This article was published in Fall 2013 Baseball Research Journal
Baseball is a male-dominated sport. Softball is often considered to be the “female counterpart” to baseball. Despite limited playing opportunities, girls and women are playing baseball. The purpose of the present study was to explore the preferences of female baseball players regarding the differences between baseball and fastpitch softball.
Baseball is a male-dominated sport. Softball is often considered to be the “female counterpart” to baseball. Despite limited playing opportunities, girls and women are playing baseball. The purpose of the present study was to explore the preferences of female baseball players regarding the differences between baseball and fastpitch softball. Female baseball players (N=49) participating in an international baseball tournament for women completed a two-page questionnaire on their preferences between fastpitch and baseball. The results indicate the majority of baseball players preferred baseball to fastpitch and did not consider the two sports to be equivalent. Players preferred the following baseball traits to softball: ball size, overhand pitching, baserunning, distance of pitching mound/circle, bat, and field dimensions. Implications of the study and suggestions for future research are discussed.
The impetus for this study grew from one of the researchers’ personal experience. As a girl growing up playing baseball, Justine Siegal often wondered why other girls were not playing alongside her and it seemed that girls played softball and boys played baseball. While a Doctoral student at Springfield College (MA), Siegal decided to study female baseball players and quantify the differences between softball and baseball in terms of player perception and preference. Very little research has been done on the motivations of women playing baseball or softball. In the course of her research, Siegal did find work exploring the relationship between America, baseball, and gender, and this became the foundation of the study.
American culture claims softball as the female counterpart to baseball.[fn]Merrie A Fidler, “The establishment of softball as a sport for American women, 1900–1940,” In Howell, R. (Ed.), Her Story on Sport: A Historical Anthology of Women in Sports. West Point: Leisure Press, 1982, 527–40.[/fn] Men often participate in baseball as players, coaches, and umpires, but the female experience in baseball is usually as spectators and consumers, wives and groupies, and parents of male players.[fn]Ron Briley, Class at Bat, Gender on Deck and Race in the Hole. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2003.[/fn], [fn]Karlene Ferrante, “Baseball and the social construction of gender,” In Creedon, P. J. (Ed.), Women, Media and Sport: Challenging Gender Values, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994, 238–56.[/fn], [fn]Jean Ardell, “Baseball Annies, Jack Johnson, and Kenesaw Mountain Landis: How groupies influenced the lengthy ban on blacks in organized baseball,” NINE: A Journal of Baseball History & Culture, 13(2), 2005, 103–9.[/fn], [fn]George Gmelch & Patricia M. San Antonio, “Groupies and American baseball,” Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 22(1), 1988, 32–45.[/fn], [fn]J.S. Chafetz & J.A. Kotarba, “Son worshippers: The role of Little League mothers in recreating gender,” Studies in Symbolic Interaction, 18, 1995, 217–41.[/fn] The auxiliary roles that women are often confined to in baseball serve to emphasize the power of the male baseball player.[fn]Gmelch & San Antonio.[/fn]
In the United States women have been playing baseball longer than they have had the right to vote. Women played regulation baseball until the 1890s when softball and baseball were distinguished into two sports and categorized as “exclusively male” and “co-ed.”[fn]Jennifer Ring, Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball, Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009.[/fn] Historically, baseball is a proving ground for masculine prowess.[fn]Michael S. Kimmel, “Baseball and the reconstitution of American masculinity, 1880–1920,” Sport, Men, and the Gender Order, Messner, M.A. and Sabo, D.F. (Eds.) Human Kinetics Publishers, Champaign, IL, 1989.[/fn] Disapproval of women playing baseball is an ongoing theme in American culture.
As Jennifer Ring explains in her book Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball, “…because women have shown that they can play baseball, and want to play, a culture of exclusion must be enforced institutionally to ensure that the national game remains a man’s game.”[fn]Ring, 383.[/fn] Baseball has had more lawsuits on whether or not girls can play than any other sport in America.[fn]Sarah K. Fields, “Cultural identity, law, and baseball,” Culture, Sport, Society, 4(2), 2001, 23–42.[/fn] In 1973, Little League was forced by law to allow girls to play. In 1974, instead of creating baseball leagues for girls, Little League formed a softball division for girls.
Prior to girls being siphoned into softball programs, interest in baseball leagues was apparent. Before the law forced gender integration within Little League, the mothers of three banned girls formed a girls’ baseball program in Wallkill, New York, for 45 interested girls. In Hoboken, New Jersey, 50 girls tried out to play with the boys. Girls were interested in playing baseball but the leaders of Little League chose not to grow baseball opportunities for both boys and girls but instead to separate the two sexes, and make baseball for boys and softball for girls.[fn]Ring, 2009.[/fn] Legally girls are allowed to play Little League baseball but culturally girls are told to play softball.
