Foul Balls

Women have been writing about baseball for far longer than you might think. (via Michelle Jay)

In the spring of 2016, I discovered that people wrote about baseball.

It had been around five months since the Troy Tulowitzki trade reignited my long-buried interest in the Toronto Blue Jays and baseball in general. There had been baseball during only two and a half of those months, and when baseball wasn’t being played, I generally wasn’t thinking about it.

But the season was about to begin again, and the school year was winding down. I found myself with both an abundance of free time and a nine-year-old brother who had plenty of baseball questions, embarrassingly few of which I could answer. I figured that now, going into my first full season of baseball-watching in almost a decade, was as good a time as any to gain a better understanding of the sport.

I started out with the basics–I googled “Troy Tulowitzki.” Eventually, after scrolling through various news articles and clicking various links, I somehow ended up at a FanGraphs post by Jeff Sullivan, written almost a year previous, when Tulo still played for the Rockies. It was titled, “What Have New Pace Rules Meant For Troy Tulowitzki?”

It wasn’t anything like the dry news bites and TV broadcasts that had, to that point, formed my entire concept of baseball media. It was whimsical. It was funny–the whole point of it was to be funny. It reflected the way I experience baseball–as a funny, sometimes boring, but almost always joyful diversion from the depression and drudgery that characterized my normal life.

I knew all the ins and outs of Tulo’s elaborate pre-swing routine. It was something I’d observed for years, laughed about with my brother. And here was a whole article about it on what was, as far as I could tell, a legitimate baseball web site, which was otherwise full of posts about fancy-sounding statistics whose meanings were obscure to me. Apparently, writing about the ridiculousness of a player’s ritualistic glove-tightening and bat-staring was something you could do.

And just for a second, I thought, Hey, I could do that!

Just for a second, though. Of course I couldn’t do that. Who did I think I was?

On March 5, 1890, back when baseball was still “base ball” and Benjamin Harrison was president, a writer named Ella Black began a regular column about Pittsburgh baseball for the widely-circulated national magazine Sporting Life. “A WOMAN’S VIEW,” trumpets the headline, subtitled “A Novelty In Base Ball Literature–The Base Ball Situation Considered and Commented Upon From A Female Standpoint.”

The headlines attached to Black’s column often leaned into this feminine novelty aspect. Black herself winkingly referred to stereotypes of her gender often, numbering herself as “one of the petticoated enthusiasts” who crowded baseball games, devoting the first paragraph of her first column to tongue-in-cheek discussion of which Pittsburgh players were the most attractive to their female fans. But she was also ambitious and serious about her craft. She hoped, as she wrote, to someday “force some of the brilliant (?) masculine members of humanity, who have seen fit to ridicule the idea of a woman writing base ball, to admit that I am competent to do it.”

Reading through Black’s column, one is struck not only by her sense of humor, but by the reporting skill on display–despite the fact that she was not allowed to do any reporting at all. Black was not allowed anywhere near anyone involved in the game of baseball; players, managers, umpires, and league officials were all off limits to her. Yet her reporting on the Pittsburgh Alleghenies’ and Burghers’ respective roster constructions, on the political machinations of the various competing leagues trying to stake a claim in the area, is detailed, clever and insightful.

She developed ingenious strategies for gleaning information–subtle eavesdropping, long-distance observing— which gave her work an angle often more informed than interviews direct from players and officials. Black’s column was so well received that many readers believed a woman could not possibly be writing it, and when her column ended after the dissolution of the Players’ League in 1891, readers wrote railing against her absence.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

I spent most of the summer of 2016 learning everything I possibly could about baseball. I started by reading the FanGraphs Sabermetrics Library until I could understand what all the posts on the site were talking about. (That took a while–I have very little natural inclination for math.) From there, I moved onto libraries in the physical world. When I wasn’t at work or watching the Jays, I was reading Late Innings, Ball Four, The Boys of Summer, Moneyball–anything I could find on the shelf at my local library branch, and then at the big central library, and finally at the big library at my university.

The more I read, the more I discovered I still had to learn. And that, more than anything, excited me, perhaps even more so than the Jays doing well. It was the first time in a long time I’d felt so motivated to know everything I could possibly know about something, to explore it as far as I possibly could. I felt like I was nine years old again–before I’d learned that having such passionate interests was embarrassing.

The books I read were narrations, histories, statistical analyses, sociological studies. They were memoirs and biographies, poetics and academics. I couldn’t believe what a wealth of brilliant writing I’d stumbled upon. As I read, I found myself wishing, more and more, that I could do that.

As a kid, I’d dreamed of becoming a star pitcher, but as a girl, I was never allowed to play baseball. I would pitch alone against the fence of a local park and fantasize about how I would inevitably reach my destiny: a convoluted plot involving running away, dressing as a boy, changing my name, blowing everyone away with my spectacular baseball skills, and somehow continuing the ruse for the rest of my life as a star in the major leagues.

