Driving down the Sunset Strip has always felt a little like being in a magazine. The billboards loom and beckon, towering and untouchable and yet still totally in your face. Today they advertise luxury brands and new TV shows, but once upon a time—back when the Sunset Strip was at the heart and soul of rock ‘n’ roll—they were hand painted musical monoliths, larger-than-life variations on album art and psychedelic interpretations of soon-to-be hit records. As Hunter Oatman-Stanford put it, “in the 1970s, you knew you’d made it big if your record label paid for a hand-painted billboard on the Strip.” The hand painted rock billboards on the Strip were an art form specific to LA’s car culture, intended not for gallery walls but to be seen through a windshield at cruising speed, and preferably with the convertible top down.
According to the Los Angeles Times, each billboard took roughly ten days to produce, with costs ranging from $1,200 to $10,000. Craftsmen would hand paint the illustrations on individual wood panels at warehouses in Mid City, before ultimately reassembling the pieces on location in the wee hours. And they were by nature ephemeral—each was destroyed after its contract ended.
Luckily for us, a photographer named Robert Landau documented many of the billboards during their roughly decade-and-a-half heyday (from 1967 to the advent of MTV in the early 1980’s). Landau was a teenager living with his dad in the hills above the legendary Sunset Strip Tower Records when he first started documenting the fleeting masterpieces, shooting with a Nikkormat camera and Kodachrome film. A few years ago, he published a complete catalog of his photos with Angel City Press, and in a few weeks the billboards will finally grace museum walls, when an exhibit of Landau’s work opens at the LA’s Skirball Cultural Center.
Over at Collectors Weekly, Hunter Oatman-Stanford has interviewed Landau about his work and the billboards themselves. Below is a short excerpt:
Collectors Weekly: Who started the music industry’s billboard trend?
Landau: As far as I can tell, it was the Doors in 1967 for their debut album. I talked with Jac Holzman—the head of Elektra Records who signed the Doors—while writing my book. In 1967, he had just come out here from the East Coast and opened an office on La Cienega Boulevard, not far from Sunset Boulevard, and it occurred to him that billboards were being used for everything except promoting records and music. A lot of radio stations where popular disc jockeys worked were farther east on Sunset, and he knew they drove on the Strip, and that the entertainment industry in general was based there.
The Doors were really into it; the whole band even climbed up on top for a photo shoot. Jim Morrison was quoted as saying he thought it was cool he’d be hanging over the Strip like a specter. I think at that time, it cost about a thousand dollars a month, which was quite a bit of an investment then. Elektra signed on for a year, and they had several different billboards. Little by little, the other record companies caught on.
How Clive Davis and Arista won the battle to sign Whitney Houston—then went searching for songs for her debut:
“Two years later, Griffith got a call from a friend. Had he ever heard of Whitney Houston? She asked him. He remembered her name immediately from the show he’d seen and said so. ‘You better move fast,’ she cautioned. ‘She’s negotiating with Elektra for a deal.’ The news shook him up. ‘I said, “Uh-oh – I better check this out,”‘ he recalls. As it turned out, Houston was performing that very weekend at another New York club, Seventh Avenue South. Griffith called Houston’s manager, Gene Harvey, and had his name put on the guest list.
“‘So I went down, and I was completely floored,’ Griffith says now. ‘She was mesmerizing. I couldn’t believe she had grown so much in that two-year period. She went from a teenager to a woman. She had a mature look, her voice was more mature, she had obvious star quality. It took no genius to see it – all you had to do was just see her and you knew. I’ll never forget, she sang the song “Tomorrow” from [the musical] Annie, and it was a showstopper. After I got up off the floor, I just knew that I had to bring her to the label.'”
Aaron Gilbreath| Longreads | December 2018 | 25 minutes (6,357 words)
When other writers and I get together, we sometimes mourn the state of music writing. Not its quality — the music section of any good indie bookstore offers proof of its vigor — but what seems like the reduced number of publications running longer music stories. Read more…
Yvonne Conza | Longreads | December 2018 | 28 minutes (6,875 words)
Dad is dying. A cell phone ping alerts me to a terse, fracturing email from my father’s younger brother.
Your Father is in a Florida Hospice. My eyes freeze on the bold subject line as I’m having dinner with a friend at an East Village restaurant. The muffled music and clatter of cutlery become an inescapable tunnel of sound. Childhood memories torpedo my thoughts and conflict with the reality that Dad is close to passing away on the cusp of turning 79. Thirty years of not knowing where or how he lived vanish.
To most everyone, John Joseph Downes was Jack, but to a few he was Jacqueline, and to Mom, my three older siblings and me, called “Jackass” behind his back. Dad’s multiplex of enduring identities also include: door-to-door Encyclopedia Britannica salesman; entrepreneur selling jigs, molds, gauges and fixture parts to automotive plants through a business he built from scratch; and the owner of a successful home health care agency. A Buffalo Bills fan, he gave his season tickets to clients while he watched games at home eating cheese curds and pretzels. He was a seeker of public office, wearer of white button-down shirts with wife-beater tanks underneath, actual wife beater, sporadic psoriasis sufferer, excellent provider, entertainer, showoff, lover of culture and a Chivas Regal drinker who, as these wailing memories emerge, will not live two months more to celebrate his New Year’s Eve birthday.
