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.”
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.'”