I realized, even as kid, that my baseball Mulan fantasy was completely absurd, but at 18, I found myself indulging in a similar fantasy. I considered looking out for any available baseball writing jobs and applying for them under some male alias.

As much as this tempted me, though, I knew it wouldn’t work. I had severe doubts about my ability to write anything at all, let alone about baseball. Even if someone out there were to take a chance on my pseudonymous baseball musings, I was sure I would be exposed almost immediately. The men who read any baseball publication certainly would know more than I did. My understanding of stats would be all wrong; my tone would be too emotional. I would be ripped to shreds. Everyone would know I didn’t belong.

Almost a century after Ella Black’s column in Sporting Life, women writing about baseball was still a novelty, a journalistic sideshow more than a profession people took seriously. Press boxes were still off-limits–“NO WOMEN OR CHILDREN” proclaimed the signs posted on press box doors–as though women writers could no better handle covering a baseball game around other journalists than could any random 10-year-old. Locker room access was unmentionable.

While the number of women writing about baseball steadily increased in the decades leading up to the 1970s, their work still was greeted with the same kind of sensationalism that had so long ago accompanied Black’s. Cleveland investigative reporter Doris O’Donnell, assigned to travel with the Indians during the 1957 season, had this line attached to her first column: “Leaving batting averages and statistics to the contingent of all-male sports reporters, Miss O’Donnell will present the woman’s view and behind-the-scenes glimpses of the athletes.”

It was the “woman’s view” and “behind-the-scenes glimpses” angle that newspapers used to sell the work of these women reporters. Major League Baseball’s prohibition of women in press boxes and locker rooms made it almost impossible for women writing about baseball to get exclusive quotes, and because they were expected to leave statistical analysis to “the contingent of all-male sports reporters,” it was expected that women write something different than the usual fare of baseball writing: perhaps gossip about the players’ personal lives, or commentary on the state of player uniforms, or about the experience of being a woman at a ballpark.

It just had to be something markedly feminine, and in this way, the intentions behind hiring women to write about baseball were less to break down the barriers of gender, but rather to reinforce them further. When writer Marie Brenner was assigned to cover the Red Sox by the Boston Herald in the mid-1970s, despite the fact that she’d never seen a baseball game, she asked what she was supposed to write about the game if she didn’t understand what was going on. “For God’s sake, don’t write about the game,” her editors told her.

In late February of 2017, I pulled an old-looking blue book out of the baseball shelf at my university library. It had no jacket, no design on the cover. The only information it offered me was the author’s last name, GORDON, and the book’s title: FOUL BALLS.

I have an extremely short attention span, and reading at length is hard enough for me without having to read a bad book. So, as I always do, I flipped to the foreword and scanned the first page–a brief test of the book’s quality. Here is how this book began:

Baseball players, like children, are at their most appealing when they are asleep. Walking up the aisle of the DC10 high over middle America, on the red-eye from the coast during the last road trip of 1983, I looked at the Toronto Blue Jays, snoozing in their first-class seats. Their heads lolled to the side, as if the weight of their cassette-deck headsets, playing gospel music here, country over there, Latin American salsa two rows back, was too much for their necks to bear. There were weary smudges under their eyes, and they looked peaceful and innocent, a Cub pack on the way back from a field trip, not overpaid athletes with egos as big as all outdoors.

I stopped to chat with a couple of the players still awake, standing by the galley, cadging free drinks from the flight attendant. It was she who asked the usual question: “Why are you travelling with the team?”

“I’m a sportswriter,” I replied.

“Oh,” she said with a dimpled smile, “I thought you were a mother.”

I knew it was time to quit.”

Out of all the baseball books I’d found and read at my various nearby libraries, quite literally the only ones I’d found written by women were histories of women playing baseball–about the All-American Girls’ Baseball League–and more often, about softball. While these books were important, and while I had read them with fascination, they were narrations of worlds I couldn’t relate to. The AAGBL folded in the ’50s, having existed for only a decade, and I still resented the way softball had been presented as my only option when I was a kid. As far as I knew, women hadn’t formed any part of the legacy of baseball writing that had made me fall so much more deeply in love with the game.

This, though–this was different. This was a book about the big leagues, the world of baseball with which I was familiar and which I loved–about my own favorite team, no less–and it was written by a woman. Not one of the venerable white-haired baseball men who had written so many of my favorite books, but someone whose presence with the team was regularly questioned, who could be mistaken for a mother, who was, in her own words, “a socialist, feminist hedonist with roots in the sixties, a woman who had marched against the bomb, done drugs, and never, ever even wanted to date the head jock at school.”

