THERE ARE a handful of well-worn narratives about women's baseball in the U.S. There's the idea that the history of female ballplayers begins and ends with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the 1940s and '50s, which kept the game going while men were away at war and later was immortalized in the film A League of Their Own. A slightly broader version makes space for individuals such as Jackie Mitchell, who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig during an exhibition in 1931, and Mo'ne Davis, who garnered national attention for her pitching prowess during the Little League World Series in 2014—but these women are defined by their status as the only ones, positioned as the exceptions to prove a rule. And finally, there is the belief that "women's baseball" is simply another term for softball.
The story of women's baseball is much deeper and richer than most people know, with a past that goes back almost to the origins of the sport and a present that is very much alive. Witness the Women's Baseball World Cup, which was played over the last two weeks of August at the Washington Nationals' former spring training complex in Viera, Fla.
Hosted by the same confederation that runs the World Baseball Classic, the tournament began in 2004 with five countries: the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia and Chinese Taipei; the American team cruised to a gold medal with five wins and one loss. Since then the women's game has grown significantly, and so has the event. The 2018 Cup featured 12 teams, and the U.S. is no longer an easy favorite. Far from it—Japan entered this year's tournament as the five-time reigning champion. (The championship game between Japan and Chinese Taipei took place after SI went to press.)
Japan's success is not an accident. Over the last decade, a dedicated effort to build the game from the bottom up has led to girls' teams at several dozen high schools around the country. The professional, four-team Japan Women's Baseball League began play in 2010. No other nation has done as much to develop the women's game, and it's paid off in international competition in a big way. "We have a path for girls," says Hiroko Yamada, the director of international affairs for the Baseball Federation of Japan. "Girls can have a dream now: Oh, we can get paid to play baseball."
That's starkly different from the situation in the U.S., where most team members have to fit baseball workouts around a full-time job. A dream of getting paid to play baseball still feels absurd in a culture where women must fight to play baseball at all. "We all have different stories, but they're similar—in terms of what we've had to do, the sacrifices we've had to make to get here and play at this level," says pitcher-first baseman Meggie Meidlinger, who has been on Team USA since 2006.
About 100,000 girls play youth baseball in the United States. By the time those girls become teenagers, though, their number shrinks dramatically. There were 1,700 girls who played high school baseball in 2018, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. A teenage girl who is interested in baseball is usually told to play softball, despite the many differences between the two games. It isn't just a matter of a bigger ball and a smaller field; it's two drastically different styles of pitching, base running and strategy. "Since I was four years old, I've played baseball," says 17-year-old pitcher Ashton Lansdell, the youngest member of Team USA. "I went to one softball practice, and I hated it. I've never played."
If a girl wants to keep playing baseball, she usually must play with the boys. It's an experience that can be isolating. One person trying to change that dynamic is Justine Siegal, who created the Baseball For All foundation after becoming the first woman to serve as a coach for an MLB team. (She was a guest pitching instructor for the A's in 2015.) Siegal's organization sponsors an annual tournament for girls in four age divisions. The 2018 Baseball For All Nationals drew more than 250 girls from all around the world to Rockford, Ill., in early August. In hopes of attracting more young people to the game, Major League Baseball has also begun providing opportunities for girls, hosting tournaments and development camps over the last two years in California and Florida.
"It can be lonely when you're the only girl playing on a boys' team," says Team USA infielder Malaika Underwood, reflecting on her own experience in Little League and then high school ball. "It just feels like you're on an island." The Women's Baseball World Cup, then, is a rare chance for scattered and solitary female players to play the game as they want to play it—together. "People talk about the first woman in MLB. Maybe that will happen, maybe it won't," says Stacy Piagno, who has pitched for the Sonoma Stompers of the independent Pacific Association. "But I think the importance of having one woman playing with men isn't as important as us having something for all women to play together."
"IT CAN BE LONELY WHEN YOU'RE THE ONLY GIRL ON A BOYS' TEAM," SAYS ONE PLAYER. "IT JUST FEELS LIKE YOU'RE ON AN ISLAND."
FACES IN THE CROWD