For a few years, Dad donned a hearse-black, trapezoid-contoured toupee that our Russian Blue cat murderously stalked like a sly predator. When askew on Dad’s head, the cat didn’t tamper with the hairpiece. But once it was placed atop Mom’s dresser she pounced on it, battled with double-sided tape and amused all, even Dad, with her mischief. Stored in a cherry wood armoire and draped over a creepy female Styrofoam white mannequin wig stand was Dad’s more notable wig, a dolled up shoulder-length Jackie O. bouffant postiche with satiny strands looped into starched beach waves. Had he added oval, dark, smoke-tinted oversized sunglasses, the look would have been complete.
He had a proclivity towards cross-dressing, a marital joint venture since Mom slipped him into finery that hung inside a shared closet. Though their bedroom door was kept closed, the curtains weren’t pulled down, perhaps intentionally, to spark a pivotal conversation. As a child of 8, I was blindsided by intimate details that felt jarring and amiss. Whenever I put away his freshly laundered socks and t-shirts, I had to open the shuttered double doors of his dresser and be exposed to the cavernous storage area where timepieces and ties kept Jackie O’s foam head company.
When I was not much older, flickering flashes, not belonging to a swarm of fireflies, distracted me from Charlie’s Angels. Looking up to the wide-open windows of my parent’s second floor bedroom I saw Dad accessorized, demure and toying with puckered painted lips. Backlit and indefinably beautiful, he seemed more himself in a size 16 dress than in one of his polyester baby blue or pickle green leisure suits.
Once while snooping for Christmas presents, I discovered Polaroid portraits of Dad as Jackie stashed in a shabby shoebox on the top shelf of my parents’ bedroom closet. Clad in kitten heels, stockings and a conservative, zip-from-behind dress, he had been transformed into a chunky, rarified suggestion of Jacqueline Kennedy. When not embodying Jacqueline, he wore a suit, white shirt and tie, shaved, splashed on decadent amounts of Old Spice. It was hard for him to keep a clean shave, 5 o’clock shadow always intruding. He bore a resemblance to Don Knotts, the billboard-sized forehead over his eyebrows, which I inherited, displaying struggle, though in a more generous light it beamed with determination. After stuffing pens in his pocket protector, heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work he’d go — a tender, paunch bellied dwarf with pick and shovel who knew not to return home until a million diamonds shined, and his worth to his wife could be proven.
Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2018 | 8 minutes (2,007 words)
She looks like your mom. The way she does when you’ve fucked up. She’s already shaking her head before he comes out. He knows he’s done something wrong. She does too. And when he finally shows up her anger is as hot as the arterial hue of the set around her. “Take Me Back Cardi,” says the flower display he has rolled out into the middle of her performance — a request, but not really. This is a declaration, the kind of display you see in a children’s parade. Because that’s what this is: infantile and garish and impersonal. And when Offset advances, his head bowed, holding a bouquet of white flowers I could never afford, his wife, mid-concert, is not having it. You can’t hear her, but you can see her holding up that index finger, and you can read those lips: “Stop.” But the damage is done.
Though the circumstances vary, within days of each other three famous men — Offset, Pete Davidson, and Kanye West — expressed what could be uncharitably characterized as the male version of hysteria (prostacea?) this past weekend. And in each case, the women who love them — Cardi B, Ariana Grande, and Kim Kardashian West, respectively — bore part of the burden. All three of these famous women showed up to defuse the situation, whether they were still with the man in question or not. Because, despite their celebrity and their power, social mores restrict all of them to a familiar script: when men act up, women clean up.
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It took less than a year for Offset to fuck up. In December 2017, a sex tape surfaced purportedly showing him in bed with a woman who was not his wife. In a Rolling Stone cover story published soon after (he appeared alongside his group, Migos), he refused to discuss it. “It’s my real life,” he said. “It ain’t no gig. It ain’t no fucking game, you know what I’m saying?” What Offset was saying was that he could choose not to say anything, while his fiancée was bombarded with questions — “didnt he cheat on u like 14 times (this year)? ” “yoooo why is cardi b still with loser ass offset how many times does he need to cheat on you sis” — about why she continued to be with an unfaithful deadbeat. And it was said wife, Cardi B, who finally addressed it in her Cosmopolitan cover. “I’m going to take my time, and I’m going to decide,” she said. “It’s not right, what he fucking did—but people don’t know what I did, ’cause I ain’t no angel.” But she wasn’t the one with a (reportedly) leaked sex tape. And the issue wasn’t really misbehavior. It was that a man in a public relationship was once again messing up and leaving the woman to tidy up after him.
Nor did it seem entirely true that Offset didn’t consider it a “fucking game.” Earlier this month, Cardi B posted a video on Instagram stating that the couple had split. She spoke diplomatically — “I guess we just grew out of love” — and praised her ex despite the circumstances. Offest issued a glib comment in response, “Y’all won,” which appeared to shift the onus from him to the public. A few days later he tweeted at this nebulous populace again: “FUCK YALL I MISS CARDI.” He then posted a birthday video in which he stated his one wish was to reunite with Cardi B along with one of those I’m-sorry-you-felt-bad non-apologies: “I want to apologize to you Cardi, you know I embarrassed you, I made you a little crazy,” “I apologize for breaking your heart.”
