Is there a future for women in the national pastime? Baseball player Malaika Underwood hopes so

Malaika Underwood U.S. womens national baseball team
USA Baseball

This story is the second in an On Her Turf series called “Groundbreakers,” which highlights female athletes who compete in sports or events that 1) are primarily contested by men or 2) aren’t currently open to women at the highest level. Today’s story features Malaika Underwood, a veteran member of the U.S. women’s national baseball team.

How to begin a career as a women’s baseball player

Malaika Underwood is a member of the U.S. women’s national baseball – yes, baseball – team. (For the record, the U.S. also has a men’s national softball team.)

“Still to this day, I’ll tell someone I play on the U.S. women’s national baseball team, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, you mean softball?’”

In fact, Underwood – who has appeared on every U.S. roster since 2006 – owns the record for most appearances on a USA Baseball national team.

Underwood’s baseball career began while growing up in San Diego, California. “Everybody in our neighborhood played baseball, so I decided that was what I wanted to as well,” she explains.

As she progressed from tee-ball to Little League, she says she received nothing but support from her family. “In our unit, if you wanted to do something – including playing baseball – go do it.”

But around seventh grade, friends of the family began recommending she try a different sport: softball.

“They were doing it under the guise of looking out for me, but I felt like, why should I consider a sport that I’ve never played or have much interest in?”

While these conversations didn’t sway Underwood’s commitment to baseball, they did impact her understanding of the world. “It probably was the first time that it really occurred to me that there were things in society guys got to do – without question – that girls and women didn’t.”

As Underwood’s graduation from middle school neared, she wanted to ensure she would have the opportunity to continue playing baseball. There were about half a dozen high schools that were open to her, from public schools to magnet schools. She sent a letter to the head baseball coach at each high school, asking if he would be willing to have a girl try out for the team. “I stated that I wasn’t looking for special treatment, I just wanted to know that I would have a fair chance,” she explains. 

She received a variety of answers. “Some more or less said ‘No, we have a softball team,’ and others were very open about it.” 

The latter group included La Jolla High School, which Underwood decided to attend. She played two years of JV baseball before making the varsity team as a junior. She also played volleyball and basketball, and ultimately earned a scholarship to continue playing volleyball at the University of North Carolina.

As a student-athlete at UNC, Underwood focused on volleyball. She compiled a decorated career, including being named MVP of the ACC tournament as a junior. After her volleyball career concluded, she stayed in Chapel Hill for grad school. At that point, she had already made her way back to baseball as a youth team coach, but she found herself wanting to play. While looking for a league she could join, she stumbled upon the fact that USA Baseball – based just 20 miles down the road in Cary, North Carolina – was holding an open women’s tryout for the 2006 World Cup.

“I had no idea there was even a women’s national team,” Underwood explains. “I thought, I’ll get some swings in, take some ground balls, and see what happens… And I haven’t looked back.”

The softball problem

To be clear, Underwood has no animosity towards softball.

“Softball is a great game. To be a baseball player isn’t to disparage softball. It’s just to want to play baseball.”

But that doesn’t mean that the lack of women’s baseball opportunities isn’t directly connected to the growth of women’s softball.

Women’s exclusion from baseball has a long and complicated history. (For a more in-depth dive on this topic, suggested reading includes Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball by Jennifer Ring.)

One of the more significant – and recent – developments in this saga unfolded in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1972. That year, 12-year-old Maria Pepe signed up to play for a local Little League baseball team. She played only two or three games before Little League’s national office got wind of her involvement in the sport. (At the time, Little League rules did not allow girls to participate.) When Little League’s national organization threatened to revoke Hoboken’s license for allowing a girl to play, Pepe was dropped from her team’s roster

Upon hearing Pepe’s story, a New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) filed a sex discrimination suit against Little League’s national organization.

Sylvia B. Pressler, the hearings officer with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, ruled in favor of NOW, writing in her decision, “The institution of Little League is as American as the hot dog and apple pie. There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.”

Pressler’s ruling was later upheld by the New Jersey Appellate Court.

Little League’s executive board initially voted to appeal the ruling, but with grievances and legal fights growing in other states, the organization ultimately bowed to pressure and changed its boys-only rule in 1974.

But that doesn’t exactly mean the organization started welcoming girls with open arms.

In 1974 – the same year girls won the right to play Little League baseball – the organization launched a new program: Little League softball. 

Coincidence? Not exactly. 

While girls were technically allowed to sign up for baseball, many of them were instead funneled into the “sister sport” of softball.

“I do not mean in any way to disparage softball, but softball has filled that void. It’s made it acceptable to be like, ‘Oh, but you have a stick and ball sport.’ That’s like telling Serena Williams, ‘Hey, you can play ping pong… It’s the same. You have a paddle and a ball and there’s even a net in between you…’ It just seems so strange that we’re okay with that.”

[RELATED: Unequal footing in track and field: Jordan Gray’s fight for a women’s decathlon]

Of course, this was all happening at the same time that Title IX – the landmark 1972 Civil Rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs and activities that receive federal funding – came into existence.

While Title IX led to greater opportunities for women in sport, it didn’t necessarily result in equal gains for all sports. Twelve years after Title IX was passed, the first NCAA women’s softball tournament was held. Fourteen years after that, softball made its Olympic debut in 1996. 

Meanwhile, women’s baseball struggled to gain traction. 

“If you have a daughter who’s pretty good on the [baseball] field, and wants to get a college scholarship, her best chance – unless she plays volleyball or basketball or something else – is to switch to softball,” Underwood explains. “Who am I to tell you not to do that and take that opportunity?”

The future of women’s baseball

Stories about the fight for women’s equality are often taught using the glass ceiling metaphor: women work their way up the ladder, finally pushing through the final barrier and shattering the glass ceiling.

But the problem in women’s baseball isn’t really a glass ceiling. A more accurate comparison might that of a skydeck: some people are close to the top, but they’re walking on a glass floor, an uncertain abyss below their feet.

Underwood describes her sport like a top-heavy pyramid. “At the very top of the pyramid [where the national team is], things are pretty good. But everything else underneath it needs to be to be reinforced… If we can get a good club system or opportunities [in the middle]… then it affects the bottom of the pyramid.”

That’s not to say that being a member of the U.S. national women’s baseball team is easy.

The U.S. team typically only trains together for a few weeks out of the year, and only in years when there are major competitions. In between, players – who are all either in school or have other jobs – train on their own.

Underwood helps coordinate some of these self-funded, player-organized sessions. “If we can get five or six people together for a long weekend and train together, it’s helpful,” she explains.

Underwood is also extremely busy away from the baseball diamond. She and her husband Chris live just outside of Jacksonville, Florida, with their daughters: two-year-old Birdie and five-month-old Kit. “Our hands have been very full. My husband and I are learning how to manage two kids instead of one,” she laughs.

On top of that, Underwood, who has spent her professional career working in sports licensing, recently started a new job. In August, she was named Senior Vice President of Licensing for OneTeam Partners. “We help athletes maximize the value of their name, image and likeness,” she explains.

Despite these new demands, don’t expect Underwood – who turns 40 next year – to retire from baseball anytime soon. “People who know me really well have heard me say, ‘Oh, I think next year might be my last year,’ and they always laugh. They’re like ‘You’ve been saying that for years… You’re just gonna keep playing until they tell you you can’t anymore.'”

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Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.