there's a notable lack of anger in her tone, neither is there a glossing over or romanticizing of the way things were for a woman aspiring to write back in the late 1940s."
This book, A Woman's Work, surprised and dismayed many who really believed Harold Seymour had somehow managed to perform independently all the research, organization, and writing entailed in producing the monumental-three volume series for Oxford University Press. Proving otherwise was most gratifying.
I underscored this autobiography by producing a related publication. At the request of an electronic book publisher, last fall I wrote a short eBook called First in the Field: My Journey as the First Woman Baseball Historian. For this book the publishing company, named Thinker Media, asked me to explain what it felt like to be the first woman to write baseball history. This eBook, First in the Field, was published this month.
A review of this book on amazon.com explains its content: "There is more to this book than meets the eye," says the reviewer. "This book captured my interest because of the author's story about her struggle to be recognized for her research and contributions to the history of baseball. This is actually a book for a Women's Studies class. It describes the times that women in the postwar period lived through. It tells a story about one woman and how she became liberated. The author, through her determination, freed herself from a subordinate role of the traditional woman while many other women of her generation never reached that point. It is difficult for women to describe this role which is still hiding under the surface in many marriages of couples of a certain age. Dorothy Mills does it well. That the book is based on the history of baseball adds an interesting feature."
For my next book, one that will be published shortly, I was able to combine my interest in women's baseball history with my pleasure in writing historical novels with a feminist viewpoint. This book is a historical novel called Drawing Card: A Novel of a Woman in Baseball. The publisher, McFarland, almost never accepts fiction, but the editor believes this book is exceptional. There has never been a baseball novel quite like it.
To write this book I was inspired by two real women in baseball history who both signed contracts to play baseball with minor-league teams, one in the nineteen thirties and another in the fifties. In those days discrimination against women players with a desire to reach the top of their profession was prompt, open, and decisive. In each case, the contract was cancelled as soon as the Commissioner of Baseball learned that the signed player was a woman.
Each of these two players responded to their rejection in the way women were supposed to respond: they went home quietly and found some other athletic activities to engage in. In thinking about these two women, I posed to myself a What If question: What if a woman signed a minor-league contract, and it was canceled by the Commissioner on account of her gender, but instead of withdrawing politely she became so deeply angry that she couldn't stop thinking of how to strike back and decided she would have to do something about it?
To make this seem plausible, I thought of the main character in my novel as a volatile person. I gave her a Sicilian background and heritage. That enabled me to present flashbacks into Sicilian history, which was certainly tumultuous, even violent, since the island was invaded so many times that the population was perpetually resentful of its occupiers, the Arabs, the French, the Greeks, and so on.
In presenting flashbacks to the ancestors of my heroine, called Annie Cardello, I placed her forebears in pivotal moments of Sicilian history and showed how people of those times used games and sports, like the days before the common era when Sicilian Greeks took part in the Olympics; and during the same period when the Sicilians were attacked by the Carthaginians; and later when they revolted against the French in the action called The Sicilian Vespers, in 1282.
Because my heroine's forebears all reacted strongly and passionately in these moments of Sicilian history, her own tendency to violence becomes believable. Her life in Cleveland of the thirties and forties is full of tumult, with the police and the Mafia pressing on her family, with her disappointing marriage of convenience, and with her own involvement in two murders. The high points of her youth center on her experiences in baseball, for she is an amateur pitcher on a women's team in Cleveland, Ohio, where I grew up and where I often saw amateur teams play on the very lot that I describe in this book.
Cleveland, like Chicago and New York, was a hotbed of amateur baseball in the 1930s. Both men's and women's teams played, sometimes in leagues, sometimes as traveling teams playing others around the area. Baseball gave young people the physical outlet they desired and needed for group fun. When World War II came and many professional players went to war, a big-league owner named William Wrigley, the chewing gum manufacturer, established a professional women's league to keep the public entertained.
This league, which you saw represented in the film, "A League of Their Own," provided the high point of many women's lives. For years afterward, these women ballplayers wrote about their joy in participating in professional baseball and told reporters how exciting it was and how gratifying to be paid for their skill in playing baseball. Many fans of the period also remember those women's games with much pleasure. But when the war was over, the professional club owner, Wrigley, withdrew his support, and the women went home, as did the women who held other wartime jobs, since most people believed the nonsense that there wasn't room in professional baseball for both men's and women's leagues. From then on, excellent women baseball players were on their own.
