Yesterday, Augusta National Golf Club announced that it would admit two female members for the first time in its 80-year history, in former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore. While playing at a golf club and being employed at the highest level of baseball are clearly two completely different things, it seems appropriate to consider the chances of the emergence of the first female player, field manager, and executive at the big league level.
Currently, the chances of a player surfacing in the near future seem to be somewhat slim. Several women have played independent league baseball, and found varying degrees of success, but none have succeeded to the point of a signing with an MLB team and entering affiliated baseball. Japanese knuckleballer Eri Yoshida may be the woman in recent memory with the best chance to break that barrier. Yoshida was drafted by a professional team in Japan at the age of 16, and showcased her abilities in the Kansai Independent Baseball League. Just after her 18th birthday, Yoshida appeared in American baseball for the first time, pitching for the Yuma Scorpions of the Arizona Winter League in the hopes of catching on with an MLB club. While she impressed in that league, Yoshida did not receive an offer from an affiliated team, but played in the independent Golden Baseball League with the Chico Outlaws. While she struggled, Yoshida was surrounded by more experienced players and her manager, former MLB shortstop Garry Templeton, suggested that any player at her age could be prone to struggles against the older players in the league. Yoshida had the chance to train with fellow knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, and once again joined Templeton when he moved to the Na Koa Ikaika Maui of the North American Baseball League. As Yoshida ages, she will learn to better control and use her knuckler, and Templeton has suggested that she would benefit from extended coaching by an experienced knuckleballer. Should that happen, Yoshida could have a chance at baseball’s higher levels.
Like Yoshida, Tiffany Brooks has found some success in the independent and instructional leagues, pitching and playing first in the California Winter League, Arizona Summer League, and Arizona Winter League. Brooks signed with the Big Bend Cowboys of the Continental Baseball League in 2010, and made the team’s opening day roster after spring training. Brooks will be featured in the upcoming documentary Throw Like a Girl. Hopefully, her story continues and leads her to eventually get a chance with an MLB affiliate. However, at this point, Yoshida seems as though she may have a better chance.
Female managers have been similarly disappointed. Perhaps the most well-known and successful has been Justine Siegal, now 36. Siegal founded an organization called Baseball for All about 14 years ago, and the organization continues to advocate for baseball globally, with a focus on the integration of women. Siegal served as a coach for the men’s team at Springfield College from 2007-2010, and in 2009 became the first woman on the coaching staff of a men’s professional team when she coached first base for the Brockton Rox of the independent Can-Am league. Last year, Siegal became the first woman to throw batting practice for an MLB team, pitching to minor league batters in the Indians organization, and since has thrown to members of the A’s, Rays, Cardinals, Astros, and Mets organizations. Some objections to her participation have been registered, mostly on the basis that it would be difficult for her to find respect in the male-dominated arena of the clubhouse. In my opinion, Siegal has the experience around the game to earn that respect, and if players are not willing to follow her lead the blame should be directed at the players themselves.
While women on the field have encountered numerous barriers, one arena where they have made inroads is in the front office. The large majority of MLB teams now have female employees in baseball operations. As sabermetrics has become more of a mainstream concept, prospective employees have been judged more on the basis of their abilities, and while playing the game at a high level was once essentially a prerequisite to working in a front office that is (to my great relief, as I didn’t get past high school ball) no longer the case. With that revolution, more positions in the game have opened up to women, and several have climbed the ladder to the point of receiving consideration for upper management positions. Most prominent among these is Kim Ng. Ng graduated from the University of Chicago and was hired by the White Sox as a special projects analyst. Ng was the first woman to present an MLB salary arbitration case (that of Alex Fernandez), and then worked in the offices of the American League. In 1997, Ng became the first female assistant GM when she was hired by the Yankees, and moved to the Dodgers in the same position in 2001. Ng interviewed for GM openings with the Dodgers (2005), the Mariners (2008), and the Padres (2009). Ng now serves as Senior VP of Baseball Operations with MLB. While she has not been successful in her quest to become the first MLB GM yet, I would be absolutely shocked if a team doesn’t hire the first female GM within the next five years, and right now Ng is clearly the frontrunner.
Every day, baseball becomes more and more of a meritocracy, and with that movement, women get closer to participation at its highest levels. In the game’s early days, African-American and Afro-Latino players were not signed by big league teams, despite the fact that there was no specific rule on the books against their inclusion. When Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson on to break the color barrier, he understood that the game simply does not allow winning teams to ignore possible sources of value. Teams are forced to put the best possible product on the field to have any chance at championship contention, and ignoring a worthy segment of possible players, managers, or executives prevents the team from finding the best talent it can. While there isn’t currently a female player obviously worthy of big-league consideration, if a player should come along I would hope and expect that a team would give her that shot. In many ways, teams can’t afford not to.
Questions or comments are welcome in 140 characters or less @saberbythebay.