Switch Hitter

Before swinging a bat in a lesbian softball league, pick a side. Gay or straight? Or something else?

Much to my mother's dismay, this year I set out to get reacquainted with softball. And I'd be doing it with lesbians. I would test the long-standing assertion — from any number of older people, including my mother — that lesbians and softball go together like peanut butter and jelly. She advised me to stick to yoga.

A journalist named George Hancock is credited with inventing softball in Chicago on a blustery winter day in 1887. The first game was played indoors, with a boxing glove tied into a round shape serving as the ball. The rules were similar to those of baseball. And the players were a bunch of Yale and Harvard alums.

The author, age 5, modeling her tee ball uniform like a true girly-girl 
Courtesy Amy Guthrie
The author, age 5, modeling her tee ball uniform like a true girly-girl 
Lucy says her pitches always go over the plate with a spin.
Michael McElroy
Lucy says her pitches always go over the plate with a spin.

For women, though, engaging in physical activity like sports was still considered unladylike. Nonetheless, women's ball clubs began organizing and traveling the country. Some female ballplayers were dubbed prostitutes; pre-World War II media accounts describe them as brassy broads who did inappropriate things in public such as handsprings and headstands.

More than anything, though, the war made it more acceptable for women to swing bats and throw balls. Many of the same women who took factory jobs during those years also joined their employers' recreational softball leagues. When chewing-gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley decided in 1943 to form a women's baseball league, as chronicled in the 1992 Hollywood flick A League of Their Own, he had a decent pool of talent from which to choose.

This early professional league drafted rules to ensure that its players appeared feminine. The ladies were supposed to wear skirts and lipstick on the field, and they were forced to take etiquette classes off the field. Some of those ladies have admitted in recent years that they are lesbians. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League folded in 1954.

Twenty-two years later, tennis great Billie Jean King and softball legend Joan Joyce founded the International Women's Professional Softball Association; that venture lasted just four seasons. In 1977, one of the league's players, Diane Kalliam, told a reporter for the Lesbian Tide that "virtually all" of her professional softball playing peers were gay.

Joan Joyce, who at 67 is now the head softball coach at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, says Kalliam is overstating the reality. "She's just guessing," Joyce says. "How would she know? It's not like everybody in this league were friends."

Historically, playing ball has been a way for lesbians to meet like-minded women. Most small towns had ball fields, so the sport was accessible. It seems natural that the national pastime also became a lesbian pastime.

In her 1988 book Diamonds Are a Dyke's Best Friend, author Yvonne Zipter reflects on why she and other lesbians are so attracted to softball: The softball field is a place where tomboys can act more like themselves, a place where there's less pressure to conform to the delicate feminine ideal.

Zipter also suggests that the public perception of softball players' being lesbians may have hurt the sport; more specifically, the stereotype may have handicapped the International Women's Professional Softball Association. By then, the women's liberation movement had made the general public increasingly aware that some females prefer to partner with other females. "[A]thletic women of the forties, while perhaps viewed as oddities, were not looked on with as much suspicion and contempt as their counterparts in the seventies," Zipter wrote.

She recounts how three women were once thrown out of a training camp sponsored by Joan Joyce. The women were supposedly demonstrating "overt lesbian behavior," although Zipter was unable to determine what that meant.

Joyce says she doesn't recall the incident. However, she acknowledges that it would have been a "huge problem" at the time if the public thought some of the ladies in the league were gay.

"Back then, I probably would have had a conversation with anybody that showed that kind of attention to someone else," she says. "To be honest with you, I don't really care as long as it doesn't affect the team."

Joyce is a superathlete who excels at everything from golf to basketball to softball. She struck out slugger Ted Williams with whizzing softball pitches at an exhibition game in 1961, then did the same to Hank Aaron in 1978.

The gossip on the softball fields of my youth told of lesbians dominating the college ranks. Like old wives' tales, stories circulated about girls being labeled queer at school simply because they were athletes. Pretty coeds supposedly would fend off persistent, unwanted advances from teammates, the reports contended. Even coaches made college locker rooms sound like settings for a zombie flick: They'll turn you into a LESBIAN.

The tales painted lesbians as sexual predators and outcasts.

A local high school softball coach who played for a Division 1 college in the mid-1990s recently recounted to me how she learned that her sport was popular among lesbians. "There was a woman," she remembers, "the mother of one of my teammates, who coached at a Division 2 school. She set all of us down — the ones who were going to play in college — and told us about how a girl on her team was invited by some lesbian teammates to a party. They got her drunk, somebody kissed her, one thing led to another, and the rumor got around campus that she was gay. She left school.

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