'Too determined to be defeated': Black women in baseball share journeys

February 1st, 2024
Shakeia Taylor, A.J. Andrews, Amber Sabathia, Mo’ne Davis and Wendy Lewis at the Women in Baseball panel at the Jackie Robinson Museum

NEW YORK -- Five accomplished Black women in baseball gathered at the Jackie Robinson Museum last week to share stories about their unique career paths that led them to where they are today.

The focus of the conversation was wide-ranging, covering both individual achievements and also the importance of community-building.

The Jan. 26 panel was titled “Leveling the Playing Field: Women in Baseball.” The panelists were A.J. Andrews, a professional softball player and MLB Network host; Amber Sabathia, an agent at CAA and co-founder and executive director of the PitCCh In Foundation; Mo’ne Davis, a former Little League World Series baseball pitcher who went on to play college softball; and Wendy Lewis, a former senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances at MLB. Shakeia Taylor, a deputy senior content editor at the Chicago Tribune, moderated the 90-minute panel, which had approximately 100 audience members.

The evening began with Taylor posing questions on topics ranging from advancements women have made in baseball to the importance of advocacy in growing that cause. Lewis was quick to note that, while there’s more work to do, the unifying power of sports is uniquely suited to be a galvanizing force for social change.

“Sport, like nothing else, really gives a sense of a level playing field and opportunity,” she said. “[Diversity, equity and inclusion is] more important now than ever, and I'm not seeing an industry that can do it bigger, better and more powerfully than sports.”

Della Britton, the president and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, emphasized how the Jackie Robinson Museum is perfectly suited to host an event of this nature.

“Both Jackie and Rachel Robinson served as role models for people who have been traditionally marginalized,” Britton said. “They give us the platform to think about anything that talks about, 'How do we lift up others? How do we create a greater sense of authentic equality, authentic opportunity?' … There's a lot of content that emanates just from those two, from the lives they led, from their values.”

From start to end, the panel epitomized this unifying power. Sabathia noted that Andrews was her first client at CAA, and she had wanted to represent her so that Andrews had an agent who truly understood her journey as a Black woman in sports. Andrews and Davis talked about their work together on MLB Network broadcasts at the Little League World Series, where Davis became famous back in 2014 for being the first girl to pitch a shutout and win a game in LLWS history.

“[Davis has] been a huge part of why people have respect for women in the sport of baseball,” Andrews said. “I think that's so powerful, what one person can do. … The power that one person can make on the sport of baseball, this is just the proof of it.”

Sabathia also discussed representing Rachel Balkovec, who became the first woman to manage a Minor League team, the Yankees’ Single-A Tampa Tarpons, in 2022. Balkovec’s journey aligns with Davis’ goals -- Davis is studying sports business at Columbia University and aspires to own a women's professional team.

“Women, when they are in that position … [of] breaking barriers, it's who's bringing them up with you after you've broken those ceilings, who's reaching back down and showing the young girls that they can do it,” Sabathia said. “It's really important to be an advocate for others, but also for yourself, letting other young girls know that it's possible.”

The panelists then credited other women who have blazed baseball trails, including Rachel Robinson and journalist Claire Smith, who in 2017 became the first woman to receive the BBWAA Career Excellence Award. Several in the group focused on the mantra, “If you can see it, you can be it,” with community-building firmly at the forefront of progress.

Andrews recalled a woman who told her after a softball game, “My daughter felt like she saw herself in you. And because she was able to see you on that field, she now says she wants to play professional softball. I've never heard her say that before.”

Lewis followed by discussing Kim Ng, who became the first woman general manager of an MLB club when she was hired by the Marlins in November 2020. Lewis’s hope is that Ng would be the first of many.

“I saw her go from being the top four [candidates for a GM role], to the top three, to the top two. And man, what a difference it made,” Lewis said. “It spread throughout the whole league. Any woman in the league at the time, in any position and capacity, felt the difference and felt that it was a game-changer for all of us.”

Though Taylor was the moderator, she was also a big part of the conversation. During the audience Q&A, her responses centered on actionable ways to give Black women in sports a boost.

“We need the connections,” Taylor said. “You can have the education, you can have the pen, you can have the talent, you can have all of that. But if you don't know anyone, sometimes that is what's hindering. … They need the support, they need the encouragement. They need you to share their work.

“Sometimes, exposure comes in retweeting or re-Instagramming. To me, that's where the building works.”

There’s more to come on this front from the Jackie Robinson Museum. Britton noted that this panel was the first in a four-part series, with subsequent panels focusing on women in soccer, tennis and basketball.

One thing was clear throughout the panel: Trailblazing women who staunchly advocate for others can have a contagious effect. Andrews summed up this sentiment with an inspiring quote that left the audience energized about the future of women in baseball:

“Be too determined to be defeated and too focused to be doubtful.”