Women’s Baseball made the headlines in the United States of America for most of 2018. The fact the WBSC Women’s Baseball World Cup was played for the first time on US soil (USSSA Space Coast Complex in Viera, Florida) was of course the main reason.
The live streaming of games was seen by over 3.5 million viewers in 212 countries and territories. WBSC social media generated 13.6 million impressions.
2018 also marked the twenty fifth anniversary of A League of Their Own, the movie (directed by Penny Marshall, starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis and Madonna) that celebrated the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.
In Viera we had a chance to meet Shirley Burkovich, who played from 1949 through 1951 in the League.
“These girls play great baseball. It’s a lot of fun to watch” she commented.
Burkovich actually enjoyed a lot Penny Marshall’s movie: “Before that movie, nobody knew who we were” she laughed.
Born in 1933, she was only 16 when she was drafted: “I have always played baseball. I have no memory of playing any other sport. I played with boys, I played with my father. When I read there were try outs for women’s baseball, I went right away. A few weeks later I got an invitation to Spring Training…”
Burkovich visited the Space Coast Complex together with former team mate Maybelle Blair (born 1927).
“Do I believe there’s a future for women’s baseball? That’s what we are here for!”
Burkovich and Blair were joined by another huge advocate of women’s baseball: movie director Francis Ford Coppola.
Coppola’s wineries sponsored the Women’s Baseball World Cup: “When I decided to produce wine, my wife told me that I didn’t have to. I told her I didn’t have to make movies, either…”
Making wine was a family tradition for the Coppolas: “My father Carmine” a musician born in 1910 “told me that the tradition dates back to Prohibition. Families were allowed to produce a little quota of wine, if it was for family consumption.”
An avid baseball fan, Coppola couldn’t play as a kid because of polio.
“For Christmas one year, hearing that story, my wife gave me a Christmas present of a baseball field in the back of the winery,” Coppola said. “And the tradition started to happen. Whenever anyone got married, the two families would play a game. I was always astounded with somebody’s aunt or somebody’s cousin or … sister who was the great star of the game.”
Do you play baseball or slow pitch softball? “I thought we were playing real baseball…so I want to help women play baseball.”
And he did help already. Coppola’s Virginia Dare Winery sponsored the Sonoma Stompers of the independent Pacific Association. The Stompers recruited outfielder Kelsie Whitmore, pitcher Stacy Piagno and catcher Anna Kimbrell, al members of the US Women’s National Team.
Coppola wouldn’t let us know more about his project of a documentary on women’s baseball, but wanted to be sure we were getting his point: “I am convinced baseball would be a much more wonderful game if it were men and women playing together.”
Coppola’s point of view is not shared by Women’s Baseball World Cup three time MVP, Japan’s star pitcher Ayami Sato, the woman whose curveball has a spinrate compareble to the best men’s pitchers.
“It’s not fair to compare how women and men play. The speed of the game is different,” Sato said through and interpreter.
The Captain of the USA National Team Malaika Underwood added more: “Women who play baseball with men are always going to be exceptions. We need to find more playing spaces for women’s baseball. I like what USA Baseball and MLB are doing, but right now, at the club level, you have only Amateur Leagues. I’ve been playing since 2006 in such a League in New England. The real challenge is to get more girls to play baseball.”
Underwood played in the Women’s Baseball World Cup just months after having a baby: “I had to work hard to get ready, since my daughter was born in February. I wanted to underline that having a family, having children, doesn’t necessarily need to stop you from playing.”
Melissa Mayeux did play baseball with boys.
“I always followed my brother, as a kid. When he decided to play baseball, I joined. I started practising at three and I started playing when I was four years old.”
Born in Louviers in 1998, Melissa represented France in the U-18 baseball European Championship. France finished in fifth place.
“It was not always easy. Someone brought me to tears yelling that I had to get back home and work in the kitchen. I wonder why…I just want to play baseball.”
For now the dream is on hold. Melissa accepted a scholarship to play softball at the Miami Dade College.
“It’s my second season. I had to adapt. I play shortstop and when I began playing my throws went always all the way into the stands. I also had to adjust my swing. The ball came from a different angle.”
Still, Melissa’s focus is on baseball: “I hope an opportunity comes up.”
It may soon. Mayeux has worked out with the Lancaster Barnstormers of the independent Atlantic League: “I couldn’t sign, because that would have jeopardized my scholarship. But I will come back.”
The Atlantic League is pretty competitive. How about facing pitchers who throw over 90 miles per hour? “I want to face pitchers that throw that hard! I have played baseball all of my life and I want to keep playing.”
Melissa Mayeux is at the centre of Hard Ball, a project for a documentary on women in baseball by producer Mark Durand.