This Tuesday, as the Baltimore Orioles play the Tampa Bay Rays, there will be an all-woman on-air crew, a historic first for the MLB, one of the last holdouts in professional sports to not have broken this barrier.
The reasons are many, but a lack of interest isn’t one of them.
Ellen Staurowsky grew up listening to women talk about baseball. She remembers sitting with her mother and her mother’s friends on hot summer days discussing pitching rotations over iced tea.
“I would come away from those conversations and I would think, ‘Where in the world do people think that women are not interested in baseball?’” said Staurowsky. She was surrounded, she said, by “all these women who know the pitching rotations, who know who is batting well, who are following this game.”
Staurowsky is a professor of sports media at Ithaca College and has dedicated her career to women and other marginalized people in sports, authoring books and research reports on women athletes. Her mother, who umpired college softball and men’s fast-pitch softball leagues in the Philadelphia area, served as one of her professional inspirations. Staurowsky said that people pushed back against a woman umpiring men’s fast-pitch games, but that her mother kept going.
“One of the things that I talk about with my students is there’s a difference between just learning standard operating procedure versus becoming leaders,” Staurokwsky said. She’s helping usher in the next generation of pioneers.
“I stand in awe of this upcoming generation,” she added. “They are fearless.”
Now, women who dream of working in baseball will have more inspiration. The five-person crew announcing for the Orioles on Tuesday includes on-field reporter Alanna Rizzo, Orioles’ play-by-play broadcaster Melanie Newman, MLB Network’s Heidi Watney, MLB’s Sarah Langs, and Lauren Gardner, who will lead pregame and postgame coverage.
“We’re not alone in saying that it’s surprising that it has taken this long for it to open up a bit more in terms of diversity,” Newman told NPR.
The MLB’s historic moment is a step behind the NBA and NHL, which had their first all-women broadcasts in March, and the NFL, which had its first in 2018. Staurowsky said this has to do with the “social script” around baseball. She explained that girls are typically tracked into softball rather than baseball, which contributes to the idea that America’s pastime is exclusively for men. Football, basketball and hockey, which have their own struggles on gender parity, still essentially have women playing the same sport in separate spaces. When a sport is played by all men, she said, the general perception is that only men have the authority to analyze and broadcast it. But she remembers her mother’s love for and expertise in baseball, despite her exclusion from it, and hopes more people “recognize just how long women had a deep love for the game.”
“It’s amazing how loyal women have been to the game,” Staurowsky said. “We’d like to think that loyalty is rewarded, and what I’m hoping is that the recent changes that we’ve seen are signaling that.”
Women in baseball are often erased or buried. But Cassidy Lent, manager of reference services at the Baseball Hall of Fame, said that women have played baseball since the start of the game’s rise to prominence.
Vassar College started a team in 1866, and other colleges followed. But most teams had shut down by the mid-1870s because of widespread disdain from parents and the public, who, at the time, issued complaints about women playing a fast-pitch, hard-hitting sport. Then, in 1943, 80 years later, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League began as a way to use baseball fields during World War II. The league lasted until 1954.
Echoing Staurowsky, Lent said that “many girls are shuffled off into softball,” which was invented in 1887 but is significantly different from baseball, in part because of how pitchers throw and pitching distance. She explained that when Title IX, which protects people from gender discrimination in any educational program that requires federal funding, passed in 1972, the formation of girls’ teams became more commonplace.
“There is that same equivalency in mind when they have baseball and softball teams for schools,” Lent said. “Even though they’re not the same.”
Justine Siegal, hired by the Oakland Athletics in 2015, was the first woman coach of an MLB organization. She hopes that Tuesday’s broadcast, along with other strides forward, encourages people to question why girls are discouraged from playing baseball — and why boys are discouraged from playing softball. She said that there is a direct correlation between having no women in the MLB, the perception that women can’t be authorities on baseball and discouraging girls from playing.
“If girls don’t have the same resources to build up their skills and the same support, same opportunities, then how does the girl become a major league caliber player?” Siegal asked.
Growing up, her family attended baseball games in Cleveland, where she is from. Her parents put her in T-ball, and as she got older, she started playing baseball, despite pressure to switch to softball at 13.
“The more people tried to take the game away from me, the more I loved it,” said Siegal.
When Siegal was 16, she decided she wanted to be a college baseball coach. She remembers that the first person she told, a man who coached baseball, laughed and told her no man would listen to a woman on a baseball field. She later became an assistant baseball coach at Springfield College in Massachusetts.
“A man will listen to a woman if she knows what she’s doing because all the players care about is can you make them better,” Siegal said.
Siegal then decided to try coaching professional baseball. It was hard, she said, to get opportunities because people wouldn’t ask her baseball questions during job interviews, instead focusing on how she would get along with the players. She took whatever baseball jobs she could get, even short coaching stints that lasted only days. She just wanted to coach the game she loved.
Siegal founded Baseball for All, a gender equity nonprofit that organized its first all-girl baseball tournament in 2015. She explained that the perception that men are the authority on baseball, the ones with the right to play and broadcast it, begins early with denying girls access to the game.
“As someone who started with no one who was doing a job that I wanted to do, no one who looked like me, it’s pretty incredible that you can now find women — or at least one woman — in all kinds of jobs throughout baseball,” Siegal said.
She hopes that the progress in baseball keeps moving forward.
“I think I’m ready for there to be no more firsts,” she said. “Let it just be the norm.”