Eri Yoshida, female baseball player, sidearm knuckleball
Kyodo News/AP
Eri Yoshida

Teenage Girl Drafted By Japanese Baseball Team

November 17, 2008 05:15 PM
by Denis Cummings
A Japanese baseball team drafted 16-year-old Eri Yoshida this weekend, giving her the chance to become the first woman to play professional baseball in Japan.

Team Drafts Female Knuckleballer

Eri Yoshida, a 16-year-old Japanese pitcher, was drafted Sunday by the Kobe 9 Cruise of the Kansai Independent Baseball League, a professional league beginning play in 2009. She impressed league officials during open tryouts earlier this month, using her sidearm knuckleball to retire eight batters without allowing a hit.

I wanted to shine in baseball and aimed to become a professional player,” said Yoshida. “My mind has gone blank but I'm happy.”

The knuckleball, which is thrown with little or no spin, is designed to move erratically and confuse the batter. It has been used successfully by baseball Hall of Famers Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro, and Yoshida’s idol, Boston Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield. “I also want be a player who can hold them down with a knuckleball,” said Yoshida.

It is uncertain whether Yoshida will pitch next year, as there are issues such as schooling and housing still to be resolved. Furthermore, there are doubts whether she will be a legitimate member of the team or just a one-game publicity stunt for the fledgling league. Several leagues and teams—most notably the United States Basketball League and National Hockey League’s Tampa Bay Lightning—have signed female players just for the publicity.

Yoshida would be the first female player in a Japanese professional league, but not the first to play professional baseball alongside men. Several American women have played professional baseball; three black women—Toni Stone, Connie Morgan and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson—played in the Negro Leagues in the 1950s. Johnson was honored this past year when she, along with 29 other surviving Negro league players, was symbolically drafted in the 2008 MLB Draft.

In 1997, Ila Borders became the first woman to play in an integrated professional league when she pitched for the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League. She pitched four seasons in the Northern League and Western Baseball League, posting a 1.67 ERA in the 1999 season.

Background: Female athletes in men’s pro leagues

There have been a handful of female athletes who have played professionally against men, often as a publicity stunt. Though athletes such as Babe Didrikson Zaharias competed against men in the early part of the 20th century, the modern ability of women to compete against men can be traced by to tennis star Billie Jean King’s 1973 win over Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.”

“Most important perhaps for women everywhere, she convinced skeptics that a female athlete can survive pressure-filled situations and that men are as susceptible to nerves as women,” wrote The New York Times’ Neil Amdur wrote about King.

In 1986 basketball player Nancy Lieberman became the first woman to play in a professional men’s league, joining the Springfield Fame of the United States Basketball League. “She’s gonna save our franchise! She’s gonna save our league!” said one Fame teammate of the publicity she brought. She played two seasons in the USBL, spending most of the time on the bench.

In 1992, goaltender Manon Rheaume became the first woman to play in a professional men’s hockey game when the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning signed her to play an exhibition game in 1992. “I’d be a liar to say I wasn’t using this for publicity,” said Lightning general manager Phil Esposito. “But I don’t care if she is a woman. If there were a horse with skates and it could stop a puck, I’d put it in there.”

In 2003, forward Hayley Wickenheiser became the first female skater to play alongside—and score against—men, playing two seasons with Finnish second-division team Kirkkonummi Salamat. She is currently playing with a Swedish men’s team.

Golfers Annika Sorenstam, Suzy Whaley and Michelle Wie have all competed in men’s tournaments this decade, the first since Didrikson Zaharias in 1945. Sorenstam, the first of the three, shot a respectable 5-over in two rounds and earned the respect of many players who were critical of her acceptance into the tournament.

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