Women’s Baseball Across Four Continents

Women’s baseball is the biggest in Japan. (via Sakuraikubuki)

Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball in 1839; we know this now. He did not clear a cow pasture in Cooperstown, New York, gather a few friends, and yell, “Play ball!” That is a work of fiction concocted some years later, yet it was believed to be true for decades thereafter. 

All the same, the Baseball Hall of Fame resides in Cooperstown, as does historic Doubleday Field. The ballpark was built in 1920 on the site of the same cow pasture where, 81 years earlier, nothing actually happened.

This is emblematic of the false beliefs on which the American version of baseball was built. Our greatest shrine rests on a myth! We’ve spent most of our history being wrong about the sport — using the wrong stats and evaluation tools, the wrong strategies for winning games, and most of all, wrong about who can and cannot play the game.

Women have always played baseball, just never with the attention and grandeur bestowed on the major leagues and men’s baseball. The most famous iteration of women’s baseball was the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — subject of the classic movie A League of Their Own —which lasted from 1943-1954. Outside of the AAGPBL, there have been several women since the 1800s who have played professionally on men’s teams as well as a few versions of all-female professional teams. However, the AAGPBL remains the only successful professional league for women’s baseball in American history.

That’s just America, though. Baseball grew up in the United States, and women’s baseball has been repressed all the while. With the spread of the sport across the world, women have found more opportunities to participate in other countries.

Japan

Without question, the torch-bearing nation for women’s baseball is Japan. The game is especially vibrant and competitive there because of the one and only currently active professional women’s league in the world: the Japan Women’s Baseball League.

Similar to the AAGPBL in America, Japanese women’s baseball first featured a professional league 70 years ago. From the JWBL website

The history of women’s professional baseball in Japan dates back to 1950. Ms. Mineko Kosaka, then athlete, was the first Japanese women’s professional baseball player. To this day she has not lost her love for the sport, and still continues to play. There were 25 teams at that time, but as the owner’s funds ran out, the teams were disbanded and the league ended in a mere two years.

“The current Japanese Women’s Professional Baseball League cherishes the dream of the first women’s professional player, and much like Ms. Kosaka, we are hoping to continue playing forever.”

In 2007, Kenichi Kadoya recognized that there were 3,730 high school baseball teams for boys in Japan, but only five for girls. To grow the sport for female athletes, he decided to establish a professional league that would start play in 2010, originally called the Girls Professional Baseball League. In the decade since, the league has flourished. It’s estimated that more than 20,000 women and girls play baseball at some level in Japan today.

Four teams compete in the JWBL: Aichi Dione, Kyoto Flora, Saitama Astraia, and Reia. They average roughly 1,200 fans per game in attendance, sometimes climbing as high as 5,000. For reference, this fits in the average range for American minor league and independent clubs. Most tickets cost 1,000-1,500 yen, ($9-13), with discounts for students and free admission for younger children.

The success of the JWBL and subsequent growth of the sport across the nation has led to absolute dominance in international competition. Japan is ranked the top women’s baseball country in the world by the World Baseball Softball Confederation, as it has been, uninterrupted, since 2008.

The biggest star and consensus best player in the world is Ayami Sato. Featuring a gorgeous curveball you could watch on repeat for a half hour, she has led Japan to five straight gold medals in the Women’s Baseball World Cup with the following ERAs:

World Cup ERA
2010 0.53
2012 0.72
2014 0.00
2016 1.33
2018 0.50

Her devastating hook averages 5.91 inches of vertical drop, which would have been 33rd best in the majors last season out of 275 pitchers (though none of the players above her could match her 8.12 inches of horizontal movement except Drew Smyly). Pitching for Aichi Dione in the JWBL, she posted a 1.91 ERA this season. She has led the league in strikeouts five times since 2013.

The opportunity to play professionally is undoubtedly an enormous factor in Sato’s success, as well as that of the country on the whole. Being able to earn a living playing baseball and focus on the game every day yields an incredible advantage against players from other countries. As long as Japan remains the only nation with its own professional league, it will likely continue to dominate the rest of the world. However, nearly 5,000 miles south of Kyoto, there’s a new league in the works…

Australia

While Australian organized baseball has existed in some capacity since 1934 (The Claxton Shield), the sport is growing as rapidly there as anywhere else in the world. The Australian Baseball League rekindled in 2010 and expanded from six teams to eight in 2018, with more potential expansion on the horizon for the 2020-21 season.