Today girls can argue the right to play baseball in schools and public youth leagues under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment resolves that, “no state shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”[fn]Fields, 2001, 27.[/fn] Female baseball players who allege gender discrimination may challenge foes on three grounds: 1) violation of Title IX (if in an educational setting); 2) breach of equal rights under the 14th amendment; and 3) violation of civil rights under 42 U.S.C. 1983.[fn]Matthew J. McPhillips, “‘Girls of summer’: A comprehensive analysis of the past, present, and future of women in baseball and roadmap to litigating a successful gender discrimination case,” Seton Hall Journal of Sport Law, 6, 1996, 301–39.[/fn]
In Israel v. West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission (1989), a high school female baseball player brought a sex discrimination case against the school commission after she was denied an opportunity to play on the boy’s baseball team. School policy was that softball and baseball were comparable sports, and therefore a girl was to play softball and not baseball with the boys. However the court ruled that softball and baseball are not equivalent sports as they use different equipment and rules. In addition the court felt that more skill was required in baseball than in softball.[fn]McPhillips, 1996, 324.[/fn]
Women now play baseball worldwide. The International Baseball Federation has held a Women’s Baseball World Cup every two years since 2004. The International Baseball Federation now has a Women’s Commission that is charged with developing baseball for girls and women around the world.[fn]Justine Siegal is the Chair of this Commission.[/fn] Some of the countries where baseball leagues for women exist include the following: Australia, Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Netherlands, Pakistan, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States. While baseball for women is growing worldwide, the sport is still struggling for legitimacy and stability.[fn]Ring, 2009.[/fn]
The purpose of the present study was to explore the preferences of female baseball players on the differences between baseball and fastpitch softball. The hypotheses in the present study were twofold: 1) Baseball players will consider fastpitch a distinct sport from baseball; and 2) Baseball players will prefer playing baseball to fastpitch. The struggle of the twenty-first century female ball player, caught between the legal right to play and the cultural fight against it, is not well documented. Examining the motivations and the perceptions of baseball players will help better understand participation patterns between baseball and fastpitch and explore at large why women play baseball when society pushes them towards fastpitch.
The present study explored how the perception of baseball and fastpitch softball relates to participation amongst female baseball players. A self-administered questionnaire was the testing instrument.
Participants (N=49) were players from an international women’s baseball tournament; study participants represented players from: United States, Canada, Taiwan, Japan, and Australia. The average age of the participants (N=49) was 25.14 years (SD=7.23). Not all tournament players participated. Participants were asked to fill out the questionnaire while waiting for transportation to the tournament gala. All participants signed an informed consent with regards to procedures approved by the Institutional Review Board. Underage players had their parents sign a consent form in addition to signing the form themselves. (Click here to download the questionnaire.) The tournament organizers approved the study.
The testing instrument is a self-administered, Likert scale-based questionnaire. The questions were designed by the author, and reviewed by several professors. The questionnaire has three main themes: (1) background information, including demographics and player information, (2) questions regarding perceptions of fastpitch softball and baseball; and (3) player preferences on the physical differences in fastpitch softball and baseball. The physical differences of fastpitch softball and baseball were derived from a list of differences between the two sports that the court determined in their ruling of the legal case Israel v. West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission. The questionnaire was available only in English. (The researcher did observe a handful of players, fewer than 10, have the questionnaire translated to them by teammates.)
The average age of the participants (N=49) was 25.14 years (SD=7.23). Participants represented five countries: Australia (n=13); Canada (n=4); Japan (n=11); Taiwan (n=11); and United States (n=4). Significant difference was found on whether participants felt baseball and fastpitch were “equivalent” sports; 12 participants reported “not at all,” 13 reported “a little bit,” 19 reported “somewhat,” 3 reported “a lot,” and 2 reported “very much,” X2(4)=2.03, p<.05. Significant difference was found on whether participants preferred baseball or fastpitch; 45 participants reported “baseball,” 1 reported “fastpitch,” and 3 reported “the same,” X2(2)=.684, p<.05. Just over half the players had never played fastpitch (n=26). The findings support both hypotheses: 1) Baseball players did not consider fastpitch and baseball equivalent sports; and 2) Baseball players preferred baseball to fastpitch.
