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Baseball’s tumultuous relationship with the female fan

Although it was viewed as a male activity, women have followed professional baseball since its inception. The owners, however, have struggled to embrace women as legitimate fans.

Baseball: World Baseball Classic-Venezuela at USA Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

It has recently been made obvious (though not obvious enough) that Major League Baseball has an issue with marketing to female fans, either ignoring their existence completely or reducing them to caricatures of women who are interested in only the superficial nature of promotions. What is perhaps not so obvious is the calculated aspect of this problem that connects to the male-dominated structure of power in America. Because power is understood as finite, men have shunned women from any area of society that might humanize them to men or grant them the ability to gain power. Women are left as caricatures — emotional, irrational, weak, and dumb — who are unfit members of society and unable to capture American ideals. Since its inception, America has been driven largely by the oppression of everyone who is not a white male, and so baseball, as the embodiment of American values, must adhere to these same principles. The history of baseball advertising proves that women matter to the sport only when their inclusion benefits those in power.

Major League Baseball began advertising to women in the early 1880s with Ladies’ Day promotions, wherein women accompanied by a man received discounted or free tickets to a designated Ladies’ Day game. The practice rapidly spread to other teams when the FLOTUS, Frances Cleveland, endorsed baseball in 1888 after attending a Yale-Princeton game. Three years later, the Washington Sunday Herald asserted, “It is now fashionable for ladies to make up a party and go without the usual male escort.” [1]

During the late 1800s, the number of women in the workforce tripled, but they were relegated to low-paying domestic positions that gave them a sense of freedom without granting them agency. Women slowly clawed their way to political recognition, becoming property owners and gaining the vote in several states. They argued their inclusion in the male-dominated world of baseball went great lengths to prove their equality, and feminist ideas were spread in ballparks, where large groups of women could now gather without drawing suspicion.

In 1900, the women’s suffrage movement gained traction, with the strengthening of the National American Woman Association through appealing to women in all classes (though not all races — many white suffragists sought white male approval by arguing their votes would counter black ones, while black suffragists touted a far more racially inclusive platform). Women, in increasing numbers, were entering typically male spaces, attending university and working both blue- and white-collar jobs. Men began pushing back against these “incursions,” afraid their illusion of superiority would shatter and rip apart their control of society in the process.

The attacks on female baseball fans increased in number and veracity. Men utilized numerous publications to craft an image of female fans as both dangerous and insincere; not only did they obtain nothing from their visits to the park, they ruined the experience for the serious, male fans in attendance. In 1909, the National League banned Ladies’ Day, asserting that women no longer required a special day to attend games as they had become full-fledged fans. In actuality, the owners likely feared losing male fans who had voiced their displeasure with the days. Though the less-established American League continued to profit from and therefore hold Ladies’ Days, this ban drove away scores of female fans who no longer felt welcome at ballparks. [2]

The ban did little to deter women from fighting for equal rights in all other areas of society, however, as they worked to foster labor reform, create the National Woman’s Party, and prove their indispensability during WWI. Though they were forced out of many jobs assumed during the war, their efforts piqued the interest of Chicago Cubs President Bill Veeck, who saw them as an untapped market. In defiance of the 1909 ban, Veeck established the first Ladies’ Day of the 1919 season on June 6th. He assumed that drawing in women would enable entire families to attend game, creating a continuous stream of fans for decades to come. The promotions proved successful, as Chicago women on Ladies’ Day outdraw a number of other teams’ total season attendance. [3]

The tale from here on out is much the same as baseball’s first foray into Ladies’ Day: other teams eventually clambered aboard the bandwagon, women faced male backlash, and Ladies’ Day was eventually cancelled. But this time, the promotion lasted decades as a result of the need for female fans to maintain the sport during the Great Depression and WWII.

