Why this matters
Across the world, women and girls have always played baseball -- but they also have been marginalized for just as long, with men and boys enjoying the lion’s share of playing opportunities. In Japan, Canada, and elsewhere, players and advocates are growing the women’s game at every level. Their successes – and struggles – offer lessons for making baseball more inclusive in the United States.
Across the world, as long as there has been baseball, girls and women have played it. In the United States, women’s baseball teams first popped up in the 1860s. Famously, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) ran from 1943 to 1954. In the 1970s, a girl sued to force Little League to allow girls to play. And in the late 1990s, the barnstorming all-women’s team, the Colorado Silver Bullets, traveled the country playing games. In Japan, the first-ever girls baseball tournament was organized in 1919, the first pro-women’s league was founded in 1950, and the first national tournament for women’s baseball was staged in 1986. There is good photographic evidence of women playing baseball in Cuba in the early 19th century, according to historian Brenda Elsey, and the AAGPBL recruited Cuban players during its mid-century tenure. Puerto Rico has had organized women’s teams at least as early as the 1940s and currently has a women’s baseball league.
Despite this long history, plenty of people today are unaware that girls and women compete in the sport. At every level of baseball, boys and men enjoy the lion’s share of playing opportunities. Much of this is rooted in the first half of the 20th century; as the sport professionalized, girls and women were pushed out and instead guided toward softball. Even now, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and International Olympic Committee treat men’s baseball and women’s softball as equivalent, despite them being two different sports.
All over the globe, however, there are people working to change the status quo – growing the game for an entire gender that long has been overlooked.
By all accounts and measurements, Japan is home to the best women’s baseball team in the world -- and has been for a good while. From 2004 to 2018, the Women’s Baseball World Cup was played every other year. (The 2020 edition was postponed until 2021 and recently was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing international travel restrictions; organizers plan to stage the next event in 2024). The U.S. won the first two iterations of the tournament. Japan then took over, dominating the past six. To date, the country has won 30 straight games in the World Cup.
It’s not hard to pinpoint why Japan is so successful. This baseball-mad country has the most robust infrastructure in the world for girls’ and women’s baseball. There are roughly 21,000 girls and women participating in baseball in Japan. There are teams at the youth, high school, university, and club levels. There are amateur regional leagues as well. For the past decade, the Japanese Women’s Baseball League gave women a professional option, but that has recently been suspended. The league was started and owned by a single businessman, and he is reportedly no longer able to financially sustain the JWBL.
The high school teams, of which there are over 40, are particularly important. Hiroko Yamada, the president of the Women’s Baseball Federation of Japan (BFJ), said that high school baseball is “a hook for us to get attention” because it is so popular overall. She compared it to college football in the U.S., saying the boys’ baseball championship is a huge deal nationally and can draw up to 50,000 in attendance. The BFJ has been running a national high school championship for girls since 1997, though it was held without spectators this year.
Additionally, there are annual national tournaments for U15, high school, college, and club teams. The Japan Cup, which determines the overall number one team in the country, pits the top high school, college, club and professional teams against each other.
Yamada says that the next major step for her organization is to “convince NPB, Nippon Professional Baseball League, the men’s professional league ... to develop a women's NPB.” Two of the teams have agreed to do so. She is hopeful that this will create a healthy, sustainable league.
“When we say ‘women play baseball,’ [people] were like, ‘aren’t you supposed to play softball?’” Yamada says. “But that was a long time ago. People never say that anymore.”
Canada does not have the same level of infrastructure that Japan does. But the country is building out capacity through a provincial model. Baseball Canada hosts an annual invitational for 16U girls’ teams, 21U women’s team, and an open women’s invitational; meanwhile, each of Canada’s 10 provinces has its own provincial baseball office that oversees the sport in that province. In Quebec, the leading province in girl's baseball development under Baseball Canada, there is a girls-only league that started earlier this year. According to Andre Lachance, the Sport Development and Women’s National Team Director for Baseball Canada, there are now about 150 teams in the league, which accommodates 9U to 17+ and has two classes, one for those with less experience and one for those with more development.
Lachance says that the entry point for the pipeline that leads to playing for the national team is the 16U national championship. Over the past 10 years, Baseball Canada has also taken athletes around the ages of 15 to 17 to Cuba every year to get a taste for international baseball. They practice and play with Cuban players. “For us,” Lachance says, “it's a good way to see – maybe you can handle playing on the field, but can you handle traveling? Can you handle being on our team? Can you handle being exposed to another culture, another language, another country?” As the girls get older, they play in the senior division nationals and face the best athletes in the country at the national championship. From there, players are invited to tryouts for the national team.
And that national team has shown out. Canada hosted the first-ever Women’s Baseball World Cup in 2004 and has won two silver medals and four bronze, including in the last World Cup.
