Special Contributor to CSNChicago.com
Madison Femia rolled over and looked at her alarm clock, barely making out 4:30 a.m. through blurry, tired eyes. A high school freshman at the time, she wasn't used to waking up so early and she certainly wasn't used to this funky mixture of anxiety and excitement as she prepared to try out as the only girl on the freshman baseball team at Geneva High School.
"It was stressful," Madison, 15, recalled, sitting in the bleachers after finishing a game versus St. Charles North 1-for-2 with a bases-loaded, two-run RBI single. "I was just trying to keep my head on straight and not throw up." She burst out laughing, revealing a mouth full of blue braces and rubber bands. She's earned the nickname "Smiley", a quality at odds with the competitive streak she displayed that afternoon on the field.
She paused for a moment and took off her hat to reveal long, thick brown hair that she wears down even under her catcher's helmet despite the pleas from her mom to put it up. "I was just trying to push myself to be better than most of the boys," she said. "The anticipation was more stressful than the actual tryout. It's a giant relief because I worked hard to do all this and it's finally paying off."
Being the only girl on an all-boys team is nothing new to her. She's been playing organized baseball since she was four years old. When she was 10 she played on a 13-U boys' travel team. "When I first started, I just got really excited to hit a ball with a bat and beat the guys," she said. "All the other sports I played with girls, and this was more fun and more competitive."
Madison is enjoying a rare experience. Though more than 100,000 girls play youth baseball across the country, only 1,000 play in high school, according to Baseball For All, a not-for-profit that wants to open up opportunities for girls in baseball. Something is happening to those tens of thousands of former players – and it doesn't necessarily have to do with losing their love of baseball.
Across the country, only a handful of programs offer baseball teams for girls, which means girls have no choice but to play with boys. The number who can compete successfully – like Madison – as they enter their teens is small: 0.27 percent of high school players are girls, according to The National Federation of State High School Associations. Instead, girls are channeled to a different sport, softball.
More than 40 years after Title IX, there are still no girls' baseball teams offered in Little League, high school or college, with reasons ranging from lack of participation to outdated notions of gender. But a number of people – in Illinois and elsewhere – are actively working for change.
"We have a societal myth that girls play softball and boys play baseball," said Justine Siegal, founder of Baseball For All. "When Little League was sued to include girls in their leagues, instead of supporting the girls in baseball, they created a girls' softball league."
Professional women's teams did play each other during World War II (for which the film "A League of Their Own", which celebrated the 25-year anniversary of its release Saturday, was based) but Major League Baseball officially banned women's contracts in 1952. Congress passed Title IX in 1972, which prohibits discrimination against girls and women in federally-funded education, including in athletics programs. However, the passage of Title IX worked against girls who wanted to play baseball by helping programs justify excluding them because they offered softball. Two years later, the Peabody Little League in Massachusetts barred 18 girls from their baseball tryouts. The reasons Little League officials initially gave ranged from the claim that boys would quit if girls were allowed to play, to the risk that if a girl were hit in the chest by a baseball, she could develop breast cancer. So, they were pushed into softball, with a larger, softer ball and a smaller field. The ensuing lawsuit led the Little League board of directors to allow girls to play with boys, but discrimination remains to this day.
Even though girls like Madison have proven to be skilled enough to play baseball at a high level, her parents still see pushback to a girl playing "a boys' sport." The first boys' travel team she tried out for didn't allow her play because she is a girl. And even though her coach and teammates at Geneva are supportive of her, not everyone was thrilled when she made the team. "The other parents were surprised she made it," said her mom, Leslie. "You hear other parents whisper to each other that she is taking a spot on the team from one of the boys."
Robert Daniels, a child clinical psychologist living in Winnetka, Ill., saw his daughter Taylor's love for baseball right away. She played for the first time when she was seven. "She fell in love with baseball that first season," he said. But the real point of no return came two years later when Taylor, one of only two girls on her youth team, came up to bat with the bases loaded. "I think the ball's still flying," Robert remembered, leaning his head on his hand and looking up smiling, as if he could still see it sailing. "She hit this home run farther than any third-grader had ever hit the ball. This thing just kept going and going and going. It was in that moment she got attention for hitting a grand slam, not for having a ponytail and playing baseball. There was no turning back after that grand slam."
As Taylor got older and Robert would call leagues to sign her up for baseball, they responded with, "Did you mean softball?" It is a common assumption, that girls aren't interested in baseball, that reaches up to the high school level as well. "Until there is a significant number of girls who indicate they want to play baseball, there's not a lot to do," said Sam Knox, assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, in charge of baseball. "They know the option exists for the girls to be on the boys team and they indicate they are okay with that."
