Major League Baseball is the biggest corporation associated with baseball. In many ways, it affects the way we see and interpret the game, but it is not the only place where the game is played.
People play baseball all over the world, with varying rules and at very different skill levels. Some people play in college while others play in high school, and some play Little League. In the grander baseball realm, we don’t often think of these other levels or institutions, but they have a big impact on the game we know and love.
The more kids play baseball in high school, the better chance they will have of becoming fans of the game. Having more kids play high school baseball will also increase the size of the talent pool. The more kids play, the more talent there will be for scouts to pick from.
These other subcultures, though, can also bring a sobering reminder of the inequalities in the sport. They can provide a reference as to why, for example, we don’t see more women in baseball. Not just playing the game, but on television, in front offices, and writing about the sport. You don’t have to look beyond this site to know that women are discouraged from playing and participating in the game—both Alexis Brudnucki and Corinne Landrey have detailed such experiences here at THT.
I was curious about the precise gender disparity, so I did some digging, and I was able to find data on high school participation rates in baseball. The data was gathered from a survey done by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). According to Chris Boone, the Assistant Director of Publications and Communications at NFHS, the NFHS rely on their member state associations to gather the data for each state.
The survey goes back to 1969-1970, but due to irregularities in the data (mainly in 1975-1976 and 1976-1977), having the same values for baseball participation rates, and some inconsistencies with the years, I’ve decided to start my analysis with 1977-1978. Let’s start with overall participation rates for girls and boys in baseball.
If it wasn’t clear before, it should be clear now—there is a huge divide between girl and boy participation rates in high school baseball.
For the boys, it’s pretty clear that more and more of them are participating in baseball, while for girls, the trend isn’t easily detectable—at least not in this view. In the filter option, you can deselect the boys participation rate, and you will have a clearer picture of the girls participation rates.
Since 1977-1978 there is an upward trend in girls baseball participation rates, but not a substantial one. In fact, since 2002-2003, girls participation rates have been going down. Now, this information can be misleading as it doesn’t consider all sports participation rates for girls. But as a proportionality of all girls sports participation since 1977-1978, girls participate in baseball at an average clip of 0.0003 percent, and that number since 1977-1978 has never been over one percent. For boys, baseball participation makes up 12 percent of all other sports, and that number has had little variance over the years. In fact, that figure has never dropped below 10 percent and never exceeded 13 percent during that time span.
In general, however, baseball is a very popular sport among high school boys.
Since 1977-1978, baseball ranks fourth in boys participation rates behind football – 11 player (apparently sometimes football is played with fewer than 11 players), basketball and outdoor track and field.
The girls picture is very different.
Basketball and outdoor track and field are the most popular high school sports for girls, followed by volleyball and then fast pitch softball.
Now that we’ve looked at participation for boys and girls separately overall, let’s compare them to each other.
The difference here is apparent. Barely any high school girls play football while it’s by far the most popular high school sport among boys. Wrestling also has quite the gap. More specific to our interests here are baseball and softball. The difference in high school boy and girl baseball participation rates is that baseball, for the girls side, is seemingly replaced with softball.
There have been many improvements for women in sports in recent decades. Womens tennis, volleyball, and basketball—among others—are becoming increasingly popular, but some sports lag behind. Baseball is one of them, and the gender binaries seem to be playing a factor.
As mentioned above, Alexis Brudnucki and Corinne Landrey detailed this beautifully here at THT. Brudnucki described her transition from baseball to softball as such:
Lifelong friends saw me grow up playing the game [baseball], first as one of three girls in the Eager Beaver Baseball Association — two of us played together — then as one of two, and finally as the only one, before my parents decided it would be best for me to move on to playing softball.”
Landrey didn’t even get to have a transition, as she only played softball growing up:
As a kid, you don’t question the reality with which you’re presented and if that meant softball was as close as I could ever get to playing the sport I loved, so be it. I played from elementary school through high school without a single regret. I loved having a physical outlet for my love of the game, even though it wasn’t exactly the game. But with the perspective brought on by time and adulthood, I’m struck by the absurdity of it all. I wanted baseball but baseball didn’t want me back. The message was crystal clear: Baseball is not for you, it’s for boys.”
It doesn’t need to be like this. We know there is no truth to the notion that doing things “like a girl” makes us inferior. Nancy Doublin has also argued that, “With the advent of Title IX, which required that schools offer all children equal opportunities in all areas of education, girls were offered more opportunity to compete, but were generally allowed to do so in separate arenas. Girls could now be excluded from baseball because schools offered softball, a more acceptable sport for women.”
Since the implementation of Title IX, there has been a precipitous rise in girls participation rates in softball. (Here I combined soft pitch softball and fast pitch softball).
In 1977-1978, 179,739 girls played softball in high school. In 2014-2015, 373,892 girls played softball in high school, which is a 108 percentage point change.
So, do as many girls play softball and baseball as boys play baseball and softball? With the increase in girls playing softball, it seems like a natural question. Let’s take a look:
If we include softball with baseball, and look at it as a proportion, a larger percentage of girls who play high school sports play softball/baseball than boys. This reinforces Doublin’s argument and displays the problematic nature with the patriarchal social system of baseball. Baseball as a system is keeping women out by putting them in a different game.
These type of institutional problems can be difficult to change. The first step toward change is recognizing the issue at hand. Often in the baseball community we will talk about the problems at the major league level, without considering the underlying institutions. This isn’t definitive proof — we can’t assume that every girl playing softball would want to play baseball, but it’s pretty strong evidence nonetheless. Girls (and boys) should be given the choice to play whichever sport they want.
Because, let’s face it, finding girls to play high school sports is not an issue.
More girls are playing sports, and it’s likely that more than the ~33,000 girls currently playing high school baseball would if given the opportunity. It’s time to not only give them that opportunity, but to encourage it.
References & Resources
- National Federation of State High School Associations, Participation Data
- National Federation of State High School Associations, NFHS Member State Associations
- Mona Chalabi, Five Thirty Eight, “How Many Parents-To-Be Want To Know The Baby’s Sex?”
- James Fallows, The Atlantic, “Throwing Like a Girl”
- Nancy Doublin, Bleacher Report, “Baseball Isn’t For Girls: HowTitle IX and a Sexist Culture Keep Women Out Of MLB”
- Women’s Sports Foundation, “Title IX & Issues”
- Alexis Brudnucki, The Hardball Times, “I’m Different. I’m The Same.”
- Corinne Landrey, The Hardball Times, “When The Sport You Love Doesn’t Love You Back”
- Brian Costa, The Wall St. Journal, “Why Children Are Abandoning Baseball”