A new age for women in baseball

April 3rd, 2021

There have been a lot of "firsts" for women in baseball recently; first female GM, first Major League coach and first Black female coach. Though it may seem like the glass ceiling is just now being shattered, women have been breaking it for years.

Women's baseball is not new. Founded in 1943, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) hoped to promote America's pastime during the war, as Minor League prospects became soldiers rather than professional baseball players.

For 12 seasons, women competed around the country formally for the first time at a professional level. These women faced a new set of challenges, including the question, "how could women play in a man’s sport?"

Jeneane Lesko, who joined the Grand Rapids Chicks in the league's final two seasons, recalled the rules professional women baseball players had to follow. "It was more restrictive than being a teenager in that day," she said while speaking on a panel titled, “Women in Baseball: Then and Now,” as a part of Major League Baseball's celebration of Women's History Month in March.

Women not only had to be entertaining and athletic, but also lady-like. Lesko laughed remembering once getting a haircut that broke the rules, as women needed to have at least two inches of hair showing underneath their cap.

“Being 18 ... I was awfully naïve, I had never been out of the state [of Ohio] alone,” Lesko said. Her first time was driving to tryouts: “It was a lot of fun once I got familiar with them.”

Those antiquated rules were thrown out as women’s professional baseball began its comeback. Tamara Holmes, who played for the Colorado Silver Bullets and the United States women's national baseball team, joked she would have never played professionally had she had to wear a skirt as her uniform.

The Colorado Silver Bullets were the first all-female professional baseball team since the folding of the AAGPBL. From 1994-97, these women competed in 195 games against men's all-star amateur and semi-pro teams. Holmes and the panel's moderator, Jenny Dalton-Hill, played together during the team’s final and only winning season in '97.

Kelsie Whitmore, a member of the United States women's national baseball team, got her callup when she was just 16 years old. Along with fellow panelists Dalton-Hill and Holmes, she said her time with the USWNT taught her to be a better athlete and woman in the sport.

“There is nothing better than being a baseball player, especially female, growing up and then being on a team with all females who all play the game that you love,” Whitmore said. “You don’t have to talk about it, you just understand.”

Initiatives like MLB GRIT, a pro-style workout for women 18+ years old, and the Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series allow her to give back to a sport she's dedicated her life to.

Other MLB Initiatives, including the Women in Baseball Leadership Event at the Winter Meetings, have given women opportunities to break through on the business and coaching side of the sport. Bianca Smith, Major League Baseball's first Black female coach, attended these seminars in 2018 and '20, networking with executives across the sport. After serving as an assistant coach and hitting coordinator at the collegiate level, the Boston Red Sox hired Smith to work with position players at their developmental facility in Florida.

Each panelist left women with a piece of advice.

"Doubt your doubts before you doubt your skills," Holmes told women who may be afraid they don't belong. Lesko and Whitmore both spoke about finding mentors and being determined to follow your dreams. Smith, who recalled all of the challenges that led to her groundbreaking role, said that "if you love it, it's worth it."