Women’s baseball has grown right alongside the men’s game in Australia — not step-for-step exactly, but keeping pace at a better rate than most other baseball-playing countries. The Australia Women’s Championships is an annual tournament founded in 1999. Players from various regional teams and leagues represent their territories in the tournament. (That these robust opportunities for women’s baseball exist in the first place is unmatched in most other nations, including the United States.)

With the sustained success of this tournament, the next logical step was to form a league. In October, 2018, provisional licenses were granted to four teams to form A League of Her Own — Australia’s first professional women’s baseball league. The league is raising money through donations (click the link to donate!) to begin playing in late 2020 or 2021.

Cam Vale, CEO of A League of Her Own, describes the inspiration for the league:

The starting focus for this came through two of the Men’s ABL team owners, Mark Ready at Brisbane Bandit and Shane Smallcombe at Adelaide Giants. Both, as licence holders of teams in the men’s ABL, were promoting and pushing for a Women’s League… We then moved quickly to a submission process and two other men’s teams wanted to compete (Canberra Cavalry and a team from Victoria). We are now in full start-up mode. The growth in female numbers through our clubs and the drive at grassroots was also significant, with baseball clubs at the grassroots of the sport the backbone of baseball in this country.

“The key hurdles are creating a sustainable financial model from scratch, and having the courage to do so without having a committed sponsorship or broadcast model. The talent in Australia and worldwide is there, and in Australia the push for women’s sport is very strong. So the hurdles become doing it properly and in a sustainable way and that involves financial investment, and in Australia, baseball isn’t a tier one commercial sport. However, the positive part is these hurdles are achievable in moving past.”

Starting a new league from scratch is daunting, but Vale has been encouraged by the support he’s seen. “(The response from the women’s baseball community has been) positive mainly, the only negativity is about ensuring it is done properly and isn’t tokenistic. Sure, there are male dinosaurs in our network that think this won’t or can’t work, but they are a very small group and like dinosaurs, going to be extinct soon… Be positive about this or at least get out of the way of those that want to create opportunities for female baseballers.”

The JWBL is the only currently existing professional women’s baseball league; however, it allows only Japanese players to participate thus far. Vale’s vision for A League of Her Own will be more inclusive of players from around the world.

This will be Australian teams and a mix of international and Australian players– we want to be a world leader and we have proven through the men’s ABL and the innovative Geelong-Korea team [an Australian based men’s team of Korean players], we are open to innovating and working with international partners for mutual success. We also see the possibility of athletes from other sports– softball and cricket- being part of this league.

“(We define success as) growing to at least six teams in the first three years, a truly international league played in Australian cities that is commercially viable, and rewards female baseballers both financially and in development as better players. It will grow from strength to strength, year to year. We see innovative changes we will bring in that will influence the sport significantly in Australia– both male and female, to increase the profile of baseball in Australia.”

Women’s baseball is ascending in Japan and Australia — two nations where baseball is well established. However, the women’s game is also on the rise in less baseball-crazed countries.

United Kingdom

This past June, the Yankees and Red Sox traveled to London for the first ever major league games in the United Kingdom. The event was wildly popular, and while baseball there may never rival the popularity of soccer (football) or cricket, the game is certainly taking root. Ambassadors such as Bat Flips and Nerds and Baseball Brit have helped the sport flourish.

Women’s baseball is burgeoning as well as the men’s game. Doris Hocking founded Women’s Baseball-UK in 2018 to “promote more women in the sport as well as encouraging those who are already playing baseball, whether they are in an all female team or a mixed team across the United Kingdom,” according to its website.

Hocking, a baseball player herself, struggled to find fair chances to play on mostly men’s teams or mixed teams in the UK.

I got fed up with waiting for opportunities from other organizations. I decided to step up and make a difference myself after I received a package from Ila Borders who left a personal note that read “Doris — Never give up on your dreams,” so in February 2018, I launched WB-UK in hopes to create the opportunities that I have been fortunate enough to experience outside of the UK, encourage clubs to invest in their female players, push for a Women’s National Team and help promote the sport in the UK. I am honored to say that Ila Borders is now a WB-UK ambassador alongside Cami Kidder, Neale Raleigh, and Baseball Scotland President Paul Convoy.”

Hocking’s activism has helped the sport nearly double in size in less than two years.

