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Blog: Sept. 8, 2012


Lately I've been under the vague impression that other writers' ideas were bouncing off my own and that I've been catching the deflections. For years I've been saying that women in baseball deserve much more media attention. Now other writers with much more clout than I have begun talking about women in athletics.

This summer, women were the talk of the London Olympics. Viewers of the Games on TV often expressed surprise at, and admiration for, the wonderful achievements of women athletes. These observers, including women, obviously failed to expect that much from the women athletes of the world.

Low expectations seem to go with being female. Even some women believe they cannot accomplish what men manage to do, despite setting some world records and even beating some men's records, as happened this summer. That's because girls and women are taught to be "modest and self-effacing," said an article by Paula Szuchman in the June issue of Women's Health magazine, and "girls learn that they may pay a price for seeming too confident, so they keep their expectations low."

I think that's why the accomplishments of women at this Olympics astounded so many watchers, who seemed thunderstruck at the skill of the female Olympians.

"Millions tuned in to watch Gabby Douglas," commented Shannon J. Owens in the Orlando Sentinel. "America was infatuated with the charming 17-year-old swimmer Missy Franklin; the U.S. sprinters were the golden girls of the Olympics; and one popular hurdler,  . . . LoLo Jones, had NBC and the national media in a stranglehold." Many could not tear themselves away from the lightning-fast and riveting action of the women taking the honors in beach volleyball. "It's obvious," Owens commented, "that our amateur athletes deserve far more attention."

But if they are women, they usually don't receive the attention they deserve, even when they play the American National Game. For the media paid little attention when, right after the close of the Olympics, the Women's World Cup opened its semi-annual tournament in Edmonton, Ontario, Canada. No, I'm not talking about soccer. Not softball, either. These young women play baseball. And the media just about ignored their exciting tournament.

The Women's World Cup, sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation in Lausanne, Switzerland, and played biennially, features international baseball with a high level of play, according to Ron Hayter, chairman of the organizing committee. The 2010 tournament in Venezuela "was baseball at its best" but this year in Edmonton spectators were especially impressed with "the skill level of the participants" and "the excitement of play." The competition featured teams from Cuba, Venezuela, Canada, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands, Australia, Japan, and the U.S.A. 

Most Americans have never heard of this tournament because media coverage is just about non-existent. Certainly, no sports department in the U.S. seems to care that our American women not only play the national game in leagues and on elite teams, they also take part in national and international play.

In Canada this August, only the Edmonton Journal covered the daily events of the World Cup until the final series, when the Ottawa Citizen joined in, mostly copying the Journal's stories.  

How good was the play at these games, really? An onlooker's tweet, published in the Edmonton Journal after he watched an exciting game in which Canada beat the U.S. 15-9, tells us how he viewed it. He said "it was thrilling to say the least. People [who didn't see it] missed out on one heck of a game. . . . If people want to see REALLY GOOD BASEBALL I SUGGEST THAT THEY TAKE IN A GAME OR TWO AT TELUS FIELD THIS WEEK. Amazing ball and worth every penny!!"

To this comment the Journal reporter added, "the magic of Monday night will be added to the memorable list of Canada-U.S. sporting moments."     

The national teams representing the countries in this tournament  are skilled players. The Women's World Cup is "currently the premier elite baseball competition for women," states the American Women's Baseball Federation, and "only national country teams selected by their respective governing bodies are eligible to compete."  That makes them special indeed. It's too bad the American media refuses to recognize how special they are.

Perhaps sports reporters believe women couldn't possibly be good players. Do women really know baseball? Well, they should; they've been playing it since the 1860s. Most fans don't realize that a few players were so skilled by the time the 1930s rolled around that male managers of minor-league clubs signed them to minor-league contracts. Why didn't they play? Because each time, before a woman could play, her contract was voided by the baseball commissioner, merely because she was a woman! In those days it was legal to discriminate against women for being born female.

These rejected players did what women were supposed to do: they went home quietly and found some other athletic activity that would accept their participation. They were what people called "good girls." They accepted their rejection, probably assuming that they just weren't good enough. Actually, they never had the chance to show how good they were.

Now the media, unaware of the women's national teams in many countries,  is suddenly discovering that amateur baseball is international in scope. The New York Times has just published a full-page feature about baseball in Europe and Japan, heading it "International Twists of the National Pastime." I searched in vain for a mention of women's national teams. Instead, the writer included a paragraph criticizing the level of men's league play in France, describing it as "erratic" and "slovenly." The French league, hinted the writer, played only on a college or high school level. Too bad the reporter has never seen women's tournament play featuring the most skilled players of several countries.

Close behind The New York Times was a piece in the MLB Insiders Club Magazine declaring that "baseball is now more than ever an international pastime," citing games "from across the globe" now available to watchers on the internet and praising the "overwhelming success" of the World Baseball Classic, an annual international tournament of amateurs. Of course, that's a men's tournament.

Men still seem to assume that women don't even know the game well enough to play it. Several years ago in a bar I was sitting across a table from two Canadian women umpires (yes, John, wake up; there are women umpires) when a male baseball fan joined us and challenged the umps by asking if they could list the fourteen ways a batter could be put out of a baseball game. Instead of being insulted by his implication that even though umpires, they didn't know baseball, these women responded by taking turns naming all fourteen standard ways. A bit shamefaced, the male fan left. Then one umpire said to me, "There are actually more than fourteen ways of being put out." I think she and her colleague limited themselves to the fourteen requested so as not to embarrass the fan. Canadians are polite people.

Or perhaps, like many women, these umpires had been taught to remain low-key about their knowledge and accomplishments. From what I can gather, women are still being taught that they cannot take part in all parts of life on the same level as men. This is what girls and women were taught half a century ago. In her new book, "The Good Girls Revolt," Lynn Povich tells the story of working for Newsweek magazine at a time when all the writers were men ("they were the artists") and all the researchers were women ("we were the drones"). She asserts the battle these young women fought 40 years ago to receive the same opportunities as men at Newsweek is still being fought in the workplace today. "The discrimination may be subtle," she writes, "but sexist attitudes still exist." Her judgment has been echoed by women workers in many fields writing in magazines, in newspaper, and internet sites.

With this kind of atmosphere in the world of work, what chance do women baseball players have to show their stuff? Low to none, especially if the media continues to refuse recognition of their skill.

P.S. The Women's World Cup tournament of 2012 was won by a powerhouse team, the national team of Japan, which took the gold by shutting out the U.S. 3-0 in the thrilling final game of the series. This was Japan's third straight title. The U.S. has won twice in tournament history. But you and I wouldn't know any of this without the internet.

-- Dorothy Jane Mills

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