In the Sunshine

No one should ever be excluded from baseball. (via Tullio Saba)

We all feel alone, at some time or another, for some reason or another. Sports are a balm for this feeling. You put on the colors, or you step out onto the field, or you simply sit at home, radio on, silently appreciating a play made, and in that moment you become part of a community. Even if you’re by yourself, sitting in the stands on a chilly summer evening or leaning up against a center-field concourse railing, arms crossed, watching this strange collective ritual along with thousands of other people — you just can’t be alone. That’s how I feel, anyway. That’s what I want to believe.

The first word I ever knew of for people like me was he-she. Even though I was born in 1997, even though I grew up in a hippie left-liberal coastal Canadian city, where you would have thought people talked differently, understood things differently. You would think someone who comes from here, who’s this young, would be sheltered from language that’s considered offensive in almost all polite conversation now.

I wasn’t a he-she when I first heard the term. How could I be? I was just a kid. I don’t remember who was being referred to — it was a conversation I was too young to be a part of. But I could tell from the tone, the bite underneath the two syllables. “He” and “she” are innocuous, natural syllables on their own; the combination of the two was threatening. He-she was obviously something unnatural, something that wasn’t supposed to happen.

I still asked what it meant, though. I was a curious kid — I couldn’t stand not knowing things. Despite not really knowing what I was saying, I felt nervous just speaking it out loud. I received a brief, slightly euphemistic explanation: people who were neither boys nor girls, or who were both boys and girls. I hadn’t known that was possible. It’s not, was the quick reply, but there are some weird people out there. They don’t do what hes and shes are supposed to do. They end up stuck, alone, somewhere in the middle.

For some reason I found myself looking for these people everywhere with a mixture of fear and expectation and a bit of something else, something I didn’t recognize. On TV, or out in the street, or at school, or in the mall. I never saw many, and when I did, they were almost always alone. That fit with what I had been told about them.

But I had been warned, too, about the secret numbers of these people. There were enough of them to congregate. There were enough to be dangerous. In certain parts of town, in certain places. Always at night. Always under the cover of darkness. I didn’t know what a Pride parade was, even though here in Vancouver it’s the year’s biggest public event. If I had known, still, I would have been too scared to go. All I knew, then, was that this kind of person gathered only in shadows.

These people didn’t have communities. They didn’t even know what it was like to have a community. There was no overlap between their world and the world I lived in, and there never had to be, as long as I was careful. As long as I didn’t go where I wasn’t supposed to. I was a normal kid, and the places I stayed were safe: school, church, the park. I was at the park a lot. I liked baseball. I liked playing it, whether alone or with other kids. I never found other kids hard to get along with.

As long as I stayed in the light, out in the open where everyone else was, I was protected. What reason would I ever have to leave?

The first time I was called a he-she, I was 11. Some kid in a church youth group said it at me, his friends snickering, as I sat down next to them in the only available seat. I was confused, and then embarrassed. I hadn’t realized I was wearing the wrong clothes, or that I looked wrong, or sounded wrong. I’d assumed, apparently in error, that I was just a person. The realization that all this time I had been doing something abhorrent, and that everyone had known except me, was devastating. And once one kid had said it, putting it out into the open, there was no returning. It was everywhere, now, in the voices of strangers and friends alike.

That was the same year I stopped playing softball. The bright place where I had previously found comfort and enjoyment, the group of girls who were my teammates, people on my side, started to remind me how poorly I was hiding the truth about myself, a truth I myself had so recently been made aware of. I had reached a point where I could no longer ensure my safety simply by wearing the right colors and stepping onto the field. I was now conscious of how the kids in the youth group must have seen me — how normal people must have seen me. The bright fields where I’d for years felt so much happiness and comfort were suddenly too bright, too open. As long as I had played I reveled in pitching, the center of attention, involved in every play. Now I felt like I shouldn’t be there. I felt like I had to hide.

There were no lesbians on my team, or on any team that I knew of. But there was a burgeoning awareness of lesbian existence, of the stereotypes of athletic girls. So there were constant efforts to distance themselves, constant assertions of not being That Way. Laughing about certain people — nobody’s friend, of course, nobody anyone would associate themselves with — the girls who might be boys, who looked like the wrong kind of person, who acted like the wrong kind of person. It was anxious laughter. And anxiously, I laughed along, trying to conceal what I was sure they all knew.

These were 11-year-old kids. Why were they so worried? Why was I?

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

I know this is entirely a matter of opinion, but I think it’s impossible for anyone not to see the beauty of a baseball game. When I say this I’m thinking of the image most baseball fans hold in their minds when they think about baseball — a perfect summer afternoon, not too hot and not too cold, the sun just beginning to make its way down, the crowd comfortably between a roar and a murmur, your favorite team in the lead.