In 2019, WB-UK was asked by International Women’s Baseball Center to take part in the celebrations for Women in Baseball Week for the second time. As well as creating the annual WB-UK virtual baseball cards for UK players, I used this opportunity to host the first WB-UK Championship game at the Weston Jets in Weston-Super-Mere, UK in conjunction with the South West Baseball League. The Championship game was the first and only female baseball event open to ALL female baseball players across the UK. It did not matter what experience or disability they had, every player was welcome. It was a day focused on learning, team spirit and simply playing baseball.

“WB-UK is the only organization that offers an annual female baseball tournament. For 2020, we will be arranging women baseball clinics located across the UK whilst working closely with clubs to focus on development skills. Most female players across the UK only play right field or second base, so we will be encouraging clubs to train players in different areas of the field so players can discover their full potential. In April 2020, we will be working alongside the Sheffield Bruins to celebrate 90 years of a historic women’s baseball game that took place in 1930, which saw the All-Star Rio Rita vs. Heads Up Company team. The Bruins will also be hosting a pitching and catching workshop for this event. I am currently selecting players to join a female elite team for the Ermont Women’s International Tournament in Paris, France, which will be held May-June 2020. This will be the first time a UK based team will be playing abroad.”

The UK also features more opportunities for women by making most teams and leagues coed. “The best thing about baseball in the UK, Hocking said, “is that all the UK leagues are open to men and women, which is fantastic! I am proud to say that we do have some incredible clubs here in the UK who continue to push to make a difference for women in baseball.”

However, there is a difference between merely having an open door and inviting people to walk through it. UK baseball still has a long way to go to make the sport more welcoming and inclusive for women.

The challenges I have faced growing women’s baseball have been to encourage clubs to invest in and accommodate female players’ needs. I am doing my best to raise awareness for equality and come up with ideas to improve club ground facilities. 

“I created the WB-UK Seal of Approval to help clubs make small changes to improve the players’ experience as it can be difficult and frustrating for female players attending a game/training sessions where there are no designated female changing facilities available, whether it is a home game or an away game. Players need to have access to sanitary disposal bins which are not always available. Women who need to change or use the toilet have been known to wait for an entire group of males to change, before and after a game, for long periods of time.”

Hocking is excited for the future of the sport in her country, and sets lofty goals.

Since creating WB-UK, I believe it has been the rebirthing of women’s baseball in the UK and the WB-UK Championship certainly gave us a taste of what to expect of a promising future. The event achieved great attention and support within the baseball community. I am currently looking for a committee to help grow WB-UK in the interest of the players. This will allow us to apply for funding in order to support players, clubs and leagues as well as providing more baseball opportunities not only for the UK but for Europe too.

“The time is right for a Women’s National Team, which remains my priority to support the BBF (British Baseball Federation) in any way I can to make it possible. The UK would make a great host for the European Championship in the near future, so let’s get the ball rolling with a women’s team!”

While MLB isn’t directly helping to grow women’s baseball in the UK, its focus on taking the game overseas has made a positive impact on WB-UK. Even without MLB pushing the sport, it is still capable of thriving in nations where little baseball is played.

Argentina

There have been 438 major league players born in South American countries: 408 from Venezuela, 24 from Colombia, five from Brazil, and one from Peru. While Argentina has produced some of the world’s greatest athletes, such as Lionel Messi, no Argentinian has ever reached the professional level of American baseball. Wikipedia lists 21 popular sports in the country, and baseball is not among them. Argentina has never participated in the World Baseball Classic.

Even though it’s hard to spot, baseball is present there. The Liga Metropolitana de Beisbol features dozens of teams throughout Buenos Aires. There are opportunities for players of all ages, ranging from children through adults.

Naturally, this includes a female division as well. Six adult female teams play five games each in the regular season leading into a postseason tournament. The league also fields youth female teams, which compete in tournaments against clubs from other regions in the U10, U12, U14, and U18 age groups.

This is only sensible. If a baseball league is going to develop from scratch in a major metropolitan area, why wouldn’t it include male and female participants?

***

Three years after Doubleday’s fictitious founding of baseball, something real and fantastic happened 34 miles away from Cooperstown. Lester Howe noticed a cool breeze rising out of the ground on his farm. After quite a bit of digging, he discovered what is now known as Howe Caverns. The cave system resides 156 feet underground, and is billed as “the largest show cave in the Northeast.”

The caverns were always there; they formed more than six million years ago. We just never paid attention before. It’s only afterwards that we wonder how we could have possibly overlooked something so enormous when it was right there all along.