I grew up in the 2000s, not the ’60s, but the rest described me perfectly: a socialist, a feminist, someone who had done too many drugs at too early an age, a lesbian who was totally uninterested in the aggressively heterosexual social politics of high school and the world at large. As I feverishly read the rest of the foreword, I found out Gordon, like me, had grown up using baseball as a refuge from the struggles of life. That, like me, she had inherited Yankees fandom but eventually chosen the Blue Jays. And she was a real, honest-to-god baseball writer who’d been on the Blue Jays beat for the Toronto Star.

When I left the library to get to class, I had Foul Balls in my hand. I read it in a single sitting on my two-hour bus ride home.

More striking to me even than the background Gordon and I shared was her sheer skill as a writer, narrating both emotional and social realities of the game with beauty and precision. One of the book’s very best passages is the one with which it opens:

The ghosts all come out on opening day, lurking happily in the outfield corners, floating through the dugouts, raising small eddies of red-clay dust around second base, settling into the bleachers with the flesh-and-blood paying customers.

They are the ghosts of baseball and gather wherever the game is played, not just in historic venues like Comiskey Park and Yankee Stadium. They even come to modern horrors like Exhibition Stadium on the shores of Lake Ontario. They don’t even have to go through customs.

Some of the ghosts are dressed in baggy flannel uniforms with their stirrup straps barely showing an inch of white over their polished black shoetops. Others wear dark jackets, high collars and ties, and straw boaters on their heads. The women have fox-furs draped across their shoulders and hats with a jaunty tilt. They sit incongruously among their rude modern counterparts who use language once reserved for the locker rooms under the stands, but in all their hearts is the same joy.”

Throughout the book, Gordon writes from a multiplicity of perspectives: as a lifelong baseball fan, as a beat writer following a specific team at a specific time, as a human being interacting with other human beings, and as a woman in an industry that treated women with outright hostility. Gordon started on the Blue Jays beat in 1979, only a year after Melissa Ludtke Lincoln’s federal lawsuit against Major League Baseball had finally allowed women reporters into locker rooms, and the BBWAA was so unequipped to handle women at the time that it gave her a membership card with the title “Mr.” before her name.

In the chapter titled “Token Broad,” she writes of a letter she received calling her a “whore” for daring to go in locker rooms (a letter she later had framed), of the “pecker checker” moniker that certain baseball men applied to women reporters. She shares this disturbing story of an encounter with a aging, washed-up pitcher at the Jays’ spring training camp:

He signalled me over to the table and told me, with earnestness that comes from the bottle, that he had an offer for me too splendid to pass up. It seems, as he told it, and I was never able (or, perhaps, willing) to confirm the story, that the guys had taken to calling him grandpa and had taken up a collection for him. All he had to do to get $500 was to take me to bed in front of witnesses.

He offered me $200. Without discussing the insult of the implication that he deserved the bigger share, I politely declined. He couldn’t believe it, and in a stage whisper clearly audible for several tables, he asked, with disbelief, for clarification.

‘Do you mean y’all wouldn’t even let me eat your pussy in front of witnesses for $200?’ he said.”

Perhaps the most miraculous thing about Foul Balls is that, despite the unpleasantness and outright abuse Gordon endured during her time on the beat, her love of baseball and her ability to convey the beauty of the game still remains. In the chapter “The Playgrounds,” Gordon takes us on a detailed tour of all the ballparks she’s ever been to, from Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium (the “ugly duckling of the American League” whose small-town charm “defies its ugliness”) to Comiskey Park (“a great sprawling park, old and funky with a cheerful exuberance that reflects itself in the fans”); in “The Spring Game,” she describes the heartbreak of two veterans cut from camp, and the contrasting joy of those young players given a chance to show off their potential. At the book’s close, it is the love of the game that she chooses to leave us with:

My home now is in Section 15, along the first-base line, high enough up to watch the pattern of the game unfold. With binoculars, I can almost read lips in the Blue Jay dugout. I’m there for wins so one-sided they make me laugh and losses so heartbreaking they depress me for the rest of the day. I’m there in sunshine or rain, but always basking in baseball’s glow.

And now when Dave Stieb wins a game I can just cheer him as a splendid pitcher without worrying about what mood he’ll be in after it’s over. When Cliff Johnson hits one out of the park, I rejoice, knowing I won’t have to listen to his sanctimonious nonsense later. And when Willie Upshaw or Jim Gott or Ernie Whitt has a wonderful day, I smile for them and am glad that for a brief time we were friends. The next time I go to the World Series, I’ll be in the stands, rooting for my home team to win.”

There is a certain euphoria that comes of reading a book that makes you feel seen, deeply and profoundly–that reminds you that you are understood, that you are not alone. I absolutely loved many of the books I read during my year-long speed run through baseball history, but Foul Balls was the first and only one that gave me this euphoria. Gordon’s writing put into words the way I felt about baseball. Her experiences illuminated my own. Through her, I could try to find my own words.

