While Jackie Robinson's achievements as the first African American major league baseball player are well documented, very few people know about Ila Borders - the first female pitcher in integrated men's professional baseball and the first woman to win a men's professional game in the independent leagues. Nor do they know about the 17 girls that have played in the 68-year history of the Little League World Series. But thanks to 13-year-old pitching phenom Mo'ne Davis, that has all changed.
With knee-buckling curveballs and 70 mph fastballs, the five-foot teenage pitcher who plays for Philadelphia's Taney Dragons doesn't just play with the boys, she dominates them. Davis and 12-year-old Kayla Roncin who plays for Tom River Little League in New Jersey, first garnered the world's attention in early August, as the only two girls among the hundreds of kids on the 52 teams in the regional finals.
While Roncin's team was not among the 8 US teams that made it to the 2014 Little League World Series in South Williamsport, PA, Davis and her Taney Dragons were just a game away from the World Championships, when they lost to Chicagoon August, 21st. But that did not matter because by then Davis was the hero of every young girl that has ever dreamed of playing baseball. Within a span of a week, she became the first girl to earn a win and pitch a shutout in the history of the Little League World Series as well as the youngest athlete to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated!
A record 34,128 fans lined up at South Williamsport's Lamande Stadium on Wednesday, August 20th, to witness the young baseball phenom's game against Las Vegas, while an astounding 5.59 million viewers tuned in to ESPN, crushing the network's 11-year-old Little League audience record of 3.3 million.
While the support is heartwarming, it also begs the question - Did all these fans watch because Davis is a great baseball player or because she is a female doing well in what is commonly perceived as a male sport? Malaika Underwood, an infielder with the USA Baseball women's national team believes it's the latter and thinks that most people are missing the forest for the trees - they are so focused on the fact that Davis is playing with boys, that they are missing the bigger picture - girls can play baseball too!
Unfortunately, that may be hard to do. One of the biggest knocks against women being great baseball players is that they have shorter strides and lower velocity, which makes them less effective as pitchers. However, a 2009 study performed on elite men and women baseball players concluded that there was no valid physical reason for those shortcomings.
In fact, Glenn Fleisig the research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute, who worked on the paper, said it was more the similarities than the differences between the male and female athletes that stood out to him. He thinks that the real reason more women are not part of the minor baseball league has to do with numbers - According to the National Federation of State High School Association, only 1,259 of the 476,050 or less than 0.5% high school players in 2012-2013, were girls. Yet there were 362,488 girls playing fastpitch softball!
Does this mean girls are just not interested in playing baseball? Not so, according to Fleisig - he thinks it has more to do with the culture. Most men believe that girls are not strong enough to play. Even the legendary Babe Ruth quipped "I don’t know what’s going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball. […] They are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day," when he found out that 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell would playing against him in an exhibition game. Even the fact that Mitchell struck both him and Lou Gehrig out, was not enough to convince him otherwise.
Ila Borders who tried fighting the establishment, has experienced this bias first hand. During her short four-year professional baseball career, she was beaten up, chased with a knife and even subjected to several death threats. What's even more disheartening is that not much has changed. Kayla Roncin says she sometimes gets booed during the regular season.
So with athletes like Mo'ne Davis giving a whole new meaning to the phase "throwing like a girl" will things finally change? Mike Marshall, the former Dodgers outfielder who signed Eri Yoshida, the last woman to play U.S. men’s professional baseball, certainly thinks. He says it will just take one woman that can play second base to rejuvenate interest in the game.
His only regret is that it will not be Davis - That's because the young girl has no plans to pursue a professional baseball career. Her eyes are set on becoming the point guard for the University of Connecticut women's basketball team, before moving on to the WNBA. Her advice to teens? "(don't) let anyone stop you from doing what you like."