STORMING THE OUTFIELD WALLS
The winter Eleanor Engle signed as a shortstop with the Harrisburg Senators, Harry Truman was in the White House, Senator Joseph McCarthy was terrorizing Congress and on television My Little Margie was busy saving her rich, widowed father from a weekly parade of conniving females.
In 1952, the National Pastime was not ready for Engle. Before she ever played a single, pioneering inning for all-male, Class AA Harrisburg, baseball commissioner Ford Frick voided her contract. Then, on June 23, 1952, Frick officially banned women from the minor leagues. The game remained a boys' club.
This Saturday, the spirit of Eleanor Engle will take to Tinker Field in Orlando, Florida--along with 51 other spring-training hopefuls trying to become members of the first all-female minor-league baseball team in four decades. The Colorado Silver Bullets, financed by the Coors Brewing Company to the tune of $2 million, probably will play only one or two games this year in Colorado, and they could see even less of their nominal home field in Knoxville, Tennessee. Still, baseball fans and executives from Tallahassee to Tokyo are bound to take notice.
Since innovative Atlanta sports promoter Bob Hope unveiled the Bullets at baseball's winter meetings in December (he'd been trying to field a women's team since 1984), colleges, semi-pro teams and scores of minor-league clubs from the Hickory Crawdads to the El Paso Diablos have been calling to book exhibitions. Four big-league teams also have called. As it stands now, the Rockies, Phillies, Giants and Braves are likely to host games between the barnstorming Bullets and lower-level men's teams.
Opening Day is May 8--Mother's Day--in Charlotte, North Carolina. Look for the game on CBS or ABC--the Bullets are still negotiating. After that the team will play between 30 and 60 more games against the boys--including all six teams of the Class-A Northern League, as well as college and senior leaguers--giving rise to the notion that women someday may suit up for the New York Yankees or the Colorado Rockies.
Or the Mets, who could use help right now.
"I never thought I'd see a woman drive an Indy 500 car, and I never thought I'd see a female jockey in the Kentucky Derby," says the Silver Bullets manager. "Women in the major leagues? Who knows? We'll never know unless they get a jump-start someplace."
This isn't just any baseball manager talking, either. This is Phil Niekro, the ageless Brave who in his 24-year major-league career won 318 games, thanks to an unhittable knuckleball. "Knucksie" saw it all in the bigs, but he's never seen anything quite like the Bullets' tryout camps he's just conducted in eleven cities across the country.
"Amazing," he reports from his home in Atlanta. "We saw every kind of player from A to Z, and people are going to be surprised at how well some of them play. I was amazed how well they threw and caught the ball. They knew the strike zone, they swung the bat well. I don't know where the catchers were taught, but some of 'em looked pretty darn good to me. And the pitchers--some of them stepped onto the mound and they were throwing curveballs and changeups and sliders right away. We have five weeks of spring training and four weeks in Knoxville to get them into real baseball condition. But I know this: They're gonna be better than a lot of people think they can be."
Of the 1,500 or so prospects who showed up for the Silver Bullets' tryouts this winter, almost 80 percent come from the fast-pitch softball ranks and have never played actual baseball. Women played hardball as early as the 1870s, and the 1903 Boston Bloomer Girls once strung together 28 wins (in 26 days). But since the demise of the World War II-era All-American Girls Baseball League--Eleanor Engle's field of dreams, memorialized in the hit movie A League of Their Own--the game has remained virtually off-limits to women. It wasn't until 1974 that Little League finally allowed girls on the field, while high schools and colleges regularly have turned away female players.
One of the most famous cases of resistance is that of a Maryland first baseperson named Julie Croteau, who took her high school baseball team to court for the right to play. Croteau lost, but she earned a tryout with an all-male semi-pro club and went on to hit .300 for Division III St. Mary's College of Maryland before leaving under pressure after her junior season.