As a kid with frustrated dreams of pitching and as a teenager with burgeoning dreams of baseball writing, I’d always felt myself to be a person without context. When I was eight, I had never heard of any women who played baseball and didn’t know any other girls who shared my ambition. A decade later, my obsession with the written history of baseball had done little to disabuse me of the impression that I was some kind of strange anomaly, a dreamer of the wrong golden dream, who could not and would not ever be taken seriously.

Foul Balls changed that. It introduced me to a history of women writing about baseball that went all the way back to Ella Black in 1890, through Ina Eloise Young and Jeane Hofmann and Mary Garber in the early and mid-20th century, to the trailblazers and taboo-breakers of the 1970s and 1980s–Claire Smith, Susan Fornoff, Jane Gross. Many of these women’s books are out of print, their columns backed up in hard-to-find archives, and none of them available at my local library. I hunted them down where I could, in used bookstores and on Amazon. The history of women in baseball writing is not quite as easy to construct as the history of baseball writing writ large, and there are still so many books I haven’t been able to find, newspaper archives that aren’t online.

But not only did Foul Balls open the door to this rich historical context, it was the entrance point through which I found a context for myself in the present. Through my searching for any content about Alison Gordon, I discovered the work of Stacey May Fowles, and from there, countless more women writing brilliant stories about baseball in the present day. My bookmarks began filling up with pieces by Meg Rowley and Kate Preusser. Not only were there women writing about baseball in the here and now, some of the best baseball writers in the here and now were women. A woman wrote my favorite book about baseball, a copy of which now sat on my bedside table.

I had never been as alone as I’d thought I was.

The perspective of a baseball writer is necessarily one of an outsider. Unlike a player or manager who, after retiring, writes a memoir of his time in the game, a baseball writer has no real “inside knowledge.” They are not actors in the drama of baseball; they are not the ones taking the field, calling the plays, making the deals. Their mere presence around those involved in the sport changes the nature of the information they receive and the behavior they witness. Once they are there, it is no longer truly “inside information.”

But baseball writers don’t write to form a relationship with the insiders, for the benefit of the insiders. They write for the fans, the other invested outsiders, far greater in number than those on the inside of the game. The outsiders are the ones who read their work; the outsiders are the ones who make the work possible.

In this sense, the eternal externality of baseball writers works in their favor, because although fans will always crave breaking news and inside scoops, these are not perspectives they will truly connect with. The most heralded wordsmiths of baseball, the Roger Angells and Vin Scullys, take their experiences as observers of the game and interpret them, like a documentary filmmaker, creating something cohesive, unique, greater and truer than the sum of its parts.

So perhaps those enterprising newspaper editors who drew such marked attention to “The Woman’s View” on baseball were onto something, though they didn’t realize quite what it was. Women writing about baseball, after all, were outsiders several times over: discouraged from playing, disallowed from the press box, denied the access male reporters could get to direct quotations from players, managers and executives. They were the ultimate observers, their writing infused with not only their wisdom as baseball fans and followers of the game, but with the acute consciousness of one who is permanently on the periphery.

Despite the intentions of editors who pushed their work as a hilarious novelty, despite the pushback from players and managers and executives who wanted them out of the game, despite the misogyny that women who write about baseball are still subject to–despite all of it, women have been writing intelligent, honest, wise, and beautiful words about baseball since baseball writing began. And while their legacy might be little known, while it might take more time and effort to find, it is important, and it is alive.

Six weeks after I read Foul Balls, I applied to write for BP Toronto.

References & Resources

RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kira Storm
6 years ago

Thank you.

Anthony Arot
6 years ago

I really enjoyed this piece, thank you. I’ve added Foul Balls to the list of baseball books I need to read.

Matthew E
6 years ago

Good article. I liked _Foul Balls_ a lot myself; have you checked out the series of mystery novels Gordon later wrote?

Also, another question for anyone who sees this: are there any decent baseball podcasts by women? I have looked and not found.

Paul Swydanmember
6 years ago
Reply to  Matthew E
Jetsy Extrano
6 years ago

Wow, what a rich article! My reading list just got longer.

Michael Bacon
6 years ago

Earlier this summer I read Baseball Life Advice by Stacey May Fowles, which I enjoyed immensely, and was led to Allison Gordon’s wonderful book, Foul Balls. She writes about a group of men, and her, the only woman, who regularly played the table Baseball game, APBA. “Imagine that,” I thought, “a woman who plays a table-top Baseball game.” These two books are great Baseball writing!
Thank you for the article, and, “You go girl!”

6 years ago

I love that line, that baseball players, like children, are at their most appealing when they are asleep.

Matthew E
6 years ago

Paul: Thanks!

Paul Swydanmember
6 years ago
Reply to  Matthew E

No problemo!