Nelson: Cuban Babe (Ruth): The story of Seven Cubana women in professional baseball

From Emalee Nelson at Sport in American History on October 17, 2016:

This fall, a pioneering television show emerged on FOX’s primetime lineup. Pitch tells the fictitious, yet inspirational, story of Ginny Baker, the first woman to play Major League Baseball for the San Diego Padres. The series tackles a variety of issues one can imagine a woman would face competing in a league and lifestyle saturated with men. However, another interesting dimension to the narrative of this series is not only that Ginny Baker is a woman playing on baseball’s biggest stage, but that she is a woman of color. Though there have been women of all races, nationalities, and color playing professional sports for years, historically, baseball had a particularly tricky line of what shade was deemed acceptable. This was evident in MLB given that though Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Latino men were bending this line for nearly 40 years prior. However, for women of color playing baseball, their journey took a vaguely paralleled path.

Since the turn of the 20th century, women have been playing forms of softball and baseball. Though the stigma of hyper-masculinity followed these women from diamond to diamond, this did not hinder their passion for the sport. Small indoor and outdoor leagues were set up in towns, often catering to working class families in industrial or rural settings. Though teams were competitive, it was nowhere near a level considered to be professional. With the United States’ entrance into World War II in late 1941, unprecedented opportunities for women emerged, including the chance to play baseball—professionally. Philip K. Wrigley, a chewing gum mogul and owner of the Chicago Cubs, was intrigued by the popularity that softball had generated in recent years. He speculated that a women’s baseball league would be an excellent temporary replacement to men’s baseball, by also keeping stadiums occupied and fervent fan interest in America’s game. This idea came as a response to the ever-growing amount of MLB players leaving the league, enlisting in various branches of the armed forces, and depleting the league of young, able-bodied, athletic talent.

Though the purpose of the league was to be competitive and professional, it was above all a form of wartime entertainment and was to be entirely separate from women’s softball leagues, including the masculine connotation associated with that game. To visibly disassociate the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) with softball, Wrigley adamantly marketed the league as a ladylike version of America’s pastime. Women in the AAGPBL were all American, but also all white. In effort to construct the pristine image of mid-century American femininity and natural appeal, there was a strong notion that the only shade of skin, which could keep this All-American image intact, was a woman of light complexion. Much like the “gentleman’s agreement” in MLB, the AAGPBL also had an unwritten policy against letting any women of color play in the league.

However, a small handful of women were able to bend this de facto discriminatory rule. Prior to the 1947 season, the AAGPBL held spring training in Havana, Cuba.

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Originally published: October 17, 2016. Last Updated: October 17, 2016.