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The Mo’ things change: media coverage of Mo'ne Davis reinforces barriers for female ballplayers

Mo'ne Davis riveted the nation last summer with her dominating performance in the Little League World Series. USA Today Sports/Reuters

What else can be written about Mo'ne Davis? Only 14 years old, she’s become a sports celebrity of the “America’s Sweetheart” variety, basking with poise and self-possession under a media glare that began last summer, when she became the first girl to be the winning pitcher in the history of the Little League World Series.

She’s the only Little Leaguer to ever make the cover of Sports Illustrated, she struck out Jimmy Fallon with a whiffle ball on “The Tonight Show” and she received the incredible honor of throwing out the first pitch of the fourth game of the 2014 World Series in San Francisco. Last month, Disney announced that it would be producing a movie about the young baseball star.

“I stand for girls who want to play sports with the boys and to be a role model for people young and old,” Mo'ne says in a television ad for Chevrolet. “I throw a 70-mile-an-hour fastball and that’s throwing like a girl.”

‘I throw a 70-mile-an-hour fastball – and that’s throwing like a girl.’

Still, the scale of attention focused on one pre-adolescent American girl is a little disconcerting. After all, she’s far from the first girl to play with the boys.

What’s behind it all? Why Mo'ne, and why now?

A sport stubbornly withheld from girls

As someone who’s spent the last decade writing about girls who refused to be pressured into softball, it’s hard for me to find anything negative in all the attention paid to Mo'ne. She’s an extraordinarily talented multi-sport athlete, and an engaging, well-spoken young person: the stuff of which American heroes are usually made.

Although there’s a history of African-American women playing baseball in the Negro Leagues (Toni Stone and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson are two of the better known), most American women celebrity athletes have excelled in individual sports such as tennis, golf, swimming and gymnastics. There’s a particularly rich legacy of African-American women track stars.

Toni Stone was the first woman to play for the Negro Leagues. Wikimedia Commons

Mo'ne seems unique because she’s an African-American girl dominating in a team sport, one that has been stubbornly withheld from girls. For baseball, the “national pastime” continues to be reserved “for boys only,” even after the Little League lawsuits of the 1970s legally opened the door for girls to play. Softball was quickly presented and promoted as an alternative – “baseball for girls.”

Softball has its own history of being associated with femininity; the men in Chicago who invented it in the 1890s to play indoors during Chicago winters called it “Nancy Ball” and “Sissy Ball” to distinguish it from “real” manly baseball. And Women educators of the 1930s promoted it as a safer form of baseball, more suitable for girls. But it didn’t become a sport for girls at the youth and amateur level until after Title IX and the Little League Lawsuits.

Mo'ne’s current superstardom may speak to America’s growing willingness to embrace female athletes, but I worry that she is being touted as an exception, which often happens to girls who play baseball.

Does the focus on Mo'ne encourage the American public to believe she is the first and only girl to play baseball successfully with boys?

Because she’s not; in fact, she’s far from it.

Many paved the way for Mo'ne

My recently released book A Game of Their Own is full of stories of contemporary girls who played baseball with boys beyond Little League, in high school and college, and then made the USA Baseball Women’s National Team. (Many are surprised to learn that a Team USA all-women baseball team squad exists.)

The fact that few people even know about this team is more evidence of the invisibility of girls’ baseball. Most casual fans continue to be misled into believing that Mo'ne is “the only one.”

Before the elite women baseball players in the current game, there were others who played with boys, men and women throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Few will recognize their names: Alta Weiss, Nellie Twardzik, Lizzie Murphy, Margaret Gisolo and Jackie Mitchell.

Then there are the stars of the All-American Girls Baseball League of World War II fame, which inspired Penny Marshall’s iconic 1992 film A League of Their Own. Julie Croteau was the first woman to play NCAA Division II men’s baseball (St Mary’s of Baltimore, 1989-1992) and Ila Borders played on men’s baseball collegiate and professional teams in the 1990s.

Take one example: Margaret Gisolo, who played high school and American Legion Baseball in the late 1920s, received attention in her early teens, just like Mo'ne. Journalists of the time effused:

The little Italian maid is the cause of considerable disruption in the ranks of the tourney just because she can hit, field and run better than most boys her age… Perhaps it won’t be long before some young lady will break into the lineup of a professional baseball team.

In the 1920s, journalists gushed over Margaret Gisolo, ‘the little Italian maid.’ Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

More recently, Sarah Hudek, a high school pitcher and a star of Team USA’s 2014 team, has been celebrated for earning a college scholarship in baseball.

She’s an outstanding ballplayer who has succeeded in high school and international women’s baseball, but people seem to have already forgotten that only five years ago another women, Marti Sementelli, earned a scholarship for playing college baseball and received publicity singling her out as an “exception.”

So long as each girl who plays with boys is seen as extraordinary, the long history of girls who play baseball remains invisible. Meanwhile, the girls who play on women’s teams don’t seem to exist at all.

When Jackie Robinson “broke the color line” in Major League Baseball, he faced life-threatening resistance. He was not immediately beloved by all Americans (although he certainly was by African Americans), perhaps because it was clear that he was opening the door for many more African-American men to play baseball.

Is part of Mo'ne’s appeal the fact that even if she pursues baseball, nobody actually believes there may be more women like her?

In fact, Mo'ne claims she doesn’t want to continue with baseball. Her goal is to play college and professional basketball. That the only girl to pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series doesn’t want to continue with baseball reveals the bedrock problem facing all girls who want to play the national pastime in the United States: if you’re a talented girl baseball player, there’s no path for future success. There are no professional or college women’s teams or leagues. It makes more “sense” to play basketball or softball, where there are opportunities for college scholarships and perhaps a career beyond.

Mo'ne deserves recognition for her baseball achievements. But it’s more important to recognize that there are plenty of American girls and women who have the ability and the desire to make the game their own, and who have been doing it for generations.

When American society stops running away from the fact that women already play baseball – when we remember that women have been playing for years – then it will be time to celebrate the “exceptional” ones who might make it to the Major Leagues.

This article is part of our youth sports series. To read the others in the series, click here.

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