The GoodSport Interview: Justine Siegal
By Aimee Crawford
When Justine Siegal was 13, a coach told her she couldn’t play baseball anymore, even though she was one of the best players in the league. To the coach, all that mattered was that she was a girl. “I don’t want you on my team,” he told Siegal. “Girls should play softball.”
Instead of giving up, Siegal stuck with her favorite sport, going on to become the first woman to coach professional men’s baseball (in 2009, with the Brockton Rox), the first woman to throw batting practice to an MLB team (in 2011, with Cleveland) and the first woman to coach for a Major League Baseball organization (in 2015, with the Oakland A’s instructional league in Arizona).
She has also channeled her love for the game into creating a more level playing field for the next generation of girls and women. Siegal founded Baseball for All, a nonprofit that promotes gender equity in the sport. Last month, almost 500 girls between the ages of 8 and 19 convened in Aberdeen, Maryland, for Baseball For All’s sixth national tournament.
Siegal’s next goal: increasing opportunities for women to play baseball at the college level. On Aug. 14 and 15, Baseball for All hosted the Women’s College Baseball Invitational, an all-women’s college showcase and tournament at Centenary University in New Jersey for students interested in playing college baseball. Four of the women participating are already slated to play at colleges next season.
In between it all, Siegal has found time to serve as a consultant on the “A League of Their Own” TV series currently in production in Pittsburgh. She spoke with GoodSport about putting a crack in the grass ceiling, coaching actors vs. coaching ballplayers, and why creating opportunities for girls and women to play baseball is a social justice issue.
Why is it important for girls to have the chance to play baseball with other girls?
Siegal: I founded Baseball For All to empower girls to believe in themselves and to keep playing the game they love. Our organization isn’t just about girls playing baseball. It’s addressing the larger issue of gender equity in the game. Too many girls are still told they shouldn’t — or can’t — play baseball because they’re girls. If you tell a girl she can’t play baseball, what else will she think she can’t do?
Building more opportunities for girls to play baseball with other girls was our long-term growth model. We knew that if we built it, they would come. And they have. When girls come to Baseball For All tournaments, many of them realize for the first time that they’re not alone — and that they belong in baseball.
How much has the landscape changed for girls baseball since you created your first team?
Siegal: We started with one team of 12 girls playing in an otherwise all-boys tournament in Cooperstown, New York, in 2003. It turned into a nationwide movement. This year, we had 50 teams and nearly 500 players at the national tournament. We welcomed new teams from Atlanta, the Bronx, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Providence, Seattle and San Diego. If not for COVID and travel restrictions, we would have had another eight to 10 teams at nationals. There are many more girls out there who want to play baseball. We could have 40 girls baseball teams just on the West Coast. We just need to help them get organized and find the resources to continue to expand.
When I looked out, during the opening ceremonies of our national tournament and saw a whole stadium full of girls who were there to play baseball, my heart was so full. I had this idea that took so long to come together and now everyone’s in on the idea. I’m no longer alone with it.
Your next goal is increasing college baseball opportunities for women. How do you plan to do that?
Siegal: My dream was to play college baseball. So I chose a Division III school that had a no-cut policy. Then, when I showed up at the first practice, they told me that they had run out of uniforms. It didn’t seem right. But, back then I had no one to turn to. It was just another wall.
Girls are still being told they have to switch from baseball to softball because that’s where the opportunity is at the college level. I decided that the solution is to help create baseball opportunities for women at the college level. We’re partnering with 12 colleges across the country this fall to help form women’s club college baseball teams, which is a necessary step in the sport becoming NCAA-sanctioned. Then we’ll host a national tournament for women’s college club teams next spring.
What about women who want to play on men’s college teams?
Siegal: We still support co-ed opportunities for women at the college level, and women playing with the men. I reached out to more than 1,000 college baseball coaches to ask if they would be willing to watch highlight video of a female baseball player. About 130 coaches replied to say that they would. That number is going to grow as more colleges respond. If a college isn’t on the list, it doesn’t mean that its program is against having a woman on the team. It might mean they haven’t seen the email yet.
We are now getting colleges asking us if we know any women who would be interested in their program. That wasn’t happening a few years ago. So we’re holding the Women’s College Baseball Invitational to showcase the immense amount of talent we already have at the high school and college levels. These players will get a chance and show their love for the game and desire to play college baseball. Colleges want to find the best players and are starting to realize that there’s a whole new market of players they could be tapping into.
The past year has been a historic one for women in baseball. Kim Ng became the first woman to be named GM of an MLB team. Alyssa Nakken was hired by the Giants as the first full-time female coach. What does that progress look like from your perspective?
Siegal: I’m so happy for them and thrilled that the doors are now open. I’m also the first to tell everyone that I’m completely jealous. I recognized pretty early on that, while I would be the one who put the crack in the ceiling, other women would be the ones to break through it.
You’re helping shape the future of girls and women baseball in other ways — not just on the field, but also behind the camera. Amazon Studios is rebooting A League of Their Own — a film near and dear to girls and women who love baseball — as a TV series. You’ve been part of that effort. What is your role?
Siegal: I’m the baseball coordinator for A League of Their Own, which is being filmed in Pittsburgh. It’s a full-time job for five months. I work with everyone who touches the baseball. Not all of the actors are familiar with baseball, so I advise them on how to move and show them the baseball plays. Obviously, I do that with the director’s help, but I evaluate the players and give the director my opinion. And then when we start filming, I help make sure that the baseball scenes look right. I also consult with the writers so that the baseball aspects of the storyline work. A lot of my life is in the script because I told them my stories.
Can you give an example of one of your stories that was incorporated into the script?
Siegal: My daughter, Jasmine, used to kiss my arm as a good luck charm before I pitched batting practice. I shared that with [the writers] and it made it into the script. There are probably 10 other examples, but I can’t reveal them before the show comes out.
How does working with actors compare to coaching athletes?
Siegal: Coaching is coaching. It doesn’t matter if they’re 10-year-olds or college players, or if they’re actors or pro ballplayers. You’re trying to help them perform. I’m learning a lot from the actors because they see the sport differently. Some of them have dance backgrounds and use different language than I do to describe movement. But everyone wants to be good at it. Many of them have improved dramatically.
The show is going to be amazing. It’s going to inspire the next generation of girls to play baseball. And that’s one of the differences between working with an actor and working with a player: an actor has an opportunity to reach millions of people. Besides the pro stars, baseball players don’t always have that same opportunity.
What else still needs to happen to achieve gender equity in baseball?
Siegal: You need resources and support similar to what the boys already receive. To me, it’s a social justice issue. I can’t just watch these girls be treated poorly and not be allowed to blossom into who they want to be. As much as it should just be just about playing baseball, it’s really about much more because these girls still face so many obstacles. I want them to believe in themselves. I lay in bed at night and worry about the problems in the world. I know I can’t fix them all. But I can help the 500 girls at our national tournament believe in themselves and believe in their dreams. Who knows, maybe they will be the leaders that change the world?
What’s left on your bucket list?
Siegal: I would really like to coach at spring training. I’m not in control over whether that happens, but I’m open to another opportunity to coach. I’m open to change. I’m open to any ideas on how we can continue to grow girls baseball.
Photo Credit: Photos courtesy of Baseball For All