Cooperstown Symposium sees increase in female participation

Written by: Bill Francis

Reflecting the increase in women taking part in all aspects of professional baseball, the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture has also seen an increase in female presenters in recent years.

Today, the inclusion of women in most sectors of the game includes roles as scouts, coaches, broadcasters and managers, as well as spots in press boxes and front offices. Highlighting the trend is Kim Ng, who became the first female general manager in big league history with the Miami Marlins in 2019 and, more recently, Rachel Balkovec, who was named manager of the New York Yankees’ Class A affiliate in Tampa in 2022.

The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, which will be celebrating its 33rd year in 2022 with a three-day event from June 1-3, is co-sponsored by SUNY Oneonta and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. It examines the impact of baseball on American culture from interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary perspectives.

Considered the country’s preeminent academic baseball conference, its programming doesn’t rely on the game played on the field, per se, but everything else – art, music, poetry, literature, economics, architecture, etc.

For decades, the Symposium attracted an almost exclusively white male audience, but efforts have been made in recent years to increase diversity at the event.

The 2021 Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, which was held June 4-5 and June 11-12 virtually via Zoom due to the pandemic, totaled more than 40 presentations, with seven made by women.

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The female presenters included Meredith Wills - The Myth of the Juiced Ball; Anika Orrock - What We Can Learn From the Stories of America’s First (and so far only) Professional Women’s Baseball League and How It Can Change Again; Ruth Morhard - Baseball’s Role in Youth Development: Beyond Baseball Skills; Caroline Whinney - Why the MLB Should Return to a 154-Game Regular Season; Jennifer Rudolph - #TeamRubio: The 2017 World Baseball Classic and Puerto Rican Nationalism; Allison Levin - Baseball Twitter: The Best Way to Watch a Game?; Perry Barber - Maud Nelson: The Hall of Fame’s Second Woman Inductee?

According to Jim Gates, the longtime librarian at the Baseball Hall of Fame and co-director of the Symposium – along with Dr. Bill Simons at SUNY Oneonta – a concerted effort was made to increase female participation in this academic event.

“This included the active encouragement and recruiting of women presenters, along with the encouragement of everyone to examine and present research papers on all topics related to women and baseball,” Gates, who retired in 2020, said in recent email. “We also made an effort to include women as keynote speakers, which include such notables as Claire Smith, Janet Marie Smith, Sarah Burns and Dr. Carla Hayden.

“The overall result proved worthy as it expanded both the topical coverage of the Symposium, but also helped grow the number of participants in the event.”

Current co-director Cassidy Lent, who is the manager of reference services at the Hall of Fame Library, concurred, adding that since the inception of the Symposium in 1989, there have been a total of 35 keynote speakers, six of whom have been women. Five out of six of those women have been featured within the last 12 years.

“This speaks volumes to how the Symposium has grown over the years,” Lent said. “A great number of our presenters and attendees are women. We are also seeing a number of younger people getting involved, including undergraduate students who are submitting proposals that get accepted for presentation. It's been amazing to see what Bill Simons and Jim Gates built, and more so how it has blossomed.”

An example of how this outreach has impacted lives includes the story of Elizabeth Benn, who was named director of major-league operations for the New York Mets in March 2022. The 28-year-old became the highest-ranking female baseball operations employee in franchise history.

As relayed in a Toronto Star story, Benn was encouraged by a professor at the University of Toronto to submit a proposal to the Cooperstown Symposium. She presented Baseball’s Gender Problem in 2017. Soon after, with Major League Baseball looking to diversify the game, Benn’s résumé and paper about gender discrimination began her journey up the ladder of the baseball industry.

A trio of women who presented during the 2021 Cooperstown Symposium shared stories about their love of the game, what they’ve faced as they pursue careers in and around the game and their reaction to media reports of females in the game facing sexual harassment and misogyny.

Caroline Whinney is a senior at Syracuse University, triple majoring in real estate, finance and accounting. Whinney is from Doylestown, Pa., and her brother is a catcher at College of the Holy Cross.

“In the beginning I was getting dragged to my brother’s games because my parents had to take me where they went. I was bored. And one of the games that I went to my dad started teaching me how to score keep. And I loved it,” Whinney said. “I think that's part of the reason why I love baseball so much is because scorekeeping helped me to actually understand what was going on. I think that that's a reason why a lot of people don't love baseball: Because they're not 100 percent sure what's going on.”

Whinney hasn’t ruled out pursuing a role in baseball in the future.

“A lot of women grow up either having parents who love baseball, or, like me, having siblings who play baseball. That's just a big part of their lives and they're more likely to want to do things to get involved now that they're able to,” Whinney said. "And like me, I would love to do something in baseball eventually, maybe something business-related. There's just a lot more opportunities.

