Oct/Nov 2010 Nonfiction

America's Pastime

by Mary Kathryn Bessinger

A few years ago, my mother sent me some childhood relics, as mothers are wont to do. While cleaning out an overstuffed bookshelf, she had come across three team portraits, 8 x 10 glossies, each of a group of children wearing polyester caps and leather gloves, the front of their t-shirts emblazoned with a blue star and the words North Star Little League. In the first picture of the series, I can be found in the front row, all the way to the left. I am in the cliched baseball team photo pose—on one knee, my glove cupping my forward knee—but my face betrays that all was not joy in Mudville: lips clamped together in a straight line, eyes wide behind glasses, and nostrils practically flaring. In an accompanying note, my mother indicated that this picture was her favorite, "for you exhibit the seriousness befitting a sexual integrator of Roseville Little League!"

My husband pounced on the pictures as soon as they were clear of the envelope. "This is you? You look so cute—and so serious! You played Little League?" He flipped through the pictures. "Wait, were you the only girl on any of your teams? Wow. We've got to put these up. We should have them framed!" It was when I gasped in horror at the idea of those pictures being prominently displayed in my home that Matt finally looked at my stricken face.

In the summer of 1978, I was an eight-year-old budding radical feminist who wanted to play Little League baseball. My drive to play baseball was multifold, but my first motive was to play a game: to go to practices, get a t-shirt, compete with and against other kids. There were but a handful of team sports opportunities available to second graders at that time. Soccer had yet to make significant inroads in the suburban U.S., basketball leagues were mainly for older kids, and the only eight-year-olds playing hockey were carrying on a family tradition that my southern-until-my-generation family did not share—but every able-bodied boy on my cul-de-sac had played or was playing baseball.

In my suburb, there was only one team sport available specifically for young girls: softball. Remember, this was only six years after the ratification of Title IX, the section of the Civil Rights Act mandating gender parity in public funding of athletics, but it was still at least a decade before the broad enforcement of the law. If a girl wanted to play any team sport other than softball, it would have to be with the boys. None of my female friends were interested in Little League; for most of them, an interest in sports didn't blossom until junior high, the age at which organized team sports opportunities became more available for girls. When I went to my big brother's Little League games or walked by the neighborhood ball fields, I didn't see any girls playing. That was another motive for playing baseball: because girls weren't supposed to.

Saying I was a budding radical feminist at that age is no joke. Even at the tender age of eight, I knew about feminism and was all for it. My parents voted Democratic and were strong believers in fair play and equal access, but my views (then and now) were much farther to the left. At age six, I expressed surprise and dismay when I found out how many of my classmates' parents were voting for Ford instead of Carter. At 11, I went door-to-door collecting pledges for a Nuclear Freeze march. (When I got home and showed my mother the list of pledges, she was amazed that I'd gotten a donation from one of our neighbors. "Mr. Schulz is a big wig at 3M," she told me, going on to explain that, in addition to revolutionizing adhesives, 3M was a huge defense contractor.) At 13, in response to the truck-bombing of the Marines barracks in Beirut, I went to school in an Army-surplus jacket with a target made of construction paper taped to the back. So in terms of Little League, I was aware as early as second grade that girls weren't supposed to be interested in baseball or any sport, but I couldn't figure out which came first: a lack of interest or a lack of opportunity.

There was another reason I wanted to play baseball, this one much closer to home. My brother, older by three years, played in the Majors (of Little League), and the year prior to my rookie season our dad had been his coach. My dad had taught all three of his children how to play catch when we were little kids. I remember late afternoons spent tossing a ball around on the front lawn. My brother, the oldest, had his own glove, but my sister and I alternated wearing my dad's way-too-big-for-us glove, Dad easily able to handle our throws bare-handed. (It wasn't until years later that I realized how lucky I was that my father took the time to teach me the proper throwing mechanics—cocked elbow leading the arm backwards—so I never threw "like a girl.") By the time I started playing Little League, though, my parents were divorced and had not been living together for a few years. Although I saw my dad on Wednesday nights and every other weekend, I thought playing baseball would be a way to get a little more time with him. Dad would definitely come to my games, and I fantasized about him, my brother and me swapping game stories and sharing fielding tips. Maybe Dad would even coach my team! And that's the final reason I wanted to play baseball: I figured playing Little League would be a great way to get attention from the two most important males in my life.