After that, baseball women had little chance of playing in a professional league. As recently as 1952 the president of the National Association of the minor league professional clubs, George Trautman, sent a letter to all his club owners about the signing of women players, stating that "no such contract will be approved and that any club which undertakes to enter into such a contract or to go through the motions of entering into such a contract, will be subject to severe disciplinary action." Trautman also said that he had consulted the then Commissioner, Ford Frick, on the matter, and that Frick concurred, adding his view that "it just is not in the best interests of professional baseball that such travesties be tolerated."
The attitude behind this letter assuming that only men have the right to play professional baseball has continued, with women who were hired to play on independent clubs and leagues suffering many indignities, having other players spit on them, or being vilified with filthy language. Many players or coaches in the professional leagues have stated publicly that if a woman were hired for their team they would quit baseball.
You may know that when Jackie Robinson was hired for the professional leagues as the first black player of modern times, some players on his team threatened to quit, but the owner, Branch Rickey, took a firm stand against those who threatened to revolt and supported his new player completely. I'm not at all confident that this kind of support would be forthcoming for a woman player in the minors. Men tend to think of baseball as their game and of women as spectators only. The evidence shows that a lot of women are getting tired of that assumption. If you check the internet, you will find amateur women's clubs and leagues playing in places like New England, California, Toronto, and New York. Women have established a World Cup and play abroad against European and Oriental teams, although unlike the foreign press, the American press doesn't cover these games. Some young women are managing to get on their college teams, and some of the male players are glad to have their contribution to the teams. Some.
In 1992, a sports writer wrote a letter inquiring about the rules against women playing in the minor leagues. He addressed it to the National Association, the organization of minor leagues and teams of which George Trautman used to be the leader, the same Trautman who said in 1952 any club that hired a woman would be subject to severe disciplinary action. Trautman is no longer there, and the National Association representative who answered the sports writer's query was a man named Bob Sparks, who was director of Special Events and Projects for the National Association. Sparks must have been aware that the climate of opinion on women, many of whom are paying fans in baseball parks, has changed somewhat. Sparks replied to the sports writer that "there are no rules prohibiting women from playing in the minor leagues. To the contrary, if anyone possesses the skills necessary to play at the professional level, that person would be welcome."
I doubt it, but that was nice to learn anyway, even if expressed only by a person in charge of Special Events and Projects. Women don't want to be part of a special event or project. They just want to move ahead on their merits and to be recognized for their achievements.
Some people have asked me this: In writing your new historical novel, Drawing Card, and describing the adventures of a woman whose entire life is dominated by resentment at her rejection, are you actually writing about yourself? The answer is no, because I was able to channel my negativity into fascinating research and the production of good books, whereas not for many years does Annie Cardello, the heroine of my novel, realize that she, too, could be making some delicious lemonade.
So lemonade has its uses, but recognition from your public is better. And I am beginning to be recognized for my work by receiving awards from baseball organizations. The one I treasure most came to me in 2001 from an organization that was then called the Women's Baseball League and is now called Baseball for All. This organization named me one of the most important people in baseball, which may be a slight exaggeration, but the award certainly makes me feel important. It's a standard-sized baseball bat inscribed and painted bright red. I bring it to every book-signing because it signals that like so many Americans, male and female, I have a deep connection to the National Game.
So you see that two factors made me a feminist: first, my marriage to a baseball historian who needed and used my work for his own benefit, and second, my discovery of women's baseball history. But I think these two factors also made me a stronger and more well-rounded person, because I found positive ways to make them part of my life.
I've prepared a sheet listing the books I mentioned here today. You're welcome to pick up a copy.
Are there any questions? [And there were!]
Some Books Mentioned in This Presentation
Dorothy Seymour Mills and Harold Seymour, Baseball: The People's Game (Oxford University Press, 1990). Third volume of the classic three-volume history of baseball published over the years 1960-90 by Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills.
Dorothy Seymour Mills, Chasing Baseball: Our Obsession with Its History, Numbers, People and Places (McFarland, 2011). The current fascination with baseball by fans, including women.
Dorothy Jane Mills, A Woman's Work: Writing Baseball History with Harold Seymour (McFarland, 2004). My professional autobiography.
Dorothy Seymour Mills, First in the Field: My Journey as the First Woman Baseball Historian (Thinker Media, 2012). An autobiographical essay published in eBook format.
Dorothy Seymour Mills, Drawing Card: A Novel of a Woman in Baseball (McFarland , in press, scheduled for May 2012). A woman ballplayer in the 1930s reacts to cancellation of her minor-league contract.
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