A day later Offset crashed his wife’s gig headlining the Rolling Loud festival (she was the first woman to do so). “All of my wrongs have been made public,” he tweeted, “i figure it’s only right that my apologies are made public too.” The calculus smacked inconsiderate — Offset seemed to be only thinking about himself, how gracious he was being, and not about Cardi B, how his intrusion affected her, how it interrupted her work, how it dumped his emotional distress on her doorstep. That was for her to worry about.
The predominant public reaction to Offset was that he was being manipulative, swiping the spotlight and interrupting a woman on the job — “It’s toxic because it is somebody who has created the negativity in the situation trying to control the situation,” actress Amanda Seales said on Instagram — while a minority of famous men, including 50 Cent, The Game, and John Mayer, argued that Cardi B should take him back. Once again, she was left to handle the fallout. Even before she had removed her costume, the exhausted “Be Careful” rapper went on Instagram live backstage to defend her ex. “Even though I’m hurt and I’m like going through a fucked up stage right now,” she said, “I don’t want nobody fucking talking crazy about my baby father neither.” That same night, she posted another video in which she mentioned Pete Davidson, who had written what many assumed to be a suicide note earlier in the day: “I wouldn’t want my baby father to have that feeling because of millions of people be bashing him every day.”
Ariana Grande is to Pete Davidson what Cardi B is to Offset. The 25-year-old pop star has been mythologized as a maternal figure ever since her response to the Manchester bombing. At that time, there was a patronizing tenor to the accolades she received about her grace, as though she were as responsible as the president to heal a nation. And she embodied that same spirit for her ex. In early December, Davidson, who was recently diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, posted an emotional message on Instagram about his state of mind in the wake of his split from Grande (they started dating in May, were engaged in June, and broke up in October). “I’m trying to understand how when something happens to a guy the whole entire world just trashes him without any facts or frame of reference,” he wrote. Grande, whose last boyfriend Mac Miller died in September of an accidental overdose, shared the note and politely reminded everyone to be kind, despite having just one month prior been annoyed with Davidson’s Saturday Night Live joke about their failed engagement. “i care deeply about pete and his health,” she wrote. “i’m asking you to please be gentler with others, even on the internet.” Then, just this past weekend, Davidson, who has been open about a past suicide attempt, set off alarms with another demonstrative Instagram post. “i really don’t want to be on this earth anymore,” it read. “i’m doing my best to stay here for you but i actually don’t know how much longer i can last.” Grande, who had been blocked by her ex on social media, rushed to the SNL set. “I know u have everyone u need and that’s not me, but i’m here too,” she tweeted. (Davidson reportedly refused to see her.)
Perhaps the most beleaguered constituent of celebrity coupledom is Kim Kardashian West, though she claims to simply be returning the favor: “He’s put himself up against the world for me when everyone told him, ‘You cannot date a girl with a sex tape. You cannot date a reality-show girl. This is gonna ruin your career.'” But even if a relationship can be measured as a series of transactions, she has paid off her debt to Kanye West multiple times over. Earlier this year Kardashian West defended her husband, who has claimed he was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, as a “free thinker” amid reports that his mental health was in disarray following a split with his manager and lawyer. When West more recently ranted on Twitter about Drake, claiming that the Canadian rapper had threatened him, his wife tweeted at said rapper, “Never threaten my husband or our family. He paved the way for there to be a Drake.” She has even defended West against mere trifles: after he was called out for using his phone at a Broadway show, Kardashian West explained that he was just taking notes. But her most labor-intensive support followed West’s controversial visit to the White House in October, red MAGA hat in tow. In an interview with CNN’s Van Jones, the reality megastar was tasked with interpreting her husband’s “confusing” meeting rather than talking about her own work. “I feel like he’s very misunderstood and the worst communicator,” she said. Jones praised her for her devotion, dubbing her “the Kanye translator.”
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“I am not a babysitter or a mother,” Ariana Grande proclaimed in May. She tweeted the pronouncement after she was blamed for ex Mac Miller’s car accident (the charge: she had broken up with him and moved on to Davidson). Grande was not having it: “shaming / blaming women for a man’s inability to keep his shit together is a very major problem.” This problem will be familiar to those who are aware of the gendered reality of “emotional labor,” a term coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983 to refer to the management of feelings in the context of paid employment (the service industry, for instance). Though the expression has become a catchall for every type of emotional admin performed by women, Grande is referring specifically to another Hochschild term, “emotion work”: This is the support women provide, primarily in their close relationships, that causes needless distress to them. “In general, we gender emotions in our society by continuing to reinforce the false idea that women are always, naturally and biologically able to feel, express, and manage our emotions better than men,” sociologist Dr. Lisa Huebner told Gemma Hartley, who expanded this line of thinking in her 2018 book, Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. “We find all kinds of ways in society to ensure that girls and women are responsible for emotions and, then, men get a pass.”
