A Place of Their Own in Their Leagues

Baseball players come and go - and notable ones have both come and gone recently. Dorothy Kamenshek, who was one of the inspirations for the character of Dottie Hinson in the movie A League of Their Own, died two weeks ago at the age of 84. She was one of Sports Illustrated's top 100 female athletes of the century. Kamenshek, a seven-time all-star in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, played first base for Illinois' Rockford Peaches from 1943 through 1953, except during the 1952 season.

Another veteran of the League, her friend Lavone "Pepper" Paire Davis, called Kamenshek the best player in their league. Kamenshek, she said, "had the whole package. She could hit with power, she could lay the bunt down and steal the base. She was a great first baseman — she could go off the ground three feet and grab it, or dig it out of the dirt. She was a tough lady, and she was as smart as they come.”

A minor league men's team offered to buy Kamenshek's contract in 1947, but Kamenshek chose to stay with her own league. She thought the motive behind adding her to the men's team was a "publicity stunt" and that, at 5'6" and 135 lbs., she was not well-matched physically with "those big guys."

Standing 5'1" and weighing 115 lbs. then, as Eri Yoshida does, presents quite a challenge to one who would compete in a sport in which some top contemporary male performers have felt the need of taking steroids to bulk them up beyond the natural physiques which provided them with sufficient success in their sport to admit them to the major leagues in the first place.

But as Tom Hanks' character, Jimmy Dugan, says of professional baseball in A League of Their Own, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard... is what makes it great."

Yoshida must believe in the greatness of baseball, as she has come a long way from home at the age of 18 for the opportunity to play in a U.S. independent league, and she seems to be entirely ready to face its difficulty. “She’s always doing the extra step,” according to fellow pitcher Justin Segal.

The question of whether Yoshida's invitation to play in the independent Golden League was to some extent a publicity stunt has been raised. A lot of media were in attendance for her debut appearance in the League, from both the U.S. and Japan. More than twice as many fans showed up as had been in the stands the previous night for the team's home opener.

But the fans the Times reporter spoke to clearly didn't come to see a gimmick. Despite Yoshida's inability to speak English (she's taken advantage of the fact that her team is based in a college-town, Chico, CA, to enroll in an English class), and her having arrived in the U.S. without friends or family, she has rapidly developed a base of support.

A high school Japanese teacher, Michelle Martin, brought some of her students to see Yoshida play. They held up signs they'd made, in Japanese, to encourage her. Another fan, Nicole Ferroggiaro, who'd been one of two women in an 89-member Air Force security detail, teared up when Yoshida hit a single which drove in a run. Says Ferroggiaro, "She's representing a lot of women."

Times have changed since Kamenshek played, and while baseball has changed little, the ways in which both baseball and the times have changed don't necessarily make it any easier for a woman to compete - except for the fact that, unlike the women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, Yoshida wears the same uniform as the men and therefore doesn't have to slide into a base in a skirt and bare thighs. Nevertheless, Yoshida says her goal is to reach the major leagues.

One caveat about the otherwise good NY Times story on Eri Yoshida which is linked to: It begins with the writer's claim that an ex-major leaguer playing in the same game being jeered by a fan to "hit like a man" when he bunted constitutes "the ultimate compliment" to Yoshida, as it shows that she is accepted as "just one of the guys."

I think it's a mistake to attempt to reframe as a compliment, or as meaningful commentary of any kind, remarks from someone who thinks smashing rotely at the ball, as an expression of "manliness", is more important than playing strategically in the manner you think is most likely to serve the team well. And regardless of what level of success Yoshida achieves in baseball, she will do it not "like a man" but like a woman - herself.

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