The Sonoma Stompers say they are making sports history Friday. Stacy Piagno and Kelsie Whitmore are in the starting lineup, adding their names to a very short list of women who have played for a professional baseball team. In fact, with Piagno on the mound and Whitmore in the outfield, this will mark the first time since the days of the Negro Leagues in the 1950s that there will be two women on the field in a professional baseball game, according to MLB.com.
Theo Fightmaster (yes, that’s his real name), the vice president and general manager of the Stompers, tells NPR this is not a publicity stunt. “They’re gonna be here tomorrow and they’re gonna be here the day after and the day after that.” Fightmaster says the two women are a part of the team. “They’re gonna get an opportunity to earn playing time based on their performances.” And he adds both women are “really good at baseball.”
Whitmore is just 17 years old and plans to play softball for Cal State, Fullerton next year. Piagno is 25 and played on the U.S. women’s national baseball team, which won a gold medal in last year’s Pan American Games. Both women will be playing for Team USA in the Women’s Baseball World Cup in South Korea later this year.
Still, Piagno says she was surprised when she got the call from the Stompers saying they were interested in her joining the team. “I was just kinda like, OK, yeah, you know, sounds good but probably won’t happen.”
But when she realized this was serious, and this formerly men’s baseball team wanted to sign her, she says she thought well, “Why not?”
Just how many women have played in professional baseball falls into the byzantine realm of sports statistics and depends on what you consider professional. SB Nation puts Whitmore’s and Piagno’s debut this way:
“A United States professional baseball team will carry women on its roster for just the third time since the 1950s.
“They will be the first players on a professional co-ed baseball team since Eri Yoshida pitched in the Golden Baseball League in 2010.
“Before Yoshida, Ila Borders pitched in a minor league game in 1997, and Toni Stone, Mamie Johnson and Constance Morgan played with the Negro Leagues in the ’50s.”
Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, draws a line between minor league teams that are affiliated with MLB teams, and all other teams, which he puts in a lesser category. “There’s baseball and there’s baseball,” Thorn tells NPR. And by that standard, he says, there’s only been one woman ever to play on a major league or minor league team, and that was in a single minor league game more than 100 years ago:
“July 5, 1898: Lizzie (Stroud) Arlington, with the blessings of Atlantic League president Ed Barrow, later famous as the general manager of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, pitches an inning for Reading against Allentown. She allows two hits but no runs in this first appearance of a woman in Organized Baseball.”
That’s an excerpt from Thorn’s pictorial history of women in baseball, which you can see here.
But by whatever definition, the number of women who have played on professional baseball teams is small. And for those who think that’s unfair, Piagno and Whitmore will be swinging their bats against that history of exclusion.
That history has been on the mind of the owner of the Sonoma Stompers, who happens to be the movie director Francis Ford Coppola.
“When watching Major League Baseball, I always wondered why there couldn’t be a co-ed team. It’s the one major sport in which weight and strength come less into play,” Coppola said in a press release. “I had the opportunity to turn this thought into a reality and recruit these amazing women capable of playing alongside men.”
For her part, Whitmore says she is hoping to learn a lot playing alongside the men. She told NPR in an interview just before her first game, “Being surrounded by these guys who have played at higher levels than this is great because I get more feedback and information.” And Whitmore says that will help her be a better ballplayer.