Within this paradigm, a number of famous women have defended not just their significant others but their male friends over #MeToo claims. Most recently, a number of actresses have emerged to support NCIS star Michael Weatherly over sexual harassment claims made by actress Eliza Dushku. Lena Dunham has also apologized for defending Girls writer Murray Miller against a sexual assault accusation after claiming “insider knowledge” she didn’t in fact possess. “I had actually internalized the dominant male agenda that asks us to defend it no matter what, protect it no matter what,” she wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, introducing the issue she guest edited. The converse rarely applies — unruly women, like Azealia Banks or Amanda Bynes, are rarely publicly defended by men. To this day, Sean Young is remembered primarily for her alleged harassment of James Woods in 1988 rather than her performances. Other women, like Lindsay Lohan and Amber Heard, must defend themselves. I’m sure there are men who have supported women who act out the way Cardi B supports Offset, Ariana Grande supports Pete Davidson, and Kim Kardashian West supports Kanye West, but I consume media for a living and I literally can’t think of any.
This phenomenon is not restricted to celebrities, of course. It contaminates every realm, from politics (see Ashley and Brett Kavanaugh) to tech (see Grimes and Elon Musk). Emotion work implicates all women in the downfall of their significant others (when men triumph, women are rarely given the same credit) and monopolizes the time and energy they could be providing their own work — it compromises women not only personally but professionally. Which is not to say that emotion work should transcend gender: rather, it should not be the norm for anyone. By taking responsibility for our own behavior, we release those around us from a life of hard labor on our behalf. “The solution is not for men and women to share alienated work,” Hochschild told The Atlantic. “The solution is for men and women to share enchanted work. These are expressions of love.”
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.
This story first appeared in LA Weekly in 1991.
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The sun did not shine, but it was hot as hell the day a memorial stone was unveiled for bluesman Robert Johnson near a country crossroads outside Greenwood, Mississippi. About seventy-five people filled the tiny Mt. Zion church, a row of broadcast video cameras behind the back pew and a bank of lights illuminating a hoarse preacher as he praised a man who reputedly sold his soul to the devil.
There was no finality in setting the stone. The attention came fifty years too late, and even if his memory is more alive today than ever before, Johnson’s rightful heirs still have nothing but the name. This service was not about the body of the bluesman, which lies in an unmarked grave somewhere in the vicinity; it was about the guitar-shaped wreath provided by Johnson’s current record label, and about the video bite that would be beamed into homes around the country that April 1991 evening.
Tom Maxwell | Longreads | December 2018 | 11 minutes (2,118 words)
Robin Allen started writing rap lyrics in the 6th grade. By her senior year, she needed an MC name. When a classmate jokingly referred to her as the Lady of Rage, she thought the moniker good enough to tag on the wall of the high school bathroom.
A singular rapper in her own right, Rage would go on to become known as a collaborator, appearing on Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s extraordinarily successful debut albums. Her 1994 hit single “Afro Puffs” perhaps illustrates her artistic potential as much as what she was eventually able to achieve: Rage’s first solo album, Eargasm, was shelved and never completed. Named by Dre, who would have also co-written and produced it, the album would have been made at the height of the rapper’s powers and released during Death Row Records’ incredible winning streak. That Eargasm never came to fruition kept Rage’s career dependent on men — in the form of collaborators and label bosses — rather than resolutely her own.
Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | December 2018 | 11 minutes (2,795 words)
The ’90s Are Old is a Longreads series by Rebecca Schuman, wherein she unpacks the cultural legacy of a decade that refuses to age gracefully.
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The 1990s did not end on January 1, 2000. The monumental anti-climax of Y2K — a computer “bug” that was supposed to screech our Earth to a Scooby-Doo foot-cloud halt, but instead did bupkis — was a truly apt expression of the preceding decade. But even discounting Y2K, I’ve got some serious issues with the alleged “turn of the actual millennium” as the endpoint of the most intentionally underwhelming decade of the 20th century. And not just because 2000 (zero-zero) is so obvious and overplayed — though there is, of course, that.
The actual termination point of the ‘90s required an attitudinal shift that would decentralize the role of Generation X as the admittedly-petulant target of all culture and advertising — the thawing of the winter of the bong-ripping couch-slacker’s discontent; the disappearance of gin and juice from house-party bars; the centering of the hot tub on The Real World; the sobering realization that both men and women were from Earth and just sucked; the demise, for that matter, of Suck itself.
In point of incontrovertible fact, the 1990s would not end in the United States until the aughts’ resurgence of aggressive consumerism and even more aggressive vacuity came to dominate all aspects of sociopolitical and popular culture. So the only question is: When was that? There are more potential answers than squiggles on a Fido Dido sweatshirt.
Was it in 2001, when the original Fast and the Furious premiered? 1996, when Blur released that WOO-hoo song? Was it 2010 — you heard me, two thousand and ten — when enough grandparents had shuffled off the mortal coil to make the primary avenue of written news consumption digital rather than paper?
I have spent an unnecessarily and perhaps questionably extensive amount of time researching in this subfield, and I present my findings to you now in a perplexing new format (I believe it is called a “list-cicle”?) that is apparently the only thing young people are able to read.
Kelsey McKinney | Longreads | November 2018 | 24 minutes (6,164 words)
The moment the members of Team USA disembarked their plane in Orlando, their fears were realized. This was the first Women’s Baseball World Cup ever played on United States soil, and they expected to be ignored.