While that is all through Baseball Canada, another organization, Canadian Girls Baseball, is trying to show girls, starting at age 4 and up to age 16, that girls can be any part of the game. Started in 2016, it has seen exponential growth, even with a pandemic. In its first season in Toronto, 44 girls participated. The next year, that number rose to 350. In 2021, it included about 1,000 players across five provinces. Recently, the organization opened new locations in British Columbia and Ontario. Dana Bookman, who founded Canadian Girls Baseball, says there is not much focus on grassroots recreational sports in Canada. Instead, resources go to elite players. So she started development leagues where “we make it easy and accessible and give [girls] a taste of baseball. We’re trying to give them a love for the game.”
All of the effort seems to be working. Lachance says that 10 years ago, when he would ask girls who their favorite players were, they would most likely mention someone playing in Major League Baseball. “But now when I ask,” he says, “they mention girls on our team. So that tells you how the landscape has changed.”
Australia, admittedly, is not a baseball country. Baseball is a popular sport to watch on television, but the sport has an overall low participation level. Michael Crooks, Performance Pathways & Player Development General Manager at Baseball Australia, says that baseball is a Tier 2 sport down under, with roughly 50,000 total participants -- including players, coaches, umpires, scorers, and volunteers. About 8,000 of those people are girls and women. Until the pandemic hit, Crooks says, that group “was probably the fastest-growing sector of our game.”
Australia is set up a lot like Canada, though they call it a “federated model.” Baseball Australia is the national entity and each state then has its own association. Depending on how big each state is, there could be smaller associations or simply local clubs. Within each state, Crooks explains, “we have two national championships. We have the Australian women’s national championship, and we have the Australian youth championship (15U).” To play for the women’s national team, you have to be selected to represent your state, and, according to Crooks, “based on your performances at the Australian women’s championship, you get selected into the national women’s squad.”
Baseball Australia was on its way to starting a women’s league but got derailed by the pandemic. “We were set and ready to go,” Crooks says. Akin to Yamada in Japan, Baseball Australia wants to create a women’s league alongside the professional men’s league, the ABL. But Crooks, like Yamada, is moving carefully because he wants to make sure the ABL women’s league is “commercially stable enough where it stands on its own two feet.” He also says that it is critical that “the quality of play and the format of the season [puts] the best product on the table.” The best way to do that is to bring in players from Japan and North America, something that will be possible only once the pandemic slows down.
“We’re committed for the long haul of women’s baseball,” Crooks says of his organization. “It’s our job to make sure that as a national body that female players get the recognition they deserve.”
Baseball has a long, rich history throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. This is reflected in women’s baseball today. In the current world rankings, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico are all in the top 12. The highest-ranked team from this region, though, is Venezuela, No. 5 in the world and the 2010 host of the Women’s Baseball World Cup, in which the team finished in fourth place. The team later won bronze at the 2015 Pan American Games and at the 2016 World Cup.
Aracelis Leon, the president of the Venezuela Baseball Federation, said via email that girls and women play baseball in all 23 states in Venezuela. Girls, starting at age 4, participate in youth baseball, often play alongside boys, and take part in regional and national competitions.
Leon says that “sports authorities had a hard time understanding women’s baseball, but the success of Venezuela since 2010 has prompted them to help us in international events.” After their bronze medal win in 2016, a women’s league was created. While it can still be “difficult at the state level to get support for sports equipment, uniforms,” and other necessities, Leon says, the game is growing.
Girls and women’s baseball in the U.S. is not as robust as one would imagine given that baseball is nicknamed “America’s pastime.” The sport has suffered from what Justine Siegal, the first woman to coach for a MLB organization, calls a “tremendous softball culture, where girls are expected to play softball and boys are expected to play baseball.” Lots of girls, she says, “get caught in that stereotype.” While plenty of girls play Little League baseball, that number drops significantly as kids hit double digits in age – and it falls off a cliff after age 12, when Little League ends. Few girls play baseball on high school teams in the U.S. (and, unlike Japan, there are no all-girls high school teams in the U.S.). Only a handful have ever played on college teams (most women who are good enough go to college on softball scholarships) and some for minor league teams and in independent leagues. Still, the U.S. women’s national team has done well over the years at the Women’s Baseball World Cup, having won two golds, two silvers, and two bronzes.
Unlike the other countries in this piece, USA Baseball does not have state- or regional-level leagues or competitions. Instead, it has partnered directly with Major League Baseball to host different developmental and educational events for younger female athletes. That includes the Trailblazer Series (ages 10-13), the Grit Girls Identification Tour (for girls who play on their high school baseball team), the Breakthrough Series (ages 14-18), and the Elite Development International. Ann Claire Roberson, Assistant Director of Baseball Operations at USA Baseball, says that there are “hundreds, if not thousands [of girls and women] that come through” their programs each year. Most girls find out about these opportunities and the existence of the national team by “social media” or “searching online,” Roberson says. “If a young female athlete is really interested in playing for Team USA, they research some of the other players that have been on our team [and] figure out the process through players’ past experiences.”