“Being a triple major, I've got quite a lot of options in terms of what I'm going to do. But if there were an opportunity in Major League Baseball or something relating to baseball, I would definitely take it.”

Dr. Meredith Wills is a sports data scientist with SMT (SportsMEDIA Technology), having transitioned from a previous career in astrophysics. She has been in the news over the last few years regarding her work on the composition of baseballs. She has also worked as a knitting designer with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, creating reproductions of vintage baseball sweaters.

“I've literally been a part of baseball from the start, as I was born on Opening Day when Hank Aaron tied Babe Ruth’s career home run record. My dad got me a baseball bat that day I was born and I still have it. I was three weeks old when my dad took me to my first ballgame. So baseball has always been a part of my life,” Wills said. “My identity is so tied into baseball. I wouldn't be me without it. I still keep score when I go to games. I actually have my own scoring system that I designed and copyrighted. And one of my favorite things is to go to ball games on my own. Just totally by myself. And I just watch and keep score, preferably a midweek night game that a lot of people don't go to.

“The frame around my license plate says, ‘Baseball is my Happy Place.’”

She admits, though, that her unconventional background is probably very different than other women who took part in the Symposium because of her PhD in astrophysics.

“And so I had an initial career doing astrophysics, then 10 years ago I decided to jump careers and took the skillset that I had from astrophysics and now my real job relates to ball and player tracking and analyzing the data,” Wills said. “And generally I am the only woman in the room. Being one of the more knowledgeable people in the room as far as baseball, I have not really run into situations where people work under the assumption that because I'm a girl I don't know the game. I don't think gender has ever come into it. It might be the PhD as well. I spent nine years in grad school working for it, so it does seem to make a difference.”

Regarding the perceived changing attitudes toward women in baseball, Dr. Wills shared her own experiences in the game.

“Some teams are probably better than others. I did apply for jobs with a lot of teams. There were a few teams that I was told just don't because even if they hired you you'd want to leave, particularly because of their attitude towards women,” Wills said. “There was one team I interviewed with that I suspect I may have been the preferred candidate, but they had just brought on a new manager with a new coaching staff. And this was a team who wanted to have their analysts interact within the clubhouse. And I suspect the reason I didn't get the job was because one of the coaches said, ‘No, we don't want a woman down in the clubhouse.’

“All I can say is I think I've gotten lucky. I haven't interacted with the kind of people where any pushback or harassment would be an issue. If there are gender issues, which there very may well be, they are not things that have been overtly directed at me.”

Anika Orrock is an illustrator, cartoonist and writer whose book, The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, was published in 2020. Her family history includes a great-grandfather and grandfather who both played the game at a high level.

“There was always a love for it in our family and I just grew up loving it, but before I really loved the game I loved the sound of it. My grandparents always had it on the radio or on the television and it would always be on in the car,” Orrock said. “It was such a comfort and such a nostalgic thing for just hearing the San Francisco Giants games. When I finally understood the game, that was already kind of there for me, that love of the sound of it.”

Orrock’s passion for the game is evident in her book, where she was able to combine her two loves.

“I grew up loving baseball and I always felt like I belonged, but as I got older and started spending more time around other baseball fans at the ballpark, and then when I started doing more work in baseball, there's this question of whether or not you actually belong, that there are gatekeepers,” she said. “There is this sense that people feel like they don't belong, even if they love it. So it's really great to see at least some steps moving the needle a little bit because it really should belong to everybody.”

While Orrock doesn’t think she has received much pushback as a female in baseball, she did admit to microaggressions.

“For example, one time I got on a bus in San Francisco and I was wearing a Seals jacket, and an older white gentleman standing next to me on the bus just started telling me who the Seals were, what they did,” Orrock said. “It was odd because he just assumed that I didn't know what I was wearing basically.

“I've also had these pop quizzes where people, when they realize you're a fan, start asking you baseball questions. Unknowingly saying things that were very patronizing, sort of patting me on the head or isn't that cute that you love baseball.”

Having her presentation accepted by the Cooperstown Symposium was “a tremendous honor,” Orrock said.

“What really excited me about it is that I came at it from a unique angle. I've done a lot of research for my book and I had interviewed women who played baseball, but I don't come from a history background or an athletic background,” Orrock said. “I come from a background of storytelling and art, and the connection of story between people and what it does and how it can foster understanding, how it can foster connection.

“Story is really at the heart of baseball. So it was really gratifying for me to be able to present that as my topic, using story as the connecting point.”

Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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