Chelsea Baker was a baseball pitcher with a ferocious knuckleball who graduated from a high school in Florida last spring. Chelsea Baker once threw batting practice for the Tampa Bay Rays, and was profiled on ESPN, and struck out former major-leaguer Kevin Millar, and earned the nickname “Knuckleball Princess” for her exploits. Chelsea Baker is attending Florida Atlantic University this fall, and is apparently finished playing baseball altogether.
Ginny Baker, on the other hand, is a pitcher with a nasty screwball who will soon become the first woman to play Major League Baseball, for the San Diego Padres. I do not know much about Ginny Baker’s background as of yet, largely because Ginny Baker is a fictional character, the star of the new FOX drama series Pitch, which premieres Thursday. But I imagine Ginny Baker is an idealized amalgam of real-life figures like Chelsea Baker and Mo’ne Davis, the young pitcher who dominated the Little League World Series as a pitcher in 2014 and advanced the notion that perhaps a woman might someday be able to play in Major League Baseball.
As stories like Chelsea Baker’s become more common, and as women are afforded more opportunities to succeed in sports, the question remains: How far are we from the moment when major American sports go coed?
For now, Ginny Baker is a screenwriter’s fantasy—female athletes like Chelsea Baker don’t even get much of a chance to pitch on the college level, let alone at the professional level. But as stories like these become more common, and as women are afforded more opportunities to succeed in sports, the question remains: How far are we from the moment when major American sports go coed? Will there be a moment when a woman like Mo’ne Davis (if not Davis herself) cracks the glass ceiling of athletics? Or are our cultural mores so well-established in the sporting realm that it might never happen?
At least when it comes to baseball, it’s very possible that we’re not as far away as we think.
The 1972 passage of Title IX, which mandated athletic equality between men and women, was a breakthrough that still resonates today. It forever altered women’s athletics, and provided new opportunities for women to play sports, particularly at the college level. But Title IX also did something else, according to Erin Buzuvis, director of the Center for Gender & Equality Studies at the Western New England School of Law. It also set up a paradigm of “separate but equal.” The endgame ideal, at this point, is equal opportunity for men and women in their respective sports, but, “It’s possible that’s a little bit undermining,” says Buzuvis, when it comes to the idea of women crossing over into traditionally male sports.
This division is something that begins early, in youth sports, when even, say, soccer teams are often separated into boys and girls. That leads to what Buzuvis calls a sense of “biological determinism”—the cultural expectation that boys and girls are different when it comes to athletics. And it discourages a sense of experimentation—it perhaps keeps us from asking the question, What if women could cross over to men’s sports in a legitimate way?
It’s not that there aren’t any historical precedents. But many of those precedents have been viewed by a skeptical public as more like stunts than reality. Even Billie Jean King’s undeniably historic tennis victory over Bobby Riggs in 1973 has been marred by allegations of match-fixing. Mixed doubles, one tennis writer told me, is generally not taken very seriously in professional circles. When Nancy Lieberman played on a couple of NBA summer-league teams in the early 1980s, the idea of her actually making an NBA roster was largely scoffed at as an unrealistic possibility; three decades later, when Brittney Griner dabbled with the notion of playing for the Dallas Mavericks, the same naysayers pounced. None of the female kickers who have played for high-school or college football teams have been good enough to make a major impact; when Manon Rheaume became the first female goaltender in the NHL in 1992, she was, wrote Sports Illustrated, “as celebrated for her looks as her play.”
Still, these stereotypes are continuing to be challenged in more serious ways. Danica Patrick is not a superstar on the racing circuit, but she’s good enough to be considered legitimate; same with Kelly Kulick, who won an event competing with men on the Professional Bowlers Association tour. Annika Sorenstam proved she could at least hold her own against men in golf; Mo’ne Davis was a sensation at the Little League World Series not merely because she was female, but because she was one of the best players on the field. And that’s what it will take, the experts say: a woman who is both good enough to earn a spot based entirely on merit, and a woman who can also handle the scrutiny and skepticism that will attend any attempt to break that barrier.
In what major sport is this most likely to happen? And at what position? Oddly, in certain sports that America pays little attention to, women are already dominant. In ultra-distance open-water swimming, women’s bodies appear to be better at fat-burning over long distances than men (or so the theory goes), which means they may also eclipse men in events like ultra-marathoning as well. “It’s not all skills, but there are some skills where women could potentially have the tendency to dominate,” Buzuvis says.