Once upon a time, a woman named Jackie Mitchell strode to the mound in an exhibition game for her team, the Chattanooga Lookouts, a AA squad. The starting pitcher had just been pulled and her manager, Bert Niehoff put her in to face a pair of decent hitters, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
In front of a crowd of four thousand, Mitchell calmly went on to strike out both players in succession, shocking both the fans and the duo of sluggers who failed to connect on a single pitch.
After the game, Babe Ruth went on to rail against the potential of women in baseball, loathing the potential for the integration of the MLB to all sexes:
"I don’t know what’s going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball. Of course, they will never make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day."
In a blatant attempt to soothe Ruth’s bruised ego, baseball’s commissioner, Kenesaw Landis, voided Jackie Mitchell’s contract in an attempt to protect Mitchell from the sport he claimed was “too strenuous” for women. In 1952, major league baseball would formally ban the signing of women to contracts, a ban that remained until 1992.
Despite this new policy, no woman has signed with a major league team or a minor league affiliate since the nullification of the ban in 1992. Both Eri Yoshida and Ila Borders have enjoyed some measure of fame as independent league players, but neither have made it into a Major League system.
But why is it so? Why do Major League teams avoid women to such a degree?
Perhaps the biggest reason for this avoidance is perception. In a game that is seemingly dominated by fireballers like Justin Verlander and David Price, the soft-tossing pitcher has flown a bit under the radar. Jamie Moyer, a man who has pitched more than 4,000 innings in his major league career, relied heavily on a fastball that sometimes failed to reach 80 mph on the radar gun.
With the right finesse and control, any low velocity pitcher can be successful. However, no woman has gotten the chance to be that pitcher because of the stereotype that still exists.
Ila Borders of South California College made a bid to be that woman. Borders, who at 19 became the first woman to throw a complete game in men’s college baseball, went undrafted in the 1997 draft. Despite a reportedly impressive screwball and smattering of other off-speed pitches, all 28 teams spent their combined 1607 picks on men, letting Borders slip through her hands.
Instead, Borders bounced around independent leagues, having a stretch of success with the Madison Black Wolf in 1999, as she finished with a 1.67 ERA, yet her phone was not ringing from any major league teams. Eventually, after four fruitless years with various teams, she retired.
Borders was no exceptional pitcher, and would likely have toiled in A or AA ball before being released had she been signed, but it is an injustice that nobody would even take a chance on her. Major league teams sign dozens of late draft picks and undrafted players every year with the expectation that almost none of these players will make the big leagues, but Borders couldn’t even get a tryout?
In a time when baseball desperately needs some positive publicity, how much could it hurt to spend the $5,000 it would take to sign the best female player in the country and give her a shot? At the very least, the minor league team would get a major boost in attendance as the crowds flocked to watch. If baseball is serious about being inclusive to all, a team needs to step up and make that call.