So one spring afternoon, my mother and I marched into the gym at my elementary school to sign me up for Little League. I don't know for a fact that I was the first girl in Roseville, Minnesota, to attempt such a thing, but the reaction we got makes me think the males in the room had little to no experience with girls signing up for baseball. The wall of resistance which met my mother and me was truly shocking. Other parents (it was mainly fathers in the gym that day) stared, making it okay for their sons to indulge in the same rude behavior. But that ogling was nothing in comparison to the registrars. To a man (and they were all men), they questioned my motives, grilling an eight-year-old girl as to why in the world she wanted to play baseball. My mother remembers the main registrar telling me that the softball registration table was on the other side of the gym, to which I replied, "But I want to play baseball." My mother says the conversation quickly devolved into a rhetorical loop.

"The softball signup is over there," the man said, again and again.

"But I don't want to play softball. I want to play baseball," I replied each and every time.

Mom says she can't remember if I had only one hand on my hip or was standing with both arms akimbo; either way, my body posture was resolute and my attitude intractable. Hearing her tell it, I can almost see myself stamping my foot with each and every "baseball."

Until 1974, Little League did not allow girls to play on any of their teams, going so far as to threaten to revoke the charter of a league in Hoboken that had signed up a female player. This take-my-ball-and-go-home reaction is a recurring theme in American history when a previously excluded group demands inclusion. In the 1950s and '60s, organizations and businesses would threaten to cease operations entirely rather than serve African-Americans. In the '70s and '80s, the presence of females brought about threats of shutting down. For the past decade or so, the excluded group of choice has been gays and lesbians. (My guess is that immigrants are next.) As with other cases of institutional discrimination, the courts had to step in, forcing Little League officials to give girls the same opportunities they had offered to boys for decades.

It was only recently that I discovered how much a part of the vanguard I had been as an eight-year-old. An obituary in the New York Times introduced me to Sylvia Pressler, who was a hearings officer in the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights when the parents of that female Hoboken Little Leaguer sued the national organization for discrimination. Judge Pressler (she later sat on an appellate court) was the official who first forced the national Little League organization to allow girls to play. Reading her obituary this past February was when I learned that my attempt to desegregate my local chapter came only four years after Judge Pressler gave me the legal right to do so. In her ruling in favor of my New Jersey soul sister, Judge Pressler wrote: "The institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie. There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls."

In order to comply with the court decision, Little League reluctantly allowed co-ed baseball teams but also started a softball league, aka baseball for girls. Does it even need saying that no boy was trying to sign up for softball the day I registered for Little League? (Co-ed softball was for college and adulthood, where beer and socializing are the main attractions.) Although too young to have been familiar with Brown v. Board of Education, my eight-year-old self was living proof of the common sense of that decision: I knew there was no such thing as separate but equal. If every red-blooded American boy had played Little League as a rite of passage since World War II, then why couldn't I? What was good enough for boys should not have been too good for girls.

Back at the registration table in the gym and the defenders of the sacrosanct world of boys-only baseball, my mother no longer found the verbal jousting between her eight-year-old daughter and the middle-aged man amusing, regardless of how evenly matched the combatants were intellectually. The resistance to my signing up for baseball had been so stiff that, just out of spite, my mother, neither a jock nor an avid sports fan, expressed an interest in being an umpire.

"Do you know anything about the game?" they asked her.

"I have a Master's in British Literature. I think I can read a rule book."

So both my mother and I signed up for Little League that day. It may come as no surprise that my mother never got the call to call a game, but the powers that be were legally obligated to assign me to a team.


The performance anxiety I felt at my first practice was greater I'm sure than that of any of the boys on my team. Not only was I a perfectionist by nature—always resistant to the idea that I might not be the smartest or most talented kid in the room—but I felt the weight of the reputation of my entire gender on my slim shoulders. What if I whiffed on a pitch or bobbled a pop-up or let a grounder roll through my legs? There were so many ways I could embarrass myself and, by extension, girls everywhere. Remembering the registration scene at the gym and discovering that I was the only girl in the league convinced me that any error I made in practice or during a game would be chalked up to my being a girl.

