Justine Siegal, Ph.D., is a baseball coach and sports educator who has spent her career breaking barriers in a sport that offers few opportunities for women. In 2009, she became the first woman to pitch a major league batting practice. In 2015, Siegal became the first woman to be hired as a coach by a Major League Baseball team when she served as an instructional league guest coach for the Athletics. In the meantime, her nonprofit organization, Baseball For All, has rallied support for the idea that girls should be able to continue playing baseball after their Little League years. As Siegal explains, the lack of outlet for baseball-playing women colors the experience of baseball-playing girls.
Siegal explained to Fatherly why the current situation is untenable for young female stars.
When I was 13, I was told to quit baseball because I was a girl. The message was delivered by the coach of a “co-ed” youth league, which was only co-ed because I was still playing in it. I decided during that stilted conversation that I would play forever.
My experience was hardly unusual. About 100,000 girls play baseball at the youth level at some point. Only about 1,400 girls go on to play high school baseball. What happens to those almost 99,000 girls? Their love of the game doesn’t just go away. They’re told it’s time to quit. I get emails on a regular basis from girls who are told by high school educators that they are not allowed to play. And, as though that wasn’t bad enough, I also get notes about 7-year-olds being told not to sign up like their brothers. Those two things are connected and unacceptable.
The strange thing is that, if you were to ask most people, they’d say they’re not against girls playing baseball. Most people just don’t think about it. They tend to think of softball as an equivalent, and so they wonder why a girl would play baseball. I don’t think there’s necessarily malice in it and I don’t think there’s an intentional crusade to keep girls out. Instead, I think that we have accepted this social norm that softball is for girls and baseball is for boys. As a result, we push girls to go in one direction — away.
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When I was a kid myself, playing, I often felt very alone. I felt like I was battling the world. I’d be the only girl almost everywhere I went. So, I knew I wanted to create something different. I thought, what would I want as a kid? And it was to have played baseball with other girls who loved the game like I did. A coaching career and a Ph.D. later, I started what quickly became the largest girl’s baseball organization in the whole country.
Baseball for All is a national non-profit providing opportunity for girls to play, coach, and lead in baseball. I founded the organization because I wanted girls to know they could do it. There are clearly so, so many girls across the country who want to play baseball and are still being told every single day, in so many ways, that the sport’s not for them. I want to make sure they know that baseball is for them as long as they want to play the game.
I originally started by putting together a girls’ team to play against boys. I did that for 13 years, but realized that if I could start a girls’ team, then I could teach others how to start them. And if we start other girls’ teams, then the girls could play each other, and we could create a true foundation, an opportunity for girls to continue playing where they live and throughout the year. I just believed, oddly similar to Field of Dreams, that if we built it, people would come. People would see the smiles and the power behind it.
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And I was right. We started with 12 teams just three years ago. Today, we have 28. At the national tournament that we’ll host in August this year, we expect over 250 girls from all over the country to come play baseball with other girls. It’s incredibly empowering to look to your left and your right and see a girl just like you playing their guts out and having a blast.
Our movement doesn’t end there. I just attended the MLB Trailblazers event, which is the MLB’s big event for girls who play baseball from ages 11 to 13. Trailblazers didn’t exist three years ago. We’re seeing girls’ baseball on the rise. That’s huge progress, but there’s enough work in this area that we’ll be around for a while. If Little League wanted us to start a girls’ baseball division, that’d be fantastic. But we’re just the voice for a passion that gets disregarded. For me, it’s just about getting girls in the game and keeping them there.
If we tell a girl she can’t play baseball, what else will she think she can’t do? And what else will boys think girls can’t do? What every girl who plays baseball wants to be, is just a ballplayer. That’s what our tournaments allow them to be. Just another ballplayer. Not the girl on the team, or even in the league. Let’s let our boys and girls play, that’s what kids are supposed to do.
— As Told To Ben Marx
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