Though several teams in the 1930s and 1940s welcomed female fans by holding baseball clinics at various points, the majority of advertising was steeped in sexism, as were player responses to Ladies’ Day. Most ads focused on the female fan in relation to her male relatives, or suggested a particularly handsome player to lure in women. Even those ads that acknowledged the adeptness of female fans did so condescendingly, voicing surprise “pretty young things” could be so manly. [4]

In 1940, one AL pitcher said he would rather pitch a doubleheader the following day than play on Ladies’ Day, because the ladies’ “shrill voices... scare [him],” and their constant cheering for every play obscures his understanding of his own pitching; it is difficult for him to know whether he struck out the batter or gave up a home run. [5] This pitcher was not alone in his opinion, echoing the manufactured belief that finding a knowledgeable female fan was a rarity. [6]

However, the absence of men during WWII turned the tide. Teams now depended almost solely on female fans, and the first professional female teams since the late 1800s were created to fill the void. Due to economic necessity, women were not only welcomed in baseball but were encouraged to participate on the field and in the stands.

A 1959 episode of Colonel Potterby and the Duchess
Chic Young, Terre Haute Tribute, Septerber 13, 1959

The 1950s ushered in an economically prosperous era fueled by marketing innovations and a return to traditional gender norms. As is the case for every oppressed group, incremental gains of power are swiftly and violently opposed by the ruling class, and so when many men returned from war to find their jobs filled by women who were unwilling to relinquish them, society structured itself on forcing women back into the home. The powers at large asserted it was the only way to power the economy and keep children safe during the Cold War, because misogyny is the best defense for atomic bombs. As men pushed back against women in all facets of life, they used the crafty rhetorical tool of false equivalency in divorce hearings to suggest that promotions like Ladies’ Day granted women so much economic freedom that the monetary burden was shifted back toward the man, and divorce payments should therefore be lessened. [7]

Various newspapers revived a story used in the early 1900s to undercut female baseball fans: the Ladies’ Day Riot of 1897. The tale spun involved hundreds of women rushing the field to brutalize an umpire who had been squeezing the attractive pitcher. Women were too emotional and vicious to be granted entrance to view such a gentlemanly game, and a movement against Ladies’ Day was reinvigorated. However, the expansion of the radio and the advent of television necessitated the continued marketing to women through Ladies’ Day.

Many teams upped the advertising by partaking in consumerist culture and adding a giveaway, such as nylons, which had been rare during the war but were now anything but. As the decade progressed, the consensus was that the team’s promotion men had become more important than even the commissioner. Clubs diversified their promotions, focusing increasingly on children and offering giveaways such as gloves, water glasses, and t-shirts, many of which were designed to integrate them into the game and build a community of young fans. Women’s promotions, conversely, remained centered on the domestic side of things, pandering to women as singular objects of male affection, isolating them from any such community. This trend of marketing continued through the ‘60s, with various teams trying giveaways such as live buffalos, bobbleheads, and assortments of flora and fauna. No promotion aside from Ladies’ Day was geared toward — or inclusive of — women, though, and these giveaways remained the most materialistic and vain.

Conversely, women at this time came to realize their own depth and the depth at which society had buried them. The publication and dissemination of The Feminine Mystique precipitated this process, and the invention of birth control reduced unwanted pregnancies, allowing more women to escape the home and enter the workforce. Women infiltrated all aspect of society, including the Supreme Court and numerous high-level Executive positions, but baseball, as the final bastion of Americanism, held firm in its refusal to view women as equals. Backed by the tendency for ads at this time to undercut the reality of the adept working woman in favor of presenting a soft, gentle woman willing to go to great lengths to please her man, baseball teams refused to give women products that would assist in their consumption of the game.

Women, however — refusing to cede their love of the sport and by this point quite used to defiant actions — continued to attend games en masse, helping set attendance records for a number of teams. Though advertising did its best to restrict female attendance to designated days, women poured into parks seven days a week, preparing themselves for the tough slog ahead.

Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and bravely paving the way for Men’s Rights Activists, men in the ‘70s sued teams over Ladies’ Days, claiming these promotions discriminated against them, as male fans were barred entry and forced to walk over coals as punishment should they arrive at the ballpark on Ladies’ Day. The lawsuits were successful, and Ladies’ Day was no more. But women continued to press for equality, emboldened by these desperate attempts to curb their increasing power, and the Women’s Liberation Movement was born. The movement gained traction throughout the decade, leaving men scrambling to delegitimize it wherever possible.

