Just six years ago, Arizona high-school baseball teams were experiencing a gradual increase in female participation.
Girls were stepping onto a male-dominated field, subbing softballs for baseballs and trading their underhand mechanics for overhand delivery.
From 2002 to 2009, the number of Arizona girls playing baseball at the high-school level increased from 15 to 40, according to the Arizona Interscholastic Association.
Since then, however, the number has slowly trickled back to zero. Nationally, only 1,259 of the 476,050 high-school baseball players in 2012-13 were girls, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. During the same period, 362,488 girls played fast-pitch softball. The question is, why the downward trend?
Last year, the idea of a girl playing baseball at a high level burst onto the national scene. Mo’Ne Davis became a sensation by pitching her Philadelphia team to the Little League World Series, becoming the first female to win a game and pitch a shutout in the tournament. So far, however, Davis has turned out to be an outlier, not a trendsetter.
Rebecca Johnson, former high-school varsity baseball pitcher and senior captain for Tempe Preparatory Academy, believes fewer girls are going out for baseball because more schools are offering softball. This season, 230 Arizona high schools had softball teams.
“We didn’t have a baseball team up until my freshman year when my brother and his friend petitioned the school board to get us our first baseball team, and it wasn’t until after I graduated that somebody went ahead and got the school a softball team,” said Johnson, who graduated in 2006.
Softball wasn’t even an option for girls in Johnson’s high school and still, only two girls felt confident enough to step onto a field with 16 to 18 other boys and continue their passion at the next level.
Glendale Mountain Ridge sophomore Ashley Williams played shortstop in Little League and dreamed of playing high-school baseball until she entered middle school. The dream died after a conversation with her father, Marty.
“We talked about how it wasn’t a normal thing for a girl to play baseball and how I’d have more of a chance to play if I went out for softball,” Williams said. “I loved baseball, but now I don’t miss it as much because I have softball.”
Marty Williams had another reason for his daughter to switch sports: She has a chance to obtain an athletic scholarship in softball. There was no chance in baseball.
“That’s where my dad’s mindset was,” Ashley Williams said. “And he was right.”
Mesa Red Mountain head softball coach Rich Hamilton can appreciate that reasoning.
“I think most of the girls that would be playing baseball are going to be good softball players, and I think that they see that and they see the opportunity that they have to get a scholarship and go to college playing softball and then they just stay in softball,” Hamilton said.
The lack of girls in Arizona baseball in the past six years promotes a domino effect from year to year, where younger girls are not seeing other girls on a baseball field in high school. This creates the notion that high school baseball is a highly unlikely option, and in an effort to continue to compete at a high level, they are making the switch over to softball earlier to prepare themselves.
“If they’re going to continue playing baseball, that’s great, but if they’re going to play softball at a high level, they have to start softball before they get to high school to be competitive, and I think that’s why younger girls switch out of baseball and go into softball because that’s what they think they’re going to do in high school,” Hamilton said.
A spokesman for Little League said the organization does not know how many females play Little League baseball because it doesn’t keep numbers based on gender.
Bobbi Jones, senior recreation coordinator of youth sports for the city of Tempe, said it’s more common for younger girls to play baseball than it is when they start growing apart from boys. Physiologically, boys and girls are pretty much the same until age eight, making it exceedingly common to see girls sprinkled throughout a tee-ball field. The gender specificity comes around age nine when females mature in a different way than the males do.
“Many times, proud parents are happy to have their girls play with the boys, and then after about 8 years old there is usually a bigger difference between boys and girls as they mature,” Jones said. “For instance, between ages nine and 14, 70 percent of a girl’s weight gain is fat cells and for boys between nine and 14, 70 percent of the weight gain is muscle fibers. So physiologically they start growing apart. Emotionally they start growing apart. And they have different needs.”
Many girls are reluctant to play baseball because of the treatment they’ve received on the field. Adults can still be rooted in the old-fashioned mindset that baseball is a man’s game.
“Unfortunately in my high school years I got called a lot of names from people in the stands,” Johnson said. “They didn’t like seeing their son playing against a girl, especially if we were beating them or I struck them out or I got a hit off their son.”
Surprisingly, most of this harassment came from the coaches, fans and parents, and less from the male players. Johnson experienced this countless times first hand, but most prominently when the coach of the Little-League All-Star team she had been voted onto kicked her off the squad solely because she was a girl.
“He went to the Little League board and said, ‘I don’t want her to play because she’s a girl, get her off of the all-star team,’ which, as horrible as it was, I think it was kind of the attitude that was out there at the time,” Johnson said. “As far as changing the thought of girls in sports, you really have to go from the top down. Starting with the board members and the coaches and then to the parents.”
Johnson and her female teammate, Erica Jones, turned the first all-girl double play in Arizona in their time at Tempe Prep. Together they faced the derogatory epithets and opposing teams doubting their physical ability.
Jones said she thinks much of the negative treatment was directly traced back to parents who were stuck in the notion that girls shouldn’t play boys’ sports.
“I think the players are projecting what they hear during practice and what they hear at home,” Jones said. “Kids generally aren’t naturally mean to each other or have these ideas that you don’t belong in a group. I think that if you can change the culture starting with the parents and the coaches, there’s definitely a trickle-down effect to the kids because really all they want to do is go out there and play and have a good time and be part of a team and I really don’t think that changes if you’re a boy or a girl.”
Davis remains the example of someone who did not let gender serve as a roadblock on the baseball diamond. Her story reached a national audience, adorning the cover of “Sports Illustrated” and reported by media nationwide.
Both Jones and Johnson said Davis’ fearless spirit and dominating drive is a huge step in the right direction. Not only does she serve as a role model for girls aspiring to play baseball all across the country, but also demonstrates what a girl can do, even on a male-dominated field.
“I think her publicity will really help to change the minds of the adults,” Johnson said. “Most of the conflict came from them. They didn’t necessarily grow up in the same era I grew up in where girls participate alongside boys and that’s OK. I think her going to the World Series and being on the cover and really having a national presence will hopefully change the minds of parents to see that girls can be as good as boys in this sport.”