But not even just those. Every baseball game, even the ones in ugly venues, the ones that get rained out. As long as there are people playing and there are people watching, there is something recognizably good happening. I have taken people to baseball games who have had no interest or understanding of the sport whatsoever, and while some of them might have been bored, they all seemed to understand why I was so excited. They all had a good time.

That is part of why I love baseball so much. It is a means of connection for so many people who otherwise might never have connected. You can scoff at the sentimentality. You might not be a fan in the same way I am. But we’re all here. We’re all talking. That’s something.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when baseball was becoming professional and growing in popularity, it was widely believed that baseball was beyond not only a woman’s physical capacity but her mental capacity as well. Baseball was America’s pastime, a sport with an American creation myth that represented American values, and within these values were deeply embedded gender stereotypes. Women’s bodies were delicate and feminine; fragile. Their minds were not equipped to understand the complex rules of the sport, to react with adequate speed to the events that unfold on a diamond. Albert G. Spalding himself wrote in 1911 that “neither our wives, our sisters, our daughters, nor our sweethearts, may play Base Ball on the field.”

This didn’t stop women from playing in popular “Bloomer Girl” barnstorming teams around the turn of the century. But it did influence public reception of the women who played. Newspaper articles about women’s baseball games sneered at the “stumbling intellects” of the players, and lingered on the titillation the game provided for the men who watched.

Another significant aspect of the spectacle was the blurred gender lines of the players. Wanting to pursue as a woman what had been codified as a game for men was in itself a kind of gender non-conformity. It was little surprise, then, that gender non-conforming women formed a significant group within baseball.

These women likely didn’t view their gender expression or their skills on the field as jokes, but spectators certainly did. The managers of some barnstorming teams added to the ostensible fun by featuring men in drag on their rosters — providing, along with the game being played with the bat and ball, another entertainment well known to anyone who’s been on its receiving end: the never-ending guessing game of “Is it a boy or a girl?”

When Philip K. Wrigley conceived the idea of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the early 1940s, then, he constructed its image and rosters carefully. The proportion of lesbians among the best baseball and softball players made it impossible to keep them out of the league entirely. But they could keep the suggestion out. Their players, as the promotional materials for the league proudly proclaimed, were not mannish or unfeminine. Their uniforms were skirted; they had manuals given to them, teaching proper ladylike comportment, how to look and move in an acceptably feminine way. In spring training, the players chosen for the league went to charm school. Profiles of the soon-to-be-stars talked about how much they enjoyed baking and how much they loved their husbands.

There were still gay women in the AAGPBL, but if they wanted to present themselves in a way that wasn’t strictly feminine, it would have to be in private. This problem of concealment persisted through the rest of the century. In her autobiography, trailblazing pitcher Ila Borders discusses how her relatively feminine looks, her long hair, protected the secret of her sexuality. Reporters were happy to take her at her word when she assured them she was straight. I have never had that option.

I know about trying to keep yourself private, to mold your expression in a way you think will keep you safe. You can get used to it a little, with time. It never feels natural. It doesn’t stop hurting.

The first organized gay and lesbian softball leagues began to appear in the 70s. The burgeoning gay rights and feminist movements made it easier to be out in the open, and there was an increasing need and desire for opportunities to socialize with other gay people outside of bars. Most early teams were bar-sponsored. Decades later, many of those bars no longer exist; the disappearance of the gay bar and other community spaces has been an ongoing point of concern and discussion within the community. But the original softball leagues are by and large still there, still thriving and growing in every major city in North America.

Sports have so often reinforced gender binaries — not even in obvious ways, expressed as concerted exclusion and occasional hostility, but subtly, culturally. Assumptions about which sports are masculine and which ones are feminine, about how athletes should look and behave; these things leave their mark. Sports reflect the values of the society in which they are popular. You don’t even realize how much is assumed about who gets to participate, who belongs on the field, because it is assumed that these invisible walls, limiting the kinds of people and the kinds of expression that belong in sports, are natural.

They’re not. You can go to any queer league tournament and see that they’re not. It isn’t natural for people to have to repress aspects of themselves. But it is natural for people to connect. It is natural for people to enjoy competition, enjoy the game, enjoy being out in the sun in the company of others. We are able to find ourselves– our natural selves– out there.

When I was 17, I completely gave up on hiding. I was still a kid, but a more experienced kid, a more knowledgeable one. I knew there were other people like me out there, had learned by then it doesn’t matter what aisle you buy your clothes from or what length you wear your hair or whether or not you put makeup on. Being in a dress or being in a suit — neither will silence the inevitable “Is that a boy or a girl?” refrain. You can’t change the structure of your face, or the way you talk, or the way you carry yourself, or whatever one of the many. You might as well do what you want.

When I was 17, perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not, I started watching baseball again. I fell in love with the 2015 Blue Jays, and my days became full in a way they hadn’t been in a long time. I had felt so lost for so many years. It felt like — if you will excuse the heavy-handedness of this simile — a return home. There was still a part of me, though, that felt like this must be a forbidden interest. I didn’t know at the time about the long history of gender non-conforming people in baseball and softball, about the gay and lesbian softball leagues that still thrive today. All I knew was what I saw in front of me, which, in professional baseball, is a notably rigid, macho culture.

That summer I read a book that fundamentally altered the way I saw myself and my place in the world, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. Feinberg had, before passing away, made the book available for free download. Back then, and still, it’s hard for me to sit down and read a book for any extended period of time. I read Stone Butch Blues in one sitting.

The protagonist, Jess, lived in a world that was very different from mine, a pre-Stonewall world where there were no legal protections for gay or trans people, where one was legally mandated to wear three articles of clothing from the “correct” gender. But so many of the things she went through in the novel mirrored my own life. I had never had my experiences articulated so specifically and so beautifully. I felt connected to an entire history, a legacy extending far beyond what I ever could have imagined.

In that book, there is a scene where Jess and the other butches at the factory she works at play a game of softball at a union picnic. They all played baseball outside work as part of a team sponsored by their local gay bar, but this game had particularly high stakes. They were playing against a group of men who had become hostile towards their success in the workplace.

Like any baseball story, the good guys won after all seemed lost. Some of the men they played against showed a new respect for the women who had beaten them at their own game. Some of them showed even more hostility, and I knew as I read there would be more trouble for Jess down the line. But, for that afternoon at least, the two groups had come to an understanding out there on the diamond, communicating through a language they both understood, and Jess had peace. “I got myself an ice-cold beer and a piece of fried chicken and sat down alone under a tree,” the chapter closes. “The air was hot, the breeze was cool. I felt on top of the world.”

Earlier this week, I walked out of the library balancing a stack of baseball books — some to read just for fun, some as reference for this piece. There was a man standing outside the entrance, as though he was waiting for someone. “Are you a boy or a girl?” he said to me as I walked by. Then, having made his decision: “You make a very ugly girl.” I couldn’t tell you the number of times random strangers have commented on me in this exact way, so many I feel stupid for even feeling a little hurt.

But never at a baseball game. At baseball games I have had conversations with elderly season-ticket holders about how I came to love baseball and with kids about how to keep score. I’ve had exchanges about the San Diego Padres farm system and about the price of beer. I have cheered and sung and waved rally towels with strangers in bleachers, and none of them have ever suggested, with that too-familiar tone, that I didn’t belong there.

That was the truth I never knew as a kid, the truth I needed to know. That despite extraordinary odds, people like me have always dared to exist in the light. They gathered on fields like the ones I loved so much, not in the shadows, but in the hot daylight, and they rooted for the home team, and they played ball like people always have: laughing, drinking, cursing, shouting. Pitching, hitting, fielding. Three strikes and you’re out, the way it’s always been.

The community of baseball, the connections the sport allows you to form, are part of the history of this community. We have been here, playing this sport, loving it, speaking its language, for almost as long as it has existed. We belong.

References and Resources

  • Jean Hastings Ardell, Breaking into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.
  • Ila Jane Borders, Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017.
  • Lois Browne, Girls of Summer: In Their Own League. Toronto: HarperCollins, 1992.
  • Marilyn Cohen, No Girls in the Clubhouse: The Exclusion of Women from Baseball. Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2009.
  • Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues: 20th Anniversary Author Edition. Self-published, 2014.
  • Gladys E. Palmer, Baseball for Girls and Women. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1929.
  • Debra A. Shattuck, Bloomer Girls: Women Baseball Pioneers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017.

RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.
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5 years ago

Wow, I’m glad I read this. The story from the library will stick with me for a long time. That’s awful, and I’m sorry the author experienced/experiences that. Privilege sometimes makes that hard to fathom, so I’m glad there are diverse voices sharing their experiences on THT.

I was happy to read that baseball hasn’t been exclusive in that way, however. That’s the best of what baseball can be, and what I hope it is for everyone, as I know the joy and community and pastime it has been for me and my family.

5 years ago

Yes, you do belong.

kenai kings
5 years ago

As you write … in the “community of baseball” we are persons first. Like yourself, I’ve been to many ball games by myself yet never felt alone.
Baseball books?… hope “Baseball and Men’s Lives” by Robert Mayer was among them.

Yehoshua Friedman
5 years ago

Whatever one thinks of whatever practices, it is wrong to mistreat people on the basis of their presumed orientation or otherwise being “different”. It is also wrong for people to flaunt their sexuality of whatever flavor including heterosexuality in public places and to sexualize children at an early age. I don’t want to know what anyone is doing in the realm of what should be kept private. But we can all enjoy a ballgame together!

John Autin
5 years ago

Thanks for your well-written, affecting story.

Geo Maroon
5 years ago

Thanks for writing this, Rachael – it’s fantastic.