Participants marked what traits they preferred between baseball and softball. Players preferred the size of a baseball over a softball, X2(1)=.230, p<.05. Players preferred overhand pitching to underhand pitching, X2(2)=.684, p<.05. Players preferred baserunning in baseball (i.e. leadoffs) to baserunning in fastpitch, X2(2)=.720, p<.05. Players preferred the longer distance of the pitching mound in baseball to the shorter pitching distance in fastpitch, X2(2)=.758, p<.05. Players preferred using a baseball bat more than a softball bat, X2(2)=3.19, p<.05. Players preferred the larger baseball field to the smaller fastpitch field, X2(2)=.599, p<.05. The majority of the participants felt baseball and fastpitch required the same amount of skills while 20 players felt baseball was more difficult, X2(2)=.488, p<.05.
Baseball players participating in the present study overall preferred baseball to fastpitch and did not consider the sports to be equivalent. Players preferred the following baseball traits to softball: ball size, overhand pitching, baserunning, distance of pitching mound, bat, and field dimensions. Just over half of the participants had some fastpitch experience.
The results of the present study support the decision reached in Israel v. West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission. The Israel court ruled that softball and baseball are not equivalent sports because they use different equipment and rules. The court also claimed baseball required more skill than softball.[fn]McPhillips, 1996.[/fn] A major difference between the Israel case and the context of the present study is the Israel case was about slow pitch softball not fastpitch. Softball includes a slow looping pitch while fastpitch has a quick underhand pitch. The differences between softball and fastpitch are meaningful when comparing skill level but less so when comparing the differences between softball and fastpitch to the differences between fastpitch and baseball; size of ball, field, bat, stealing, and pitching are all still different. Culturally the terms “softball” and “fastpitch” are often used interchangeably.
The present study has limitations and is best used as a primer for future research on girls and women playing baseball or fastpitch. Due to a low sample size the results cannot be generalized to the general public. The questionnaire is successful in gaining data on sport preferences but does not provide an outlet to explain why participants preferred one sport trait to another. For full representation the survey should also be given to softball players.
While women have been playing baseball for over 150 years in America, female baseball players still receive various forms of disapproval from administrators, coaches, and the law.[fn]Ardell, 2005; Fields, 2001; Reaves, 2001; Ring, 2009.[/fn] Despite the challenges of playing baseball and the push to instead play softball, the majority of the participants in the present study had never played fastpitch. Future research could question what sport baseball players played if it is not fastpitch and if it was baseball, what struggles, if any, did they have trying to play the game. A qualitative analysis on motivation of softball and baseball players would provide a fuller look into the topic.
Many female baseball players play alongside the men because it is their only playing option. Ila Borders played college baseball and received verbal assaults from opponents and physical abuse from teammates. Borders had baseball shaped welts on her back from “accidental” throws that disgruntled teammates threw at her, as they stood behind her.[fn]Ardell, Breaking Into Baseball.[/fn] Players from the current study were participating in one of the few international club tournaments for women in the world. Future research could examine how female baseball players perceive playing baseball with other women. Does the stigma of being “struck out by a girl” still exist when women compete against women or is there an emotional or physical relief to play alongside other females? Further exploration would provide greater insight into the dynamics of playing mixed-sex sports and same-sex sports.
A phenomenological examination into the experiences of girls and women playing baseball would provide greater depth to future research. The significance of researching women and girls playing baseball is that gender stereotypes hurt both males and females. Without access to all sports, girls and boys learn that they are not equal, and that discrimination is acceptable. Participants in the present study preferred baseball to fastpitch yet society tells them that fastpitch is for girls and baseball is for boys; thus baseball opportunities for girls are limited and opportunities for boys abound. The understanding of the unique relationship between males, females, and baseball will enhance knowledge of opportunities in baseball and positions in society.
In conclusion, the majority of baseball players participating in the present study preferred baseball to fastpitch. Most of the participants did not consider fastpitch and baseball to be equivalent sports. Baseball is America’s national pastime and a global game both men and women deserve the chance to participate. The significance of the present study can be simplified to one thought: If you tell a girl she can not play baseball, what else will she believe she can not do; but if you give her a chance to play baseball what else will she believe she can do?
DR. JUSTINE SIEGAL is the Director of Sport Partnerships at Sport in Society, a Center at Northeastern University. She received her master’s degree from Kent State University in Sport Studies and her Ph.D. in Physical Education from Springfield College. She is the Founder of Baseball For All, an organization the providing meaningful opportunities for girls in baseball. In 2011, Dr. Siegal became the first woman to throw batting practice to a major league team.
DR. ANDY LI-AN HO is currently the assistant professor as well as the strength and conditioning coach of Chinese Culture University in Taiwan. Dr. Ho has a master degree in sport coaching science from Chinese Culture University, a second master degree in strength and conditioning from Springfield College and earned his Ph.D. in Physical Education from Springfield College. He is currently teaching exercise science courses in undergrad and graduate level and coaching intercollegiate athletes. Besides teaching and coaching, Dr. Ho also conducts research and has published research articles in national and international peer-reviewed journals.