I also worried about being accepted by my team. My expectation was that the boys would need some time to adjust—that having a lone girl on their team might lead some of them to gang up on me at first, but eventually the bonds of the team would be forged. And that might have happened had our coaches treated me like any other Little Leaguer. What I forgot to factor in, though, is that all Little League teams are coached by fathers, in some cases the very same ones who ogled my mother and me when we approached the registration table. During practices, my coaches for the most part treated me with blithe neglect: my participation in group drills shagging flies and fielding grounders expected, but no individual attention to my fielding or hitting skills given. The coaches would often admonish a boy for a lack of hustle or a bad play by telling him to quit playing like a girl. And at every game, I was exiled to right field (where only a future hall of famer could hit a ball as an eight-year-old) and slotted into the bottom of the order.

The treatment by my coaches and teammates was only a prologue to the abuse my whole team experienced during games. Once our opponents figured out that I was a player and not some tag-along sister, the jeers would begin. In my first at bat, before I had even taken a cut, the fielders would be brought way in. (This caused even more performance anxiety as I tried desperately to hit the ball over their stupid heads.) The opposing coaches would often use my presence to rally their own troops. "We can beat these girls!" they'd yell, painting all of my teammates with the same pink brush, demonstrating how easily sexism morphs into homophobia. My teammates really resented my presence then, deepening the chasm between us. Had they been more supportive of me I might have felt badly for them, but I quickly became inured. "Welcome to my world," I could have said with a shrug.

There was one moment of triumph that I remember, when something I did brought my coaches, my teammates and the spectators cheering to their feet. The first year of Little League is only one step removed from T-ball; meaning, the ball is pitched, but not well. The pitching duties were rotated among all of the players on a team. If after a handful of tries the designated pitcher was unable to get the ball over the plate, a coach would step in and pitch out the at bat. This pitching rotation was my only relief from right field and at one game, I had a one-in-a-million catch. After delivering an overhand pitch that succeeded in crossing the plate, the batter hit a line drive—directly into my glove. The shock of contact with the leather covering my palm caused an innate reaction: I closed my hand around the ball. It was out number three. As I stood there dumbfounded, still trying to figure out what had happened, the crowd roared and my teammates converged on the mound, hollering and slapping me on the back. There was no way I was going to tell them that any primate would have made that catch. The moment was too sweet.

But it shouldn't matter if I was good or bad at baseball. Did I have to be a veritable Derika Jeter in order to justify my participation in Little League? Not every boy on that field was better than I was, that was just assumed to be the case. If a boy couldn't hit a pitch to save his life, or quailed under a high pop-up, or could barely heave the ball from second base to first, it was because he wasn't very good at baseball. If I couldn't do those things, it was because I was a girl. But the fact was, I could do some of those things. Being parked out in right field every summer gave me a strong throwing arm. I never could hit my weight, but in my defense my eyesight was weak and no one had ever taken the time to show me the fundamentals. And at ages eight, nine and ten, I was the same size as most of my teammates and was bigger and stronger than some of them. Even more important—especially since we're talking about the skill level of the average Little Leaguer—I was dedicated. Despite weathering harassment alternating with neglect, I went to every practice and showed up for every game. No one could question my commitment. Before my third and final season, I even tried out for the Majors.

My tryout for the Majors was a beaut. I was more nervous than I'd ever been, practically paralyzed by my fear of failure—of proving all of the skeptical men and boys right: girls can't play baseball. Most of that afternoon has faded into the blessed murk, but one moment remains crystal clear in my mind's eye, lit as if at golden hour, like the final scene in The Natural when Robert Redford plays catch with his son in the tall wheat. Except in this less-than-idyllic scene, a high fly ball has been hit. I center myself under it, placing my glove slightly in front of my face, my other hand bracing the webbing. Perfect form. The ball arrives and somehow misses my well-placed glove entirely and instead hits my right cheekbone with a loud thwack. I don't know which was more painful: catching a baseball with my face or tearing up in front of every 10-year-old, baseball-playing boy in Roseville as my cheek bloomed bright red with a tinge of blue.