But without offering a girls' team, how can they assess the demand? "Middle school is the first time you can play sports in a school system and the offering is girls' softball or boys' baseball," said Ashley Bratcher, senior director of baseball operations for USA Baseball. "So, girls playing baseball isn't offered as an opportunity in the school's infrastructure. I grew up playing baseball, and when I went into 7th grade, the only opportunity was to try out for softball. I had never played before but I did it because it was my only opportunity."
From a young age, girls like Taylor can plainly see they are not being judged on a truly level playing field. "You have to prove yourself more than the guys do because there's an expectation that you're not going to be as good and you have to be better than that," said Taylor, 14, who currently plays on the New Trier High School feeder team with all boys. "The standards are higher." She has been asked to try out multiple times for boys' teams. None of the boys were asked for a second tryout, and skill wasn't the issue.
Taylor was selected from a pool of 144 players to play on the WBL Sparks, a team Justine Siegal founded in 2002, when it was the first all-girls baseball team to compete in a boy's national tournament at the Cooperstown Dreamspark in Cooperstown, N.Y. Taylor's 2015 team finished 21st out of 104 of the best boys' teams in the nation.
Seeing how much the girls loved playing together inspired Robert to start Illinois Girls Baseball, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that strives to provide opportunities for girls to play baseball with other girls by offering clinics, games, and one day, a league. "I want it to be normal," Robert said. "I don't want it to be special. I want to rent a field, pay the same fee that the boys' league pays and have two teams consisting of girls playing a game of baseball."
In May, they hosted the first Girls Baseball Day, where approximately 50 Chicagoland girls aged 6-17 had an opportunity to participate in a half day of skills clinics and games at the University of Illinois at Chicago, led by coaches from the baseball program. He sees it as a way to show young girls that there is a place for them to pursue their baseball dreams.
"The youth programs are where the love of baseball either begins or ends," Robert said. "There are attitudes that encourage little girls to continue playing and there are attitudes to discourage those little girls from continuing playing."
One thing that may account for girls feeling excluded is the lack of women in leadership positions from youth baseball all the way up to the majors. The Kenilworth-Winnetka Baseball Association, where Taylor has played, has 21 people on its board, all men. While Robert, one of the board members, is actively working to change this, it does reflect the lack of female representation in decision-making positions in baseball. In a study done in April by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, Major League Baseball was given a C grade for gender hiring practices. The study gave MLB a D+ at the senior administrator level and a C- at the professional team administrator level, with women making up only 29.3 percent of its workforce. There are still no women who are majority owners, managers, general managers or presidents of baseball operations.
"There are girls who have experienced rude coaches or league administrators who wouldn't allow [them to play]," Bratcher said. "But to me it's a bigger, culturally engrained thing than softball is for girls and baseball is for boys. It's a larger battle to fight. It's going to be a long battle to reverse that mindset."
Even the most established female athletes across all sports are still rationalizing their success to males. Mo'ne Davis, one of the stars of the 2014 Little League World Series, was once asked why she didn't play a more "female-friendly" sport like soccer by Fox and Friends host Eric Bolling. She told him that, actually, she does play soccer, and then informed Bolling that she would be able to strike him out. Davis still plays baseball at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in South Philadelphia, but she's shifted her dream to one day playing in the WNBA.
But for those who want to continue to play baseball, Baseball For All and Illinois Girls Baseball are making an impact on girls when they are young and first developing their love of the sport. "If we tell them they can't play because they are girls then we have to wonder what else they won't try because they are girls," Siegal said. "We need to smash gender stereotypes and instead let our children lead with passion."
In April, Major League Baseball and USA Baseball launched their "Trailblazer Series," a three-day tournament at Major League Baseball's youth academy in Compton, California, featuring over 100 girls ages 16 and under from across the country. They were coached by some of the top female baseball coaches and players including several current and former members of USA Baseball. It was also Major League Baseball's most aggressive step into the movement.
In July, Taylor and Madison will be playing with the Windy City Huskies in Baseball For All's 2017 Nationals in Rockford, IL July 27-31, at historic Beyer Stadium, home of the team featured in "A League of Their Own," the Rockford Peaches. It is expected to be the largest girls' baseball tournament in U.S. history.
"It makes me realize I'm close to my goal," Madison said. "I can see that I can actually do this. There are women supporting me to help me get there."
CSN Chicago, in partnership with Northwestern University, features journalism by students in the graduate program at Medill School of Journalism. The students are reporters for Medill News Service. Medill faculty members edit the student work. Click here for more information about Medill.