To make the national team, Roberson says, “anybody who’s interested … can register for the open we host.” After the open, “we would name 40 players to our women national team trials. And then from the 40 players, we will cut down to the final 20.”
Outside of USA Baseball, there are all-girls teams, including some travel teams, and all-girls tournaments, the biggest one put on each year by an organization called Baseball for All. Siegal started the all-volunteer organization in 2010 with a mission “to empower girls to play, coach, and lead in baseball,” she says. “We help communities start girls’ baseball programs, and then run events for those girls’ teams to play.” This year, it also is launching a college club women’s baseball program to teach women on college campuses how to start club teams, “with the goal of NCAA status.” Siegal estimates that BFA’s reach is roughly a thousand girls each year, and that growth she sees is tremendous -- if you offer girls an opportunity to play baseball, they’ll take it. Her organization has recently partnered with USA Baseball. “I know that they do have interest in growing the game and creating more opportunities for more girls to play,” she says.
What Needs to Change to Grow the Game
Everyone Global Sport Matters spoke to has different – though related – ideas about how to grow the game, either in their own country or throughout the world. Those ideas include more awareness, better coaching, more women in coaching, and more women in baseball in general, including umpires and scorekeepers.
Ann Claire Roberson in the U.S. says that her goal is to provide “more opportunities to allow female athletes [to] participate in the sport of baseball without having to go through the struggle of getting there.” Boys, Roberson says, have their path laid out in front of them. “They start young, they play travel ball, and then go play for their high school team,” she says. “I personally would like to see that [path] become normal for a girl.”
Organizations like Canadian Girls Baseball and Baseball for All are looking for more funding and better resources, either from Baseball Canada and USA Baseball or simply from everyday folks (both have donation buttons on their websites). “The desire for girls’ baseball teams and events outweighs our ability to meet them,” Siegal said. “If we were able to hire more people, then we can organize more programming around the country.”
Michael Crooks in Australia talked about physical infrastructure, “such as facilities and change rooms,” which were not originally designed and built for women athletes. They need to “be retrofitted,” he says, “which is a real challenge across worldwide infrastructure.”
The most forceful and comprehensive response came from Venezuela’s Aracelis Leon, who believes that it is necessary to “make the development of women’s baseball mandatory throughout the American continent. There would be girls and women’s baseball events in every age group, training at the academies [youth training facilities], and they include more female managers/coaches, referees, scorers, and sponsors for the economic support that is required to develop and sustain it over time.”
Above all, people talked about needing more competition, more international events, just ... more. Justine Siegal, who has traveled all over the world to help countries develop girls and women’s baseball, says that the most exciting thing for her right now is thinking about developing the game in places where it’s nascent now. “How do we bring baseball to New Zealand? How do we grow baseball in India? Just this idea that we can grow something from nothing and then create opportunities. How does Mexico get more international play? How do they actually sustain playing baseball?”
Andre Lachance from Canada says that the sport needs “more countries involved if we ever want to be considered again for the Pan-Am Games or even the Olympic Games at some point.” He said that in countries like his that do not -– and probably will not – have the infrastructure Japan does, “we’ll have to come up with something where our best athletes can play more against the best athletes.” To that end, there are discussions between people in the U.S. and in Canada of creating a possible Pan-Am League.
Hiroko Yamada in Japan has two ideas. First, she says there are casual talks about creating an international club championship. “The U.S. has club teams, Canada, Australia, Taiwan, the Dominican Republic should have [club teams], Venezuela should have. I think everybody has either leagues or club team tournaments.” The idea is to give women more chances to play against each other. Second, Yamada is thinking about an international 15U event. “We think it’s important because girls who play baseball, 15 is about the time they give up or they move to another sport because there is no environment. So we need to create that stage for girls.”
In the end, what she ultimately wants is for women’s baseball to be more competitive globally and to have a bigger audience worldwide. While it’s nice for Japan to be on top all the time, Yamada says, it’s also boring. “We want competitive teams” because it will take “women’s baseball [to] a higher level.”
“We need to show the whole world, women can play baseball really well at that level.”
A previous version of this story contained a misprint of the name of the founder of Canadian Girls Baseball. Her name is Dana Bookman.
For baseball to survive as America’s pastime, the sport known for tradition and nostalgia will need to broaden its appeal across racial, cultural, and gender lines.
For the kid who swings a bat for the first time; the front office data analyst looking for the next big star; the minor leaguer hoping to make it to the bigs; and the major league manager looking to stay on top, can a centuries-old sport become more diverse and inclusive in new ways?