Before we get into what this article is really about, let’s get things rolling with a simple pop quiz. Would you happen to know who the first girl to pitch her team’s way to a win in the Little League World Series was? Or the first girl to pitch a shutout, a game in which the opposing team fails to score any runs? Here’s an easy one: Who was the first Black girl to play in the tournament at all?
If you guessed Mo’ne Davis, Mo’ne Davis, and Mo’ne Davis, then congratulations—you couldn’t have been more right. Davis dismantled her male competition in the 2014 edition of the tournament, pitching back-to-back shutouts that generated enough buzz to provide ESPN with its highest ever ratings for a Little League game, and to earn praise from everyone from sports stars Mike Trout, Kevin Durant and Billie Jean King to former First Lady Michelle Obama. Her performance and high-profile supporters quickly made her the indisputable face of Little League that year. She even went on to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, becoming the first active Little League player to do so.
While highlighting Davis’ many achievements, it should be noted that it wasn’t always possible for girls and women in sports to command the respect and adoration that she did. Davis, who was just the eighteenth girl to ever compete in the tournament, was only able to play because of the figurative and literal trials of Maria Pepe, who in 1972 became the first female starting pitcher in the tournament’s history. The presence of a girl in Little League was so appalling to her competition that tournament officials responded by barring her from participating any further. It took a lawsuit filed by the National Organization for Women and a judge’s ruling a year later to make it an inviolable right for girls to play.
But even with the law on their side—not counting the efforts several states have made to exclude transgender girls and women from participating on sports teams that match their gender identity—female athletes are still often reduced to their sex. For example, when Kevin Durant shouted out Davis on Twitter, he did so by observing that “this youngster is striking everybody out and she is a girl.” As has been the case historically with female athletes, it’s not enough for her to be impressive. She has to be an impressive girl.
The journey of Toni Stone, the first woman to play big-league baseball full time, epitomizes the many trials of the female athlete. Stone, who first played professionally in 1953 for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro leagues, faced adversity at every step of her baseball career. She was regularly ridiculed by her own teammates, paid less than them, and exploited as an attraction to sell tickets to Clowns games. It’s also rumored that the team’s owner, Syd Pollack, tried to get Stone to play in a skirt. When Connie Morgan, the third of three women to play in the Negro leagues (the second being Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, who also played for the Clowns), signed with the Clowns as Stone’s replacement, the Philadelphia Tribune reported that Morgan was “slated to get the regular female assignment in the starting lineup.”
Soon after seventeen-year-old Jackie Mitchell, one of the first ever female pitchers to play at any level of professional baseball, struck out baseball legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig back-to-back in a 1931 exhibition game, the first Commissioner of Baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided her minor-league contract and deemed women unfit to play baseball. The young trailblazer remained undeterred and began playing on exhibition teams, but still failed to obtain the same respect as her male counterparts. Her promising career would end prematurely in 1937, at only twenty-three, when she retired after being utilized more for laughs than for her talent, such as being asked to pitch atop a donkey.
Diane Crump, the first woman to participate in the Kentucky Derby—and in a professional horse race at all—finished her illustrious career as a jockey with over two hundred and twenty wins, but they didn’t come easy. At her first race, spectators were so violently opposed to her participation that she had to enter the racetrack with a full police escort. Astonishingly, she managed to win the same crowd over, returning to cheers after she finished ninth out of twelfth, and went on to win her first race just two weeks later.
The achievements, work ethic, and perseverance of each of these pioneering athletes in the face of adversity are obviously no small feats, and neither will be the efforts required to finally abolish sexism in sports and in general. The day is yet to come when women in male-dominated sports are seen solely as athletes, and the only affixed adjectives reflect their quality of play, not their sex. But if upcoming greats like Mo’ne Davis have anything to say about it, that day is fast approaching.