Baseball For All nationals 'pure fun' for girls

Annual tournament sees participation skyrocket in 2021

July 23rd, 2021

Girls shouldn’t play baseball. At least, that’s what Justine Siegal’s baseball coach told her when she was 13 years old.

Siegal disagreed. In fact, that moment motivated her to make her mark on the sport.

Since then, Siegal has made history. She became the first woman to coach in a Major League organization with the A’s in 2015, as well as the first woman to throw batting practice to a big league team with Cleveland in 2011. And now, she has organized the largest girls' baseball tournament in North America through her nonprofit, Baseball For All.

“I’m always speechless when I see the whole group together, and all these girls who came and believed in a dream,” Siegal said. “It’s just humbling, but it’s the right thing. The girls deserve it.”

Baseball For All recently held its sixth annual national tournament from Sunday-Thursday, hosting more than 500 ballplayers ages 8-19 from all over the country at the Ripken Experience complex in Aberdeen, Md. Since its inaugural nationals in 2015, participation has increased by more than 240 percent.

Baseball For All’s largest presence is on the East Coast, where the nonprofit is based, but it has also seen substantial growth in other parts of the country. This year, over 40 teams played in the national tournament, 11 of which were new programs in 2021.

Most female baseball players don’t have the opportunity to exclusively play with and against other girls, and that’s what makes Baseball For All nationals special. There’s nothing wrong with co-ed baseball, Siegal said, but all-girl teams are rewarding in different ways.

“Most of these girls play with the boys, but there is something magical about the chance to play with other girls, and you can just see the smiles on their faces,” Siegal said. “When you’re a girl and you play with boys, everyone has an opinion about whether you should be there or not or whether you’re great -- someone’s always got something to say. And here, you get to just be a ballplayer.

“That’s all the girls want, is just to be a ballplayer and play the game they love. And when you can do that, then it’s just pure fun.”

Many figures in the baseball world came out to show their support for the tournament, including five former All-American Girls Professional Baseball League players -- Maybelle Blair, Shirley Burkovich, Jeneane Lesko, Jeannie Manina and Gloria McKloskey -- and MLB executives David James and Tyrone Brooks.

Increased attention to girls' baseball, Siegal said, is driving the growth of the sport. Baseball For All’s growing national presence, as well as MLB’s girls' baseball development programs, shows female ballplayers that they belong in the sport.

“Honestly, I don’t know if more girls are sticking with baseball or if more girls are getting the word out that they could play with other girls,” Siegal said. “Just things like when Major League Baseball puts a girl playing baseball in their commercial -- it makes all the difference. So, just this idea of normalizing that girls play baseball, too.”

But it’s not just about girls and women playing baseball. Siegal estimates that 40 percent of the tournament’s coaches are women, as well as about 95 percent of umpires and volunteers, many of whom were past Nationals competitors who have returned to pay it forward, she said.

“We think it’s imperative that girls see women in all different roles,” Siegal said. “We tell our girls they’re never too young to make a difference, and that we expect them to come back and contribute to the community. And that’s what we’re seeing happening.”

Siegal sees big things ahead for girls baseball. Baseball For All recently became a member of USA Baseball, and the nonprofit just launched an initiative to kickstart collegiate women’s club baseball across the country, with the goal of the NCAA recognizing women’s baseball as an official sport.

Still, it all comes back to that 13-year-old girl who was told she shouldn’t play the game she loved. The endgame is making sure that stops happening.

“All the opportunities I build are opportunities I wish I had as a girl,” Siegal said. “I’m a little jealous of these kids, but it’s completely rewarding to see them get to be out here to play the game. That’s what it’s all about.

“It’s an honor to make history, but it’s so much more important that we build a better future.”