At the last World Cup, played in 2016 in South Korea, Team USA didn’t make it to the final round of the only competition they ever play in. But at least in Korea they had been acknowledged. More than that, they’d felt important and beloved, barraged by reporters’ questions at every turn and hounded by fans: fans holding handmade signs with sparkling lettering, fans who knew their names and numbers, fans who sent love notes down to the dugout in the middle of their games.
For every day of the past two years each woman had trained, practiced, and dreamed about playing baseball. According to USA Baseball, the members of the U.S. women’s national baseball team are among the top 20 players in the country, but here at home, almost no one knows they exist.
“Everywhere we travel [in the States] we are in our USA jumpsuits and matching stuff, and everyone just thinks we’re the soccer team,” Marti Sementelli, a pitcher for Team USA, said before the tournament. “Everyone on our team is worried about what the atmosphere at the World Cup will be like.”
They were the hosts, after all, to 11 teams of women just like them, women who fought their way into a sport that constantly tried to push them out. As talented as any professional, they’d asked for time off work and school to play. They deserved a crowd. But they knew better than to expect one. No games sold out, and only two had more than 600 people in attendance.
Everyone on our team is worried about what the atmosphere at the World Cup will be like.
The World Cup took place over 10 days of oppressively muggy, late August Florida heat about an hour southeast of Orlando. Viera, Florida, is a sleepy, suburban town built on a swamp, where preteens drive around in golf carts. This is where the best women’s baseball in the world was played — not in Orlando or Miami, but in a town even people from Florida have never heard of.
Team USA hadn’t won the gold since 2006, and had flopped in 2016, but this was home territory. Despite a lifetime of roadblocks, Team USA knew they were good enough to beat all the odds. Win gold here, several players hoped before the tournament began, and maybe — finally — Americans might pay attention, might notice how hard they are working for so little.
Before Team USA played Team Japan, the defending, five-time World Champions, on the first night of the tournament’s second round, a five-year-old girl threw a ball back and forth with her father just outside the stadium. She wore a glove, and he caught her lobs with his bare hands. She said she wanted to play baseball. Her father said “hell yeah,” he’d let her play. “If she wants to fight for it, I’ll fight with her.” But to play baseball as a woman in America, you have to be willing to fight your entire life, because at every phase, you’re set up to fail.
The Women’s Baseball World Cup is a relatively new tournament. Inaugurated in 2004, it takes place every two years. In the first week, 12 teams compete in groups and the top half of each group moves on to the Super Round. Every team in the Super Round plays the others once, and those standings determine which teams go to the gold medal and bronze medal games. This year, Japan, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Canada, Chinese Taipei, and Team USA made the Super Round. Ranked third coming into the tournament, Team USA hoped to medal after a disappointing performance in 2016.
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But they were at a disadvantage compared to teams like Japan and Canada, who practice together more than a month a year. The members of Team USA meet each other at tryouts, and train for five days together before the 10-day series. Returning players remember each other from past years, and a few weekends a year some former players fly to a common location to work together. But self-funded trainings aren’t officially organized, they’re the product of ambition and frustration.
It’s no wonder when Team USA played Japan on the first night of the Super Round, they made a couple mental errors: a ball not thrown on a steal, a miscommunication at second base. They are a team in uniform, but not in time spent on the diamond. They haven’t been given the time or resources to become a team the way Japan has.
In 2009, Kenichi Kakutani, a wealthy Japanese business owner, invested heavily in women’s baseball in Japan after watching a baseball tournament for high school girls. He formed what would eventually be called the Japanese Women’s Baseball League (JWBL), a tiny, four-team league that has made Team Japan an absolutely dominant force, taking gold at every WBWC in the past decade. Because more than 25 private high schools in Japan had women’s baseball teams, the talent was there to fuel the league, and the league itself encouraged more private high schools to start teams.
At first, it can seem easy to be a girl on the big diamond in the United States. Malaika Underwood, who has been on Team USA for more than a decade, grew up in San Diego playing tee-ball with kids in her neighborhood. Her team, the Brown Bears, had girls and boys on it, at least for a little while. Through tee-ball, machine-pitch, coach-pitch, even kid-pitch, no one questioned that Underwood was a baseball player; she was great.
“About age twelve or thirteen, D-Day came,” she says. “I had to decide whether I was going to try and play baseball in high school, or switch to softball.” Many people pressured her to switch, to try and hit the bigger, yellow softball thrown underhand on a smaller field. “They weren’t doing it with any malintent; they wanted to support me,” she says. “But at the same time, softball was a totally different sport. No disrespect to softball, but I didn’t want to play that.”
Federal courts have ruled under Title IX that baseball and softball are separate sports and that girls cannot be excluded from baseball teams just because a softball team exists at the same school. Softball is played on a smaller field, with a different ball, and different rules. In softball, runners cannot take a lead off bases. With a runner firmly on base, an infielder has to change her entire job, watch the pitcher for a throw-over, watch the runner for a steal, maybe even change her positioning. Without lead offs, there are far fewer steals, no balks, and far less nuance. “People come up to me and tell me on a daily basis that I should switch to softball,” Sementelli says. “You have to be the only girl on the team, or you have to switch to softball. It takes a lot for a little girl to fight to play on the big field.”
