Hide the Balls! Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend

Cracker Jills

Regardless of their sincerity, women have never been particularly respected as baseball fans.

Brooklyn Dodger president Larry MacPhail introduced Ladies’ Day discounts in the late 1930s. By the late 1940s and ’50s, women started filling out the stands (and cash boxes).

According to Carl Prince’s book, Brooklyn Dodgers: The Bums, the Borough, and the Best of Baseball, 1947-1957 (Oxford University Press, $30), the press relentlessly pursued two “tried-and-true themes” in characterizing Brooklyn’s female fans: The first depicted them as either dumb or hysterical; the second portrayed them as sex objects, illustrated by cheesecake photos. “Wide-eyed, simple-minded, naïve and uninformed” would describe Lil Lewis, who attended her first Dodger game in 1952. In 1972, the Yankees gave discounts to women for special “Ladies” games, but an angry male fan sued and a court ruled that the practice was illegal.

Baseball “groupies” and the players who consorted with them were kept behind closed doors, until the 1971 publication of Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton’s tell-all best-seller Ball Four, in which he tattled about his fellow players’ tomcatting. Barry Levinson’s 1984 film The Natural and Ron Shelton’s 1988 Bull Durham, with Mets fan Susan Sarandon as a baseball “Annie” (a nickname for groupie), also plumbed what was underneath players’ pants.

When three New York Mets were arrested on rape charges in 1992, former teammate Darryl Strawberry came to their defense: “As disgusting as these women are, man, that’s bad. It’s not like these are some classy ladies. They’re a bunch of pigs.” Now it seems like every spring training brings another media exposé of baseball groupies.

It’s perhaps understandable why women get hooked on the sport’s players; they’re potbellied, accessible-seeming, unhidden by masks and shoulder pads. Scarborough Research found that more women attend Major League games than the combined total of the NFL, NBA and NHL. According to an ESPN poll released earlier this year, 47 percent of baseball fans are women and 17 percent of them consider themselves “avid” baseball fans.

One of the 17 percent is Bronx-born director Penny Marshall. “Football, I can’t see the players,” she explained over the phone from Los Angeles. “Baseball, you see the shape of them because they’re wearing tight little pants.” In the 1950s, she would skip fifth-grade class and get Yankee bleacher seats for less than a dollar. Ms. Marshall’s 1992 film A League of Their Own, starring Geena Davis, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell, chronicled the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a group of real-life Midwestern teams that boosted stadium ticket sales during dismal World War II times.

Following the war, these female ballplayers were pushed out from professional baseball once the boys came home, but many stayed in the stands.

“The players are cute, so women go for that, too,” Ms. Marshall said. “But I think there are die-hard Boston fans, die-hard Yankee fans, die-hard Cubs fans, too. I just don’t think women are only interested in that.”

Deidre Silva, 40, consults for the Mets, helping them attract more female fans to the sport with clinics and speakers. On July 3, at Happy Ending lounge in the Lower East Side, she’ll be reading from her book, It Takes More Than Balls: The Savvy Girls’ Guide to Understanding and Enjoying Baseball (Skyhorse Publishing, $14.95), co-written with her friend Jackie Koney.

What do men think about their baseball expertise?

“If we don’t mention our husbands, they think we’re lesbians,” Ms. Silva told The Observer from her Seattle home.

“Deidre and I felt like second-class fans because we couldn’t compete with these guys with all their stats knowledge, but that didn’t mean we weren’t smart or good fans,” Ms. Koney added. “We go to just as many games, we just don’t choose to use our brains that way. The statistics are only interesting if they tell a story. I’m not interested in listing off numbers. For guys, it’s their currency, it’s the way they compete with each other, like trivia. We just see baseball in a different way.”

Ms. Rose, the baseball blogger in Greenpoint, logged off and got on the phone. “I get there and my blood pressure goes down,” she said of her visits to Shea. “I love getting there early, watching them rake the infield and measuring the distances. I love watching the people. I love the conversations and I love how every section is its own little village. I can go to a baseball game in any city. If you understand baseball, you can have a conversation with anyone.”

Other real female fans include Allison Hope Hathaway, a 25-year-old who works in marketing for Vault.com and once ran the bases at Shea stadium wearing a sundress. “Just the sounds of the game, the crack of the bat and the ball falling into a glove,” she rhapsodized. “I love it.”

“It’s a way-of-life thing, especially in the summer,” said Carolyn Murphy, 22, a hard-core Mets fan who works as an assistant to a person with disabilities. “I get home from work and it’s like my wind-down. I cook dinner while watching a game. It’s relaxing.”

Many women interviewed for this story found that they built emotional connections to the game: They had their “heart broken” by their team, their “boys,” and love them nonetheless. And staying loyal to a team keeps many transplants close to their roots.

Maggie Serota, 29, an executive assistant at a nonprofit for adult literacy, Literacy Partners, grew up watching Philadelphia Phillies games with her grandparents. “When my grandfather died, I channeled my anger. I channeled a lot of grief into the game. It kind of keeps my grandparents close to me,” she said. “I love Philadelphia, and loving the Phillies is based in homesickness. It keeps the city close to me, too.”

Still, she noted, “the fact that we can’t play is something that fascinates.”

Mr. Foley, the Yankees fan who decried dumb-as-donkey baseball girls, said his fiancée is a knowledgeable Mets fan. “It’s contentious between us but also adds a little extra spark to our relationship,” he said. “I love that she loves baseball. It’s part of our life together. And I never mind seeing lots of beautiful women in the stadium.�

greagan@observer.com

Hide the Balls! Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend