Hold on, put down the torches and hear me out. Softball is great, and nothing I’m about to say is meant to take away from the dedication and athleticism of the women who play it at the collegiate level. Just the opposite, actually.
First, I need to tell you a story. It’s the opening week of Major League Baseball throughout the U.S.A. (and Toronto, I suppose). Hundreds of thousands of fans have already gone through the turn-styles of all thirty major league parks to cheer on their favorite professional ball players, while consuming enough beer, hot dogs, and cheese of questionable provenance to ensure that they’ll never be in shape to take the field themselves.
It was on a lazy afternoon at about this time of year in 1931 that an exhibition game between the Chattanooga Lookouts and the New York Yankees should have made history. In the exhibition game in Chattanooga, a young woman named Jackie Mitchell was on the mound for the Lookouts. But she wasn’t there as a sideshow act or cheap promotional stunt. Despite being only seventeen years old, Jackie was already a professional pitcher in the minor leagues. She earned her place on the mound that day, and she went on to silence her critics by striking out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, indisputably two of the greatest sluggers ever to play the game, at an age most players are still in high school. The crowd absolutely lost their shit falling over themselves to cheer on her achievement.
Days later, the MLB voided her contract and banned women from playing a game which was “too strenuous” for their frail, feminine bodies.
While the ban was technically lifted in 1992, women still have not found a place on any major league team. Of all professional sports, I believe that baseball is by far the best suited for full integration. Compared to football, hockey, or basketball, it is not a full-contact sport where women would be at a disadvantage (on average). Of all pro-sports, Baseball is by many measures the most technical, with hand-eye coordination and reflexes being of greater importance in some positions than physical strength or speed.
Which is where we come to Softball. The simple truth is softball is an artificial means of segregating men and women at the college level, where professional teams are drafting and recruiting talent from. The fact women are encouraged to play softball puts them at a huge disadvantage when it comes to scouting talent because they simply aren’t playing the same game. It becomes an apples-to-oranges comparison. How does a fast-pitch softball pitcher’s stats stack up against those of a baseball pitcher’s? What’s the conversion? The same is true of hitting, fielding, basically every mechanic of the game. With the larger ball and smaller field, it is just different enough that accurate comparisons are elusive at best.
Eliminating softball at the college level, even if the teams remain divided between genders, eliminates this problem. Professional scouts would instantly start paying attention to women’s baseball, and would have an easier time arguing their case to management if they found someone they believed in. I believe female athletes would adapt very quickly, especially if the change started at the grass roots in high schools across the country. And while player development time in baseball is typically longer than it is in football, for example, I believe that we would start seeing the first female MLB starting players within no more than five to seven years of the elimination of softball.
Softball is a great sport with a proud tradition, but I believe that at this moment in time, it has become a hindrance to the opportunities open to female athletes. It’s time to put softball out to pasture and truly level the playing field.
Update, 8/21/14: I’m a little late to the party on this one, but a female pitcher is making waves in the Little League world. Mo’Ne Davis has helped propel her team to the LLWS.