No disrespect to softball, but I didn’t want to play that.
Many girls do leave baseball for softball, often because there doesn’t seem to be any other choice. Unlike women’s basketball or women’s soccer, there aren’t national leagues for women’s baseball in the United States at any level: not Little League, not in high school, not in college, and not professionally. There are very few teams for girls to play baseball on together. Former player Justine Siegal runs an organization called Baseball for All, which coordinates tournaments and programs for girls to play. Sunrise, Florida, has a girl’s travel baseball team. Washington, D.C., has a team of all girls that plays in a boys’ league. Major League Baseball introduced a Trailblazers series in 2017, which offers competitive play and coaching for about 100 girls under age 13. “We believe these were necessary steps to send a message to our larger baseball audience that softball isn’t the only option for girls and women to play our game.” Tony Reagins, who is the executive vice president of baseball and softball development for Major League Baseball, wrote via email.
According to data gathered by Baseball for All, approximately 100,000 girls play baseball at the junior level making up about 2 percent of total players. Girls are playing baseball, or at least they want to. The problem isn’t demand; it’s supply. There are only a handful of opportunities for girls to play in the United States.
“The Trailblazers series is a great start,” Jennifer Ring, professor of political science at the University of Nevada and author of Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball, says. “[MLB] needs to make it known publicly that they want girls to play baseball. Not to play baseball in the major leagues, but to play professionally. I think if MLB really developed girls Little Leagues and youth leagues and added their brand to various tournaments throughout the country, it would take off.”
Playing baseball as a girl after puberty is even more difficult, because the game becomes entrenched in the school system. Underwood wrote letters to five high school baseball programs at magnet high schools she could attend with her baseball stats, and a single request: that she be given a fair chance to tryout for the team. Some coaches said no, the school had a softball team and she could play there; but a few schools said yes. Underwood went to the high school where she thought she’d have the best chance to play hardball. She played on the JV team her freshman and sophomore years, and her senior year started at second base on the varsity team.
“At ten years old, they tried to lie to keep me from playing in the league,” Ila Borders, a pitcher who was the first woman to win a game in a men’s professional baseball league, says. “I can tell you an instant where someone tried to keep me from playing every single year. When I was playing … I would have death threats.”
By high school, most women still playing baseball are the only woman on their team. “Regardless of how much support you get, if you’re the only girl out there on the field, it’s pretty lonely,” Underwood says. “I had a supportive team and coaches all the way through high school, and it was still lonely.” According to a survey of high school athletics conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations, almost half a million boys play baseball at the high school level. In the 2017–2018 school year, only 1,762 girls played baseball.
Puberty can also put girls at a disadvantage on teams and in leagues overwhelmingly populated by boys. “Growing up I was the fourth hitter and played shortstop, and now their testosterone has gone through the roof so I hit like seventh [or] eighth and play second,” Mia Valcke, who plays on Team Canada, says. “That’s the reality of being female in this sport. I’m still fighting and I’m competitive for sure, but it’s not the same.” When the only option is to play with boys, that isolation can kill a girl’s career.
Let’s say a young girl is willing to face all those battles and she wins. She plays varsity baseball in high school, loves the game. Maybe she even gets to attend the new Trailblazer series for women. “We have seen tremendous success in getting young men who have participated in our Breakthrough Series to play collegiately and so we wanted to apply the same approach for young women,” MLB’s Reagins says. There are no women’s baseball teams at any level of the American college system.
If a woman can reach the college level, she often can’t afford to fight her way onto a men’s team. Anna Kimbrell, a catcher for Team USA, played baseball through high school but switched to softball in college because she was offered a big scholarship to play. She returned to baseball after graduation. “You have to be pretty stubborn to refuse to play softball,” Ring says. “If you’re being rational and you want a college scholarship, it’s softball.”
Borders played baseball in college and describes it as “the toughest time in my life,” but also believes it taught her good instincts. “When girls switch over to play softball in college, they aren’t getting those four solid years of playing baseball,” she says. “Give me six collegiate teams in the U.S. and you can grow the sport, you can grow the talent right now.”
Underwood tried out for the national team for the first time in 2006. “I had no idea that this many girls and women played baseball,” she said when asked about her first tryout. She hadn’t played on a baseball team with another woman since Little League. That’s true for most of the women on Team USA. There are only 20 spots on the women’s national team. “One thing that hurts our team is we have these 16-year-olds that have so much potential [competing against] 28-year-old women who have trained and played college ball,” Veronica Alvarez, a coach for the 2018 Team USA and former player, says. “We lose them because they don’t make it at sixteen and then, because of the lack of opportunity, there’s nowhere else for them to go and play.”
For many ballplayers, the lack of funding keeps them from continuing their career. Borders played professional men’s baseball in independent leagues for three years. She had more than 50 innings, a 1.67 ERA, and a win: major league numbers. She could almost feel her name in blocky MLB uniform letters across her shoulder blades, but she was also poor. “I was homeless because I couldn’t afford rent. I couldn’t eat. I was sick and tired of it. I was tired of being broke,” Borders says. “Here I [was] doing all this really cool stuff, doing a lot of media, but they didn’t know that in the background I was dying.”
