When Will Women Play Major League Baseball? (And Not Just on TV)

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The new Fox drama “Pitch,” about the first female pitcher in Major League Baseball, proclaims that it is “a true story on the verge of happening.”

The heavily promoted show, which premieres Thursday, already is drawing praise for its groundbreaking premise. But it also raises questions about just how true and how on the verge the story line really is. Could a female pitcher make it into the major leagues anytime soon? And if so, why hasn’t she yet?

From a scientific standpoint, the answer is yes, she can. While there are some physical obstacles to a woman’s pitching in the major leagues, they aren’t insurmountable. The larger challenges may be social and cultural, as girls struggle to find opportunities and acceptance in a traditional boys’ sport, and boys struggle with the social consequences of being struck out by a girl.

“The opportunities for a girl in this country to play baseball after about age 12 are so incredibly limited,” says Jennifer Ring, author of “A Game of Their Own: Voices of Contemporary Women in Baseball,” and a professor of political science at the University of Nevada. “Guys tend to throw bats after a woman strikes them out, and their teammates tease them.”

Although few people are aware of it, women already do play baseball in the United States at elite levels. The United States National Women’s Baseball team, which is part of USA Baseball, just returned from the Women’s Baseball World Cup, held this month in South Korea. The United States women had a 6-1 record there, although for the first time in international competition, did not medal. Last year, at the Pan-American Games in Toronto, where both men’s and women’s baseball are among the contested sports, the United States women’s national baseball team won gold.

One of that team’s ace pitchers, meanwhile, Sarah Hudek of Sugar Land, Tex., 18, last year became the first woman to be awarded a collegiate baseball scholarship, joining the men’s varsity squad at Bossier Parish Community College in Louisiana, a program that has sent dozens of its players to professional teams. In her first season, Ms. Hudek, the daughter of the former National League reliever John Hudek, struck out many of the collegiate male hitters she faced.

But to date, no female pitcher outside of scripted television has signed an M.L.B. contract.

There is, however, no biological reason a woman could not pitch to major league hitters, says Glenn Fleisig, the research director for the American Sports Medicine Institute and a medical adviser to USA Baseball, who has studied the pitching mechanics of both male and female baseball pitchers.

“A female pitcher will likely throw a fastball with lower velocity than a male pitcher,” he says. “But that is not going to disqualify her from pitching in the majors. If you watch major league baseball, you will see that there is a wide range of fastball velocities among pitchers there. And there is no obvious correlation between those who pitch the fastest and those who are the most successful pitchers.”

Like professional male pitchers, female pitchers would need to perfect multiple types of pitches, he says, including a reliable curveball, changeup and knuckleball, although that last, slow, loopy pitch requires long fingers and large hands, which some women may not have.

But in general, pitching like a girl is very little different from pitching like a boy, Dr. Fleisig says. In a 2009 study of the biomechanics of elite (but not professional) male and female pitchers that he conducted with colleagues, the female pitchers produced slightly less force throughout their fastball pitching motion, from the cocking of the arm behind the back, to the stride forward, and through to the release of the ball itself, than did the male pitchers. Consequently, the top velocity of the pitches by the women was a few miles per hour slower than among the men.

Female pitchers might even have a slight physical advantage because their physiology may insulate them against some of the worst physical effects of high-speed pitching, says Dr. Steve Jordan, an orthopedic surgeon at the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, who treats many professional and amateur baseball players.

“Women tend to have somewhat more laxity in their tendons than men,” he says. “They are more limber.” That looseness, combined with the slower overall velocity of their pitching speed, “could mean that women would be less likely” to suffer the kinds of soft-tissue injuries in their shoulders and elbows, he says, that often fell male pitchers and result in season- and even career-ending surgeries.

“It will take a special athlete and someone with good off-speed pitches,” Dr. Jordan says. “But, physically, sure, a woman could pitch in the major leagues.”

The more-insurmountable obstacles to a woman living the “Pitch” premise aren’t physical.

Women’s baseball is not a high school sport in the United States, although it is in other nations, like Canada and Japan. In this country, girls are directed to softball, which is a women’s sport at the high school and collegiate level, Dr. Ring says.

“If a girl here wants to play baseball, she almost has to play with the boys and the pressure to switch from baseball to softball can be overwhelming,” she says. “People will tell her, you’re missing out on college scholarships” and may also suggest that she is hurting both her body and possibly male opponents’ egos if she sticks with hardball.

Playing elite baseball also can be profoundly lonely for a woman, says Ms. Hudek, the Bossier Parish college player and one of the most successful young female pitchers of recent years.

“For so long, I thought I was the only one,” she says, “because I didn’t know any other women” playing competitive baseball.

But then a few years ago she tried out for and was accepted on to the women’s national team and discovered her tribe.

“It was so wonderful to suddenly be part of a team with other women,” she says. “The guys I’ve played with have been great and really supportive,” she says. But she didn’t feel fully integrated into those all-male squads. “I was always the different one. I was always ‘the girl’ and not just me,” she said.

Ms. Hudek had moments of success on her college baseball team — she was brought in as a reliever in a game against the nation’s ninth-ranked team, struck out three male hitters and was credited with the win, a feat highlighted on the website of the sports network ESPN.

Despite those successes she decided to play only one year with the men’s team. This year, Ms. Hudek accepted a scholarship to switch from baseball and instead take up Division I softball at Texas A&M University in College Station, Tex., where she will be an outfielder, not a pitcher.

“I still love baseball and I plan to keep playing,” she says. She hopes to pitch for the U.S. National team whenever her college schedule allows. “But for what I want out of sports right now,” she says — camaraderie and acceptance, and opportunities to be on the field regularly — “I can find that in softball better than in baseball.”

But for some young women, baseball remains their sole focus, whatever the difficulties.

“It’s all I’ve ever wanted to play,” says Olivia Bricker, a 16-year-old left-handed pitcher in Owensville, Ohio. Last year, Ms. Bricker pitched on the varsity boys’ baseball team at her high school, recording a 90 percent strike rate and also hitting near the top of the team’s order.

Her father, a pitching coach, operates a baseball academy, and when Ms. Bricker was a toddler, “I would take naps right next to the batting cage,” she says. “I knew then that it was baseball for me. People keep trying to push me into softball but I just say no.”

Today she can throw a credible 70-plus m.p.h. fastball, as well as a changeup, curveball, and knuckleball and has plans, she says, to continue baseball pitching until she reaches the majors.

“Why not?” she asks. “I may not throw a fastball as hard as some 6-foot guy.” She is 5-foot-5 and 125 pounds now. “But if you can throw a breaking ball, you don’t really need that much speed,” she says. And her breaking ball, says Ms. Bricker, is “pretty good.”