Looking back on my Little League career, I still have a hard time figuring out what those fathers and sons found so threatening about a bespectacled eight-year-old girl. Were they worried that, should I turn out to be some sort of baseball prodigy, it would make the lesser-talented boys feel inadequate? Did they think I was there on a lark and wouldn't take it seriously? If they were worried I would not try as hard as the boys, they would have learned early on that I was there to work. Did the fathers see me, subconsciously, as a symbol of a larger societal trend, more proof of an already unwelcome shift in traditional gender roles? Is it possible that my involvement cheapened the experience for the fathers and their sons simply because I was a girl?

As for the father and son in my own family, playing Little League did not have the desired attention-getting effect. My brother was 11-, 12- and 13-years old during my years in Little League; not surprisingly, he had little time for his kid sister beyond the occasional game of catch in the front yard. My father's lack of attention, though, was a much bigger disappointment. After all, he had coached at least one of my brother's teams. But he never coached any of mine. I have no memories of him coming to my defense against the men and boys on my team, but that's not the hurt I remember. The hurt was that he wasn't involved. My father taught me to throw a baseball and he surely came to at least some of my games, but that was the extent of his involvement. I never felt that he, like so many of the other fathers I encountered, disapproved of my playing Little League. He just didn't seem to care.

While writing this piece I lamented to a friend that when I tell the story in miniature—including only the eight-year-old Steinem arguing with the chauvinist, my mother flaunting her academic credentials, the ball hitting me on the cheek—it's an amusing tale of childhood and its small triumphs and tribulations. Relating this in depth, though, made me depressed and a little bit angry. My friend, George, commiserated about his own Little League horror story: "I cried whenever they threw the ball at me. I just wanted to get my red licorice and go home." He hesitated, then shuddered. "I was such a pansy." Then I realized what a favor I had done for the "pansies" in Roseville Little League back in the late '70s. I had been such a lightning rod for abuse that who knows how many young boys of a certain bent were spared at least a small measure of humiliation? I take some comfort in that.

I take tremendous comfort in how times have changed. By the time my nieces were eight-year-olds, they had already been playing soccer for a couple of years and had, along with all of the boys in their neighborhoods, played at least one year of T-ball. Shannon, Madison and Luci have enjoyed as many opportunities to play team sports as my nephew David has and at the same ages he did. My oldest niece was only five-years-old during the Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996, referred to by many commentators as the Title IX Games, so my nieces and nephew have only watched Olympics packed with female athletes. While women's sports still have a long way to go at the professional level, team sports opportunities at the intramural and academic levels are de rigueur for girls. And nobody bats an eye.


My husband and I compromised on the team photos. We put them in a magnetized frame, one behind the other, then added the frame to our refrigerator gallery but hung it low, at our dog's eye level. The picture of my first team—my mother's favorite—is on top. Last fall, when my father and stepmother came for a visit, Matt and I had them over for brunch. When Dad went into the kitchen for more iced tea, he exclaimed, "Mary Kathryn! How long have you had these?" I cringed. Not only did I not want to revisit those particular days of yore, I really didn't want to revisit them with him. I had never told my father how much his lack of interest had hurt and disappointed me. That type of childhood injury is only ever discovered as an adult, usually with the assistance of a caring professional, in whose office such revelations should remain. So I smiled gamely, told him that Mom had sent them to me a few years back, then picked up my fork. He laughed and shook his head. "Oh, honey, I paid hardly any attention to your time in Little League. I was so excited to coach Tom's team the year before but it was such a nightmare that, afterwards, I didn't want to have anything to do with Little League. I'm sorry, Mary."

I was frozen, fork poised in mid-air, trying desperately not to cry. I didn't want to throw him off his rhythm by betraying how emotional I had become—I didn't want to interrupt this unexpected and unhoped-for apology. When he finished speaking, I laid down my fork and said, "Thank you, Dad. That means a lot to me." He asked if he could take one of the photos with him. "Sure," I said. "Just leave me the first picture. That's my favorite one."


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