Give me six collegiate teams in the U.S. and you can grow the sport, you can grow the talent right now.
Borders did not play in this year’s World Cup because of a late injury, but doing so wouldn’t have earned her a paycheck anyway. None of the women on Team USA are paid to play. In fact, they lose money. They take vacation time from their jobs as firefighters and P.E. teachers, grad students and groundskeepers. Because there is no professional league for women in America, they have to earn paychecks from other jobs. Though most of Team USA’s baseball budget comes from MLB donations, it doesn’t go to the players. “We all make so many sacrifices to play,” Sementelli says. She notes that MLB players get paid millions of dollars to play baseball. “We would all play for a couple thousand dollars a month, just anything that would be some kind of income.”
No single entity is to blame for the century of decisions that have shut American women out of their own country’s pastime. But that also means that no one has to shoulder the responsibility to make this sport work for its players. The only institutions with the money and power to make a real, dramatic change in women’s baseball right now, though, are the WBSC and MLB.
By my count there were 42 people in the stands, not including press, to watch the Dominican Republic play Venezuela for the first game of the second day of the 2018 Super Round. It was 9 a.m. on a Wednesday, 90 degrees outside and almost 90 percent humidity. In the stands, Venezuela’s team chants ricocheted across sections of empty seats. The same was true for the 11 a.m. game, and again for three games on Thursday.
Throughout the World Cup, the stadium remained depressingly mostly empty. According to the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC), the total official attendance for all 50 games was 17,969. That puts the average attendance for each game at 359 people. The USSSA Space Coast stadium seats approximately 8,000 people. I attended the 11 Super Round games, and counted fewer than 100 people at six of them. There were two billboards for the event off the highway nearby but no flyers in local bars or grocery stores. No one I spoke to over six days in the surrounding area had any idea the tournament was going on. Girls who do play baseball around the country, on travel teams and boys teams, cannot come to watch these games because they are held during the first weeks of school.
“There were 5,000 people in the stands [at the 2015 Pan-American Women’s Baseball Tournament held in Toronto]. So, I expected at least that many here,” Carol Sheldon, who played women’s baseball for more than 20 years and is in the online-only National Women’s Baseball Hall of Fame, says. Despite several sold-out games in its first and last year to include it, the Pan American Games dropped women’s baseball from their bill for 2019 because of a “lack of interest.” No one on Team USA understands why the game was dropped when it had sell-out crowds, and the Pan American Games did not return multiple requests for comment.
“Obviously, you want a bigger crowd. Ideally, you want every game to be sold out,” says DJ Wabick, a national program director for the host organization, the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA), which is a sanctioning body for more than 85,000 baseball and softball teams in the country. USSSA provides rule guidelines and organizational support, but does not have power over the leagues. The WBSC sent the trophy on a tour of MLB stadiums to try to drum up attention. “We tried to share the stories of these players. That’s how you make a real connection with [the general public] and get them to care,” Wabick says.
Personal stories may help, but the same sort of yarns are told by announcers and PR offices in every sport to get fans to invest in individual players. But the sport sells itself. Baseball is a sport that people watch and love. The general public, everyone who cares about women’s baseball says, has no idea that women’s baseball exists.
Women’s baseball still has the diving catches, the home runs, and the bunts that make baseball a great sport, but it isn’t given the resources, financial or institutionally, to find fans.The infrastructure that pushes women out of baseball and into softball has also shaped the way the public thinks of the game. “It’s just ingrained in everybody’s head that when you think of a girl throwing a ball it’s a softball,” Sementelli says.“People just assume that we play softball even when I tell them that I throw overhand. It’s so frustrating.”
Fourteen current and former players at the Women’s World Cup told a version of the same anecdote. “I tell people all the time that I play for the USA women’s national baseball team,” Underwood says. “Ninety-five percent of the time they say ‘Oh, you mean softball?’”
That stereotype exists despite the fact that women have played baseball since the very beginning of its existence. Jennifer Ring argues in Stolen Bases that women played (and potentially even invented) an early ball-and-bat game called rounders that involved rocks being thrown at players to call them out. The first women’s professional team was the Dolly Vardens, one of two all-black women’s teams to play under the name in Philadelphia in the 1880s. Hall-of-famers Rogers Hornsby and Smoky Joe Wood received their first paychecks as professional players on teams with women. The full, 1908 version of the baseball anthem “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is about a girl named Nelly Kelly who loved baseball.
American women had been playing baseball in organized leagues for three decades before softball was created in the 1890s. Organized semi-pro women’s baseball leagues in the 1920s were successful across race, class, and geographical lines. Women’s colleges like Smith and Wellesley easily filled teams to play each other. Only when the game became worth money in the late 19th century were women pushed out of the sport.
Despite this deep history of women playing the game, though, the only reference point most Americans have for women in baseball is the 1992 movie A League of Their Own, which depicts the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), which existed from 1943 to 1954 and had more than 600 female players. By my count, about a dozen former AAGPBL players attended the World Cup in Viera, Florida. They love women’s baseball. A few refused formal interviews because, they said, they wouldn’t have very many nice things to say about how the tournament was being run.
