Former professional baseball player Maybelle Blair has a vision. She wants girls to have the opportunity to play baseball, not just softball. And she wants to build a world-class museum to honor the sport’s female pioneers and future stars.

Blair, now 95, was a pitcher for the Peoria Redwings in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). The league was formed in 1943 when male baseball players like Yogi Berra, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio enlisted to serve in World War II. Professional baseball feared losing profits from dwindling attendance and decided to create a women’s professional baseball league.

A 1992 film and 2022 Amazon series, both titled A League of Their Own, provide fictionalized accounts of the AAGPBL, and Blair served as a consultant for the series. Both accounts portray fictional players on the Rockford Peaches, one of the original women’s professional baseball teams based in Rockford, Illinois.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown recognizes these pioneers and stars of women’s baseball in a section of the famous museum. But Blair doesn’t believe the one area dedicated to women’s baseball in Cooperstown is sufficient. “We need a place of our own,” she told me.

Blair’s vision is already partially underway. The International Women’s Baseball Center (IWBC), where Blair is a founding director emeritus, has purchased land by Beyer’s Stadium, where the Rockford Peaches once played. After raising sufficient funds, the organization hopes to build an international home for girls’ and women’s baseball. In addition to an educational center and museum, they aim to include a field house and batting cages to support tournaments. Blair also wants the future center to offer umpire training since female umpires are drastically underrepresented in all levels of baseball. (No women have umpired a major league game, and only nine have worked in the minors). The IWBC is launching a capital campaign called “A Place of Their Own,” hoping to have shovels in the ground within a few years.

Kat Williams is a professor of women’s sports history at Marshall University, the author of several books on women’s baseball and the current president of the IWBC. She says the organization was founded “because there is no home for women’s baseball; there’s no Hall of Fame; there’s no museum. There’s no single place where that history is preserved, protected and brought out from the corners and used to inspire girls.”

“It is inspirational for girls to know that they are part of something bigger,” Williams says. Indeed, Blair told the audience at the Makers Conference, “I didn’t have any role models.” Her mom, not a baseball player, but a cotton picker, was her inspiration. Blair wants young female baseball players to be able to learn from their predecessors.

Girls Are Steered Into Softball Instead Of Baseball

The second part of Blair’s vision is providing girls and women an opportunity to play baseball. Young girls can play in Little League, but their options dwindle as they grow older. In 1974, Congress passed a bill to amend Little League Baseball’s congressional charter to replace the word “boys” with “young people.” Since then, Little League Baseball has admitted girls, giving them a place to play until the age of 12. Providing an opportunity for girls to play baseball once they age out of Little League is a greater challenge. That’s the age when, Blair told me, female baseball players are often pushed into softball.

Softball was invented in Chicago in 1887 by men who wanted to play indoors during colder weather. Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball author, Jennifer Ring, writes that although the new sport spread quickly, “it was always regarded as baseball’s stepchild and belittled with nicknames such as ‘mush ball,’ ‘melon ball’ and ‘panty waist.’” She explains, “Although the new game was obviously regarded as ‘soft,’ it was not actually given the name ‘softball’ until 1926.”

Williams says, “Softball was never meant to be a women’s replacement for baseball. It’s just a different sport.”

The steering of women into softball strengthened with the passing of Title IX, the law prohibiting sex discrimination in education programs, including sports. “I think Title IX is one of the most important things to happen for women in this country since the ratification of the 19th Amendment. But I also think Title IX is largely responsible for the growth of softball as an alternative sport for women,” Williams says. One way to be compliant with Title IX is to have equivalent sports for men and women. After Title IX passed, Williams explains, “most people determined that softball was the equivalent to baseball.”

“When colleges and high schools were told they needed to accept women into various sports and have more equality in sports, they pushed softball as an equivalent sport to baseball. So, from the time that girls are 12, they’re handed this large ball that feels like throwing a gallon paint can and told, ‘no, no, you have to play softball.'”

Both Blair and Williams are former softball players and have the utmost respect for the sport of softball and its players. The problem is that girls are told they can’t play baseball and must play softball instead. ‘It’s about opportunity and access,” Williams says.

There are no college or university women’s baseball teams (although a few women have played on men’s collegiate baseball teams). High schools don’t offer baseball programs for women, so girls must try out for the boys’ team or find a club team. And if girls have hopes of obtaining college scholarship money, they won’t get it for playing baseball.

Figuring out how to restore girls’ access to baseball is complicated. Baseball for All, an organization aimed at developing more baseball playing opportunities for women, is helping to establish club baseball teams at the collegiate level. Developing club teams, they argue, is the first step to becoming an official collegiate sport. University of Washington, Montclair State University and Occidental College have already created women’s club baseball teams. The organization also keeps a list of colleges and universities where women are welcome to try out for the men’s baseball team.

For female baseball players under 18 years old, there are a smattering of girls’ baseball teams throughout the country, and for those 18-23, the United States sends a team to the Women’s Baseball World Cup. Blair hopes that someday a women’s professional baseball league will return.

But it’s not all about reaching the pros or winning the World Cup. Girls and women who can continue to play their sport acquire skills they can use later in life. Blair used what she learned in baseball in her management role at Northrop Grumman. “By playing sports, you learn teamwork, and you understand that you can’t win every cockeyed game. You’re going to lose here and there. You’re not always going to hit a home run, right? You’re going to strike out. And that’s okay,” she says.

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