Women Are Coming to Baseball, Like It or Not

A month ago, I wrote a column about Kim Ng, the senior vice president for baseball operations for Major League Baseball. Ng, the Dodgers’ former assistant general manager, wished that more women were hired to jobs in baseball and thinks that there are more women who want and deserve jobs in baseball than are able to get them. This blog post became, I think, the most-commented on post in the history of Fangraphs. Many of the comments were negative toward women — either incredulous at the idea that many women wanted to work in baseball or openly hostile toward the idea of women in the sport.

A few of the comments:

“The only way there will be more women working in MLB is if they start to have cheerleaders.”
“I think what the comments show is that there’s a lot of feminine men out there who are ruled by their women.”
“I’m not disappointed about the lack of women in MLB – I’m happy about it.”
“A lot of estrogen fueled whining about something that hasn’t been calculated.”
“Until they start putting kitchens in the dugout, women will not be in baseball. Period.”

A lot of the comments probably were intended as humor, but regardless of the intentions, they showed there are a number of male baseball fans who are uncomfortable with the idea of women in the sport. It shocked me to read that kind of bile on Fangraphs, so I talked to two more women who are trying to make their way into and around the sport. The first was Kate Sargeant, an umpire who has worked at girls’ baseball camps run by Justine Siegal (whom I interviewed in the previous article), who has struggled to find work in professional baseball. The second was Marisa Ingemi, the newest blogger at John Sickels’s minorleagueball.com, who also writes about baseball, lacrosse and hockey on a host of other blogs. She is 14 years old.

When it comes to hiring women, Major League Baseball still has a ways to go — just today, Richard Lapchick’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida released its latest report on baseball’s hiring diversity practices, the 19th that the Institute has issued. While baseball received an A for racial diversity, it received a B- overall in gender diversity, down from a straight B last year, including an F for gender diversity in Team Vice Presidents and a D for Senior Administration positions. The report explains, “The decrease in the grade for gender was a result of a drop in women in the League office, team vice presidents and team professional positions.”

Justine Siegal is 36, and she has struggled in her attempts to break into the game. “The only way to keep my sanity is not to look at this experience for me as for the next generation coming up, paving the way,” Siegal told me. “And that’s frustrating when we want the job.” Marisa Ingemi is that next generation, though she is an an aspiring sportswriter and radio host — her role model is ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan — rather than an aspiring umpire or executive.

Ingemi has had a quick rise, needless to say. “I started following baseball about three years ago when the Red Sox were in Japan playing Oakland,” Ingemi told me by email. “I fell in love with the game. Along with that, I followed the PawSox because I wanted to know what was going on when players were called up, and that turned into the whole minor leagues.” She now writes on one of the most prominent baseball blogs, as well as a host of others, covering three sports by blog and podcast. “I haven’t had too many issues, gender-wise,” she said. “It’s mostly been my age that has gotten me negative feedback.”

Kate Sargeant got into umpiring through her dad, a Little League ump. If you want to be an umpire in Major League Baseball, there’s only one way to do it: go to one of the two official umpiring schools, pass your evaluation and then work your way up through the minor leagues. Sargeant went to both academies, ultimately going through umpire school an almost unprecedented four times. “I had friends who were embarrassed on my behalf,” she said. “People have the idea that you’re born an umpire or you’re not.” She reached the evaluation stage the third time, but she was unable to pass.

In her four trips through umpire school, Sargeant was joined by three other women. Two of them wanted to be umpires and came to school at the same time. Another time, Sargeant was joined by a woman who wanted to own a team and wanted to understand every facet of the sport. None of the women made it as minor league umpires. Generally, the instructors treated the women well, though they were certainly conscious of their gender. “I didn’t think I was treated differently from other students,” Sargeant said. Until the school’s evaluation came — and though the umpire crews were supposed to be assigned randomly — all three women were told to work together. “I kind of thought we were being made a spectacle of,” she said. “It seemed like a little bit of fun was being made.”

Sargeant had more trouble with the men she worked with. “Among my peers, there are people who didn’t want me there,” she said. “There were some people who were very vocal about being very upset that a woman was trying to get the same job that they had.” Ingemi agreed: “I’ve had my fair share of people saying women shouldn’t be in sports.”

Sargeant made more serious allegations regarding a former minor league umpire, Ria Cortesio, who in 2007 became the first woman in 18 years to work a major league exhibition game, and then was fired later that year. According to people Sargeant talked to, Cortesio was the top-ranked AA umpire going into the 2007 season, and would have been eligible for promotion as soon as a retirement created an opening. So, in order to block her promotion, the AAA umpires agreed that none of them would retire until the umpires were re-ranked and Cortesio was no longer at the top of the list. At the end of the season, Cortesio was let go because the minor leagues has a policy to terminate any umpire who has not been promoted within three to five years, and it was her fifth season.

Both Sargeant and Ingemi agreed that while it’s absolutely true that more men follow baseball than women, the number of women is significant. “I know more men who follow the sport, but more women do than you think,” Ingemi said. “Sometimes I feel women are afraid to show they like sports because of public reaction.” Initially, many women may get into the game due to family connections. “Most of the women I know who umpire have some connection to the game,” Sargeant said. In large part, that’s because most girls are steered to softball while boys are steered to baseball. But that is changing. As of 2009, more than 1,000 girls were playing high school baseball, and Siegal’s baseball camps, clinics and tournaments are trying to make the sport even more accessible to females.

Between her stints in umpiring school, Sargeant worked in a number of independent and college baseball leagues, including the Mountain Collegiate Baseball League and the Independent United League. Through league play and through Siegal’s camps, she continues to network with women who are passionate about the sport. She can tell that times are changing, but it isn’t happening quickly. Mentioning Eri Yoshida and Tiffany Brooks, both of whom played independent league baseball last year, Sargeant said, “I think there are women knocking at the door, playing-wise.” As for women like her, she says, “Just because I can’t hit a ball 450 feet doesn’t mean that I can’t make sound judgments at the plate [or] make sound judgments on the bases.”

The more women who get involved, the easier it will be. For Ingemi, so far, gender has been no hindrance. “In my lacrosse writing, I think it may have helped me because I am one of the only women writers, but for baseball I haven’t been doing it long enough yet to get feedback for my gender.” she said. “I don’t know if being a women will help me or hurt me somdeay.”

Sargeant had a very different experience, and has worked at reaching out to girls to demonstrate that there are other women who are passionate about baseball. “When I was coming up, I didn’t know any other women umpires. I thought I was totally alone,” Sargeant said. “There’s just going to be more exposure to the idea that women can be involved in the national pastime.”

UPDATE: A reader at the Inside the Book blog pointed out Bruce Weber’s book “As They See ‘Em,” about umpires and umpiring. From pages 152-162, Weber discusses Ria Cortesio. He corroborates Kate Sargeant’s timeline of events, and though he doesn’t explicitly allege collusion against Cortesio, the insinuation isn’t hard to draw.

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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.