Hey, Major League Baseball: Break the Gender Barrier

Today’s guest columnist is Rick Burton of Syracuse University.

I teach an Honors Baseball class at Syracuse University, and as the World Series was starting, I posed this question on my essay-style midterm: “With a shout out to Toni Stone and Mo’ne Davis, if, as some people believe, Jackie Robinson was more important to the Civil Rights movement than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., how would American culture change if a woman broke MLB’s gender barrier? Circa 2022-23, should MLB be working to break this specific obstruction?”

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Most of the answers I received were more than acceptable, but one stood out to me and spurred this column. It read: “I’ll admit, prior to this class, I had never even considered that possibility, but it certainly can’t be ruled out. While the supposed physical limitations of the female body have long been an excuse for prejudice, Davis and others are hard at work making that hill impossible to defend. I believe one day it will happen and it will send shock waves across the sports world. Many will no doubt not like it, but then again, Robinson and King weren’t exactly media darlings, either.”

Not surprisingly, I gave Charlie Fellows full credit for answering a loaded question. What do I mean here? Well, a long time ago, I was the commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League. I was tasked with growing the game’s popularity but also driving asset appreciation for the league’s owners. While he runs a far larger league, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred faces the same challenge.

As my class has studied American history and the cultural relevance of Major League Baseball (in literature, poetry, plays and movies), I’ve made my position clear: MLB has a unique opportunity to re-shape global sport by integrating. Doing so, I propose, would allow the owners to grow their game’s meaning. And fatten their already hefty wallets.

The NHL got close to shocking the world decades ago when the Tampa Bay Lightning gave a chance to goalie Manon Rhéaume during the 1992 and 1993 pre-seasons. And most readers will remember Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller kicking off for a Power Five/SEC team (and then later converting an extra point) in 2020.

We know that in baseball, via Toni Stone in the Negro Leagues (playing for the Indianapolis Clowns and Kansas City Monarchs during 1953-54) or Mo’ne Davis playing in the 2014 Little League World Series, women are capable of charging up the integration slope.

Interestingly enough, integration could happen on the “hill,” (the pitcher’s mound) where a knuckle ball specialist would not need to throw high heat. Yes, baseball is a meritocracy, and the first female pioneer must warrant a call-up to the majors. But somewhere, someday, there will be a woman with the physical tools and mental makeup to throw strikes and induce ground balls. To deliver the goods.

My opinion? The wall has stood a long time, and it will come down.

A second contrarian question I frequently posed to my students before the midterm, was, “Which modern owner or GM will play the role of Branch Rickey, the Dodgers president and general manager who, by signing Jackie Robinson, left a legacy that holistically changed America?”

They all knew from reading Roger Kahn’s great book, The Boys of Summer, that by signing one player, Rickey made clear we are better as an inclusive country than an exclusive one.

Is it Hal S. Steinbrenner? John Henry? Steve Cohen or Mark Walter? What about Kim Ng, James Click or Sam Fuld?

As Fellows noted in his answer above, traditionalist owners and GMs have long used biology as the reason for their discrimination. At some point in the discussion, they’ve traditionally introduced trusted beliefs tied to arm strength, bat speed and musculature. But there are always biological outliers, and baseball holds special places for them. Witness Jose Altuve and Freddie Patek. Or Julio Franco (playing at 49). Jim Abbott and Pete Gray (playing with arm impairments) or William “Dummy” Hoy (hearing impaired).

Would women playing in MLB generate more interest, avidity and owner wealth? I think they could. Others may disagree. But giving women a chance to play professional baseball, as the Baby Boomers begin dying off in large numbers, could truly alter the trajectory of MLB’s ratings, attendance numbers and fan engagement. My 20-year-old students do not watch TV and cannot sit still for an entire broadcast. That is not how their generation rolls.

Instead, they look for the organizations or leagues innovating and challenging convention. Think of the Savannah Bananas, whose +500% 2023 fiscal projections are catching every owner’s eye.

Many in this younger generation have the vision to see a different world, one where women and non-binary humans are full equals in every regard. My students’ test answers spoke of how women playing in MLB would open countless doors, just as Robinson’s arrival in 1947 helped create cracks in our very real racial bias.

A woman playing in MLB would rock a lot of institutional bastions and change our gender dynamics forever. Want proof? Read up on America after Robinson. Watch Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball (in particular, “Innings 5 & 6”).

So, here’s a gender test question for you: If not now, when? If not the current power brokers, then who?

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and COO North America for Playbk Sports. His new co-authored book (with Norm O’Reilly), Business the NHL Way, was published by the University of Toronto Press in October.

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