Women’s baseball is right there too. The United States is the largest baseball-obsessed country in the world. The game was born and raised here (no thanks to Doubleday). It’s so phenomenally obvious that more than half the population should be included; when you think about it, it’s incredible that we could have missed it!

Women’s baseball exists. It’s always been present in the United States, less the money, fame, attention, and glamor bestowed on the men’s game. The willful ignorance of the sports-consuming public majority has largely cast women’s baseball into the dark, without any sufficient reason to do so.

In Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Argentina, women’s baseball is growing rapidly. Of course it should! When you hear the crack of a bat, does it matter who swung it? If professional women’s leagues are possible in nations with far less baseball tradition than the United States, why can’t we sustain one here?

On four far-flung continents, they are starting to see what should have been blatantly obvious all along. It’s long past time for the United States to elevate women’s baseball to a level more consistent with men’s leagues, and appropriate of its splendor.

References and Resources

https://www.jwbl.jp/league

https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/20/sports/baseball/20iht-baseball20.html

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/japanese-women-baseball_n_5b804007e4b0cd327dfc774b?guccounter=1

https://theweek.com/articles/793458/ayami-sato-best-female-baseball-player-earth-might-greatest-who-ever-lived

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Baseball_League

https://baseball.com.au/news/four-provisional-licences-granted-for-womens-league/

https://www.wbuk.co.uk/home/4594242749

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sport_in_Argentina

http://ligametropolitanadebeisbol.com.ar/femenino/

http://ligametropolitanadebeisbol.com.ar/la-metro-azul-campeon-del-nacional-femenino/


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. He writes at Baseball.FYI, Yardbarker, Baseball Prospectus, Off the Bench, and other sites foolish enough to have him. Tweets @depstein1983.
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Jim
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Jim

Google the videos of Ayami Sato’s curveballs. They are something.

crew87
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crew87
dl80
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dl80

With so many girls and women playing softball in the US, I think a women’s baseball league could convince some of them to switch to baseball in middle or high school.

The one professional softball league has had a very chaotic and unstable outlook, with teams constantly folding.

JD, Too
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JD, Too

Why? What makes baseball superior to softball?

dl80
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dl80

Because there is almost certainly a bigger audience for it.

dukewinslow
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dukewinslow

While it doesn’t appear that there’s a current audience for any women’s sport of a big enough size to support a league on its own (why is a bit of a chicken and egg question)…. I think MLB would do well to start and develop a women’s league.

thornt25
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thornt25

Seems unlikely. A women’s league would probably need to be subsidized like the WNBA. There’s a fair amount of controversy over differential player salaries between NBA/WNBA. There might be an initial PR bump from starting the league, but in the long run there will be grievances stemming from low play and low status. Imagine WMLB is started in 2020. By 2025 Juan Soto will have signed a $500m contract while the highest paid WMLB player is making $25k. For some reason, I suspect THT wouldn’t ignore this situation. Losing money and inviting bad PR seems like a situation MLB would… Read more »

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Well, that’s ridiculous. Any women’s league is naturally going to have a much smaller following than a corresponding men’s league (save for figure skating and gymnastics), especially one just starting out, so obviously they wouldn’t make as much money and status. It’s simple supply and demand! I suppose inviting the bad PR would still be a major problem, but anyone who would complain would be exposing him/herself as a huge idiot.

Anyway, so why not subsidize a league then?

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

How would you know that when pro softball in the U.S. has never been given a proper chance? If there were a quality pro league and games regularly broadcast on TV, I’d definitely check it out.

Fredchuckdave
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I feel like certain types of pitchers could function just as well whether or not they were female; though the selection pool would obviously be smaller.

Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

Such as?

thornt25
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thornt25

I frequently hear submariners and knuckleballers. Maybe a submarining knuckleballer?

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

I don’t know if it would translate to real life, but the miniseries “Pitch” is about a woman who made it to MLB as a pitcher due mostly to the quality of her screwball.

Nats Fan
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Nats Fan

I think Saito’s Curveball would be fine even against the top men. Personally I am all for Woman playing MLB, but believe very few could physically compete. Nonetheless, those very few should get every opportunity. By the way, my niece is 6’7″ and competes in shot put at a D1 level. I’ll bet had she learned baseball, she would have a quite a bit of power.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

If not baseball, could we at least get a quality pro women’s softball league? It’s ridiculous that these great softball players have little to do once they graduate from college.