Happily, Julie Croteau will be at Tinker Field on Saturday, vying for one of the 20 spots on the Silver Bullets roster.
So will 50 other players who've spent most of their careers playing only fast-pitch, on a scaled-down diamond. But that doesn't worry general manager Shereen Samonds, who quit her job as GM of the Class AA Orlando Cubs to go with the Bullets.
"One thing you'll see on our club is good fundamental baseball," she says. "Very few minor- or major-league teams play it anymore. It will be more like Japanese baseball. We'll know how to hit the cutoff person, bunt, catch and run. We won't beat ourselves."
Seasoned professionals will see to that. Skipper Niekro has signed on fellow knuckleballer and sibling Joe Niekro (220 wins, mostly for the Astros) as pitching coach, and former Oriole Paul Blair to oversee the outfielders. Joe Pignatano will handle the daunting task of familiarizing softball catchers with the larger dimensions of baseball, and Tommy Jones, late of the Cubs' staff, is director of player development.
Niekro says the knuckler is no prerequisite for his pitchers, although no one will be surprised if it pops up on his staff. Meanwhile, he and Jones have noticed some other things they like. For one, physicists speculate that a 100-mile-an-hour fastball released 60 feet, six inches from home plate is no harder to hit than a 65-mile-an-hour softball let loose 40 feet away--the kind of thing the Silver Bullets-to-be have seen all their lives. Jones raves about one Lisa Martinez, a sure thing from Stockton, California, with a swing as sweet as Will Clark's, and everybody's talking about Alicia Bittinger, who's spent years catching heaters from her husband, Triple A hurler Steve Bittinger.
In other words, those Northern League clubs in places like Duluth and Sioux Falls and Thunder Bay had better watch out. Niekro hasn't put the radar gun on his pitchers yet, but he says some of them are throwing 80, and he promises the Bullets will "hit-and-run and double-steal and squeeze when we have to; we'll probably kick and scratch for our runs until we can find someone who can knock in runs with the long ball. They don't want no favors. They don't want nothin' except to play nose-to-nose with these guys."
Despite A League of Their Own, Coors' two million bucks and the explosion of women's sports, it won't be easy. The Northern League may be pro baseball's bottom rung, but it's stocked with hungry, undrafted college stars, and ex-major leaguers like Leon Durham and Pedro Guerrero have finished their careers there.
"We all realize it will be a tough road," says general manager Samonds, one of the few female baseball executives at any level. "Everyone is starting from scratch, and the women may have to listen to a lot of things as they go park to park. But we'll get there. From a minor-league operator's standpoint, I'd like to see the team become self-sustaining so we won't always need a sponsor as generous as Coors. Minor-league teams wouldn't be calling if they didn't think the novelty would help them make money. And who knows? This could be the start of a women's league. Or the open door to the major leagues. Who knows?"
No one. But there won't be any salary disputes or contract holdouts on the Colorado Silver Bullets. Every player will get a flat $20,000. And for some, that won't even be the point.
"My feet are still off the ground," admits spring-training invitee Dallas Jorgenson, a five-foot-ten-inch, 23-year-old first baseperson-turned-catcher from a Vancouver suburb. "I haven't grasped all of this completely. Just to have this opportunity, to try my guts out, just for the experience, I'd give anything."
For the last two seasons, Jorgenson's White Rock Renegades have been national champions of Canada's top fast-pitch women's softball division, and in 1996 she'll try out for the Olympic team. But making the Silver Bullets is the greatest challenge of all.
"I'll give my best, and they'll make the call," Jorgenson says. "That's all I can do...But I would do it for nothing. To visit those ballparks, to play for Phil Niekro, to be a part of history, that means everything. The pay is just a bonus. Over the generations things have changed, and here's another avenue opening to us. Baseball started as a men's game, but maybe it doesn't have to end as a men's game. We're just happy to have the chance."
On Opening Day, the shadow of Eleanor Engle will be standing in the outfield.
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