At this point, we've all probably heard about (or watched) Fox's new show Pitch. The show follows Ginny Baker, a fictional character who becomes the first woman ever to play major league baseball. The show feels so real, and the world's reaction to a woman playing in the highest level of professional sports feels so authentic, that I've had the image of a real life Ginny Baker in my head for weeks now.
After some thought, I think a real life Ginny Baker is very possible. In fact, I think MLB can make it happen if it wants to. MLB has every incentive to do so. It is difficult to imagine a woman playing in the NHL, NFL, or NBA. Those sports are so purely physical that biological differences make a huge difference. It could happen, but the pioneering women would have to be extraordinary, even compared to professional athletes.*
Baseball, on the other hand, leaves open some room for women. The fictional Ginny Baker only throws about 86 mph, but supposedly throws a number of other pitches, including a screwball. But really, the knuckleball is where this is at. There's no biological limitation preventing a woman from throwing Tim Wakefield's 71mph fastball and 60 mph knuckleball.
Indeed, we've come close before. Ila Borders was a woman who played high-level independent league baseball in the 1990s. In an excellent interview with Slate's Hang Up and Listen podcast, Borders described the Northern League as "High-A pitching, Double-A hitting." It took her some time to settle in, but she put up a 3.63 ERA in her age-24 season. Teams considered her for a minor league contract, but ultimately decided that there would be "too much media coverage." Nice job there, baseball. No sport ever wanted intense media interest.
Here's the important thing to remember: 750 players are on major league rosters. If a women can be the 750th best baseball player in the world, she will deserve a spot in the bigs. Can this happen? I submit two cases to you: Katie Ledecky and Jessie Graff.
Katie Ledecky, who is just 19 years old, was the best athlete in women's swimming at the Olympics this summer. She won four gold medals and one silver medal. While men and women compete in separate events, their times are directly comparable. 200m in a pool is 200m in a pool. Ledecky completed the 200m freestyle in 1 minute, 53.73 seconds. That time was better than 2 of the 48 Olympic men who competed in the qualifying round. Thus, Ledecky can claim to be the 45 best 200m swimmer in the world. The 45th best pitcher in the world last year by fWAR was Bartolo Colon, who earned 3 fWAR for the Mets.
Jessie Graff is another extraordinary case. She competes on American Ninja Warrior, an obstacle course show that airs on NBC over the summer. It is extraordinary to watch the athletes compete on ANW. They are asked to perform grueling, difficult feats of strength, endurance, agility, and balance. Woman and men compete on the exact same obstacle course. For years, women failed to make it over their signature early-round obstacle, the 15-foot warped wall. Then, an athlete named Kacy Catanazaro made it over the wall in 2014. A number of women were inspired by Catanazaro and trained for the next season. 40% more women entered the competition in 2016. Many more women made it over the warped wall, and Graff was the best of them.
Graff ultimately placed 5th overall in the competition. Check out her second to last run:
That's pretty darn dominant. I have no doubt that many more women will enter the competition next year, and more will emerge as legitimate contenders. It's inspiring to watch.
How does MLB make it happen? First, they can scout professional women's leagues abroad. The best women's baseball league is probably in Japan. My bet is that someone from that league is signed to be the first woman to play in an affiliated men's league. It is unlikely that the first woman who plays in the minors will make the majors (most men don't come close), but someone has to go first.
I bet women's baseball catches on in the U.S. as well. Currently, girls are segregated into women's sports in most local school systems. This segregation may benefit many girls, who just want to play the sports they love, but it isn't sustainable for the best athletes. As gender norms become more progressive, these barriers will break down. The best girls will play baseball alongside the best boys, not softball. The U.S. NCAA system will incorporate many of these athletes into their teams, and the best will emerge as major league prospects.
All MLB needs to do is find these talented actors and draft them. The incentives are there: I completely buy the intense interest and reaction to Ginny Baker. MLB needs more eyeballs on their games, and this is how it happens. The first team to call up a female major league baseball player will be rewarded.
* One exception: I could see a goaltender in the NHL. That would be pretty cool (other than size, I don't see any reason physical strength should be a limitation here. Lots of woman play high-level hockey in the NCAA and Canadian leagues, and the NHL has both strong development leagues and relationships with European professional leagues, so all it would take is for someone to give an exceptional woman a shot in the minors or in the Swiss/German/Swedish/Czech/etc leagues.