On August 6th, 1976, the battle was taken to baseball, when the Pirates, in a game versus the Mets, hosted Men’s Night, wherein men received free admission while women had to pay. The team’s GM, Joe Brown, justified the promotion using the same circular logic inherent in sexist and racist arguments, claiming it as a “re-stimulation of an old idea” based on the notion that the “people who pay are more often men,” as well as the invention of something new. [8] This promotion produced a number of similar Men’s Night promotions spanning numerous sports and clubs across the country. It was viewed by baseball as completely rational and within the purview of the team to hold.

The dissolution of Ladies’ Day for several years signaled the end of advertising to women, and many ads in the vein of Men’s Night carried explicitly anti-women messages. Even as the popularity of the sport declined in the wake of the 1982 strike and the rise of the NFL, teams refused to consider women as a priority. Ads frequently portrayed young boys with their dads at games, passing on knowledge from one generation to the next, excluding women from this process.

The ‘90s and 2000s continued the trend of consumerism in baseball, but re-introduced women by more thoroughly integrating particular companies into the process, offering women free makeup on days like Mother’s Day, Girl’s Night Out, and Miss USA Day. While women as entities were no longer ignored, they were still not taken seriously as fans. Teams assumed women’s function within society was predicated on their appearance, so they would come to games only for free makeup. The other strand continuous throughout the decades is viewing women in relation to other people, and so the late ‘90s reinvented Birth Night, offering prizes to pregnant women who submitted photos of their game tickets and their children wearing team gear. [9]

More recently (with the odd exception), minor league teams have assumed the role of purveyors of sexist promotions in baseball. In shifting it from the majors to the minors, baseball has appeared less sexist, in the same way desegregating water fountains makes a place appear less racist. But it only ensures the sexism or racism becomes more finely woven into society, more easily defensible on the part of the offender. Outrage over promotions like the Victoria HarbourCats’ Diamond Dig or the recent Ogden Raptors’ Hourglass Appreciation Night is seen as an overreaction, “PC culture” gone mad; the blame for the oppression is switched from the oppressors to the oppressed.

It is easy to look at this history and say that women have nothing to complain about, because they’re not barred from games or forced to participate in Men’s Night. Indeed, this is the freest women have ever been in society and in baseball. But complacency breeds stagnation. And at a time when there are still no female MLB executives, no female players, and one female commentator — and women wake up every day knowing they are led by a person who boasts about abusing them — it is not good enough for teams to continue to ignore the passion and knowledge female fans exude. Whether Major League Baseball is understood as a form of escapism or as an integral aspect of American identity, it has failed its female fans. Either it fails as escapism by belittling women through offering wine nights or sparkly jewelry as an attraction to come watch domestic abusers play baseball, or it upholds the white male ownership of the game and the country present since the inception of both.

At all stages in history, women have had to fight for their place in baseball. The only time they are taken seriously is when economic necessity dictates it, and they are immediately discarded as soon as doing so is not detrimental to the sport or the teams. The female experience at MLB games has always been influenced by society’s reaction to women’s political capital; as women increased their public presence, their presence at baseball games was constricted. It is, in part, up to baseball owners to buck this trend — to create welcoming, inclusive places for women that will in turn teach men to respect women and to share predominately male spaces with them. Baseball is deeply political, and it’s time to use this power to improve the lives of people who have dedicated so much to it while receiving so little in return.

Notes:

[1] July, 1891

[2] Robert Thompson, Tim Wiles, Andy Strasberg, “Baseball’s Greatest HIt: The Story of ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame,’” 59.

[3] Roberts Ehrgott, “Mr. Wrigley’s Ball Club : Chicago and the Cubs during the Jazz Age,” 55.

[4] Piqua Daily Call, April 16, 1942, pg. 12.

[5] San Bernadino County Sun, May 12, 1940, pg. 13.

[6] Cumberland Evening Times, June 25, 1940, pg. 14.

[7] Newport Daily News, July 17, 1951.

[8] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 9, 1976, pg. 8.

[9] Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, June 9, 1999, pg. 8.


Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.