The two most prominent former AAGPL players to attend were Maybelle Blair, who played for the Peoria Redwings, and Shirley Burkovich, who played for the Rockford Peaches, the team popularized in A League of Their Own. At 91 and 85 years old, respectively, they were by far the most popular people at the tournament. They were constantly giving out hugs and signatures, and sat behind home plate to watch almost every game of the Super Round. They came, Blair told me, because they “wouldn’t miss women playing baseball for the world. There’s nothing like it.” From her seat behind the plate, Blair joked that she was going to go out there and pitch, that maybe she ought to go down to the dugout and talk to a team that couldn’t seem to stop making mental errors.
Before the United States played Canada on the second night of the Super Round, Blair and Burkovich made their way down to the field. Surrounded by a huddle of beaming Team USA players, holding her cane made out of a baseball bat, Blair pointed her finger up in their faces. “I flew all the way out here from California to see you guys win,” she said. “And I haven’t seen it yet.” That night, Team USA beat Canada 5–1.
Despite Burkovich and Blair’s popularity, and the excellent level of play on the field, women’s baseball still doesn’t get the media attention players feel they need to reach the next level. Every player past and present that I spoke with said that their number one concern for the future of the game is the lack of general awareness that they even exist. This year the Women’s Baseball World Cup made the SportsCenter Top 10 plays for the first time when Team USA second baseman Amanda “Red” Gianelloni snatched a smashed line drive out of the air and turned a hit into a double play. Before that play, the only time the tournament had been mentioned on the program was when a player was struck in the leg by a stray bullet during the 2010 Cup in Venezuela, a year Team USA won bronze. No plays from any medal games have ever been featured on SportsCenter.
All media loves when one woman plays baseball. As a child, Sementelli says, there were always reporters who wanted to talk to her, media on the sidelines of her Little League game. As soon as she got out of coach-pitch, her dad molded her into a pitcher. “I didn’t know any other girls playing,” she says. She went on CBS News and Jimmy Kimmel. “I say yes to every media outlet because I want people to know that there are women in this game.” She found a small college where she could play college baseball, and gave interviews there too. Alone, she’s been in the spotlight since 5 years old.
Borders’s story is even more extreme. She was covered so intensely and constantly by news outlets that the amount of media attention she received actually kept her from an opportunity to go to a MLB spring training camp. An MLB team wanted to give her a chance to tryout, but they didn’t want the cameras. Stories about women playing in men’s baseball leagues are constant. But when the women are successful together, the lights dim, the headlines fall away, and no one seems to care.
There’s no better example of this than Mo’ne Davis, who became the first girl to pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series in 2014 despite baseball not even being her favorite sport. She received massive media attention, but few stories mentioned that other girls had played in the LLWS before her. “If one more person says ‘in a league of her own’ I’m going to lose it,” Borders says. “Women have played baseball forever. Girls are playing now.” On August 19, 2014, Mo’ne Davis was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. On September 1, about two weeks later, Team USA competed in the Women’s Baseball World Cup in Japan and won silver. They did not get any cover stories, or even national recognition.
This is despite the reality that women’s baseball is just as exciting, and often more engaging, than the men’s game. “Baseball is the perfect sport for women if you really understand the game,” Borders says. “We like technicality, and the game within the game.” Women’s baseball is faster than men’s both because they only play seven innings and pitchers don’t wield as much control over the pace of the game. The women’s game is less ego-driven, and more democratic. It’s not a game fixated on home runs and shutouts. “Women have to play the game much more technically correct,” Sheldon says. It is a game of sacrifice — the sacrifice bunt, the sacrifice fly. The focus is on team success instead of individual feats.
If one more person says ‘in a league of her own’ I’m going to lose it. Women have played baseball forever. Girls are playing now.
But it still has fireworks. Before the tournament, WBSC constructed a mesh fence inside the stadium to shorten the field’s depth. Instead of playing on the world tournament–size field set by WBSC’s own regulations (275 and 290 feet in left and right field, 400 in center), the World Cup was played on a field 325 feet in every direction. According to a spokesperson from the WBSC, the field size was shrunk to make sure that the tournament had home runs. It didn’t need to be. On August 25 versus Venezuela, Megan Baltzell hit a ball 363 feet over both right field fences. That ball went further than two home runs hit the same night in Major League Baseball ballparks.
On the last night of play before the medal games, Team USA played the Dominican Republic. There was nothing they could do to make the gold medal game after Canada’s afternoon loss to Chinese Taipei. But they came out, scored six runs in the first inning, and beat the Dominican Republic 8–1. As the teams shook hands, the on-field announcer came on the p.a. system. “We hope to see you tomorrow for one or both games,” he said. “Should be some great softball tomorrow.”
“We were all shaking hands with our mouths gaping open,” Sementelli says. “He watched seven innings of baseball and then said softball. That was something that stuck out really firmly. I don’t know if that’s something that will ever change.”
The day before the medal games the media room smelled like spray paint. In the middle of the room stood a wooden box a little more than four feet tall, the sides still shiny with black paint. Around it, a pile of small gauge PVC pipes was scattered. “There are posters going on these. Don’t worry,” A WBSC employee told me. The next morning, the posters — printed in a dulled out yellow and maroon — had been sloppily pasted onto the box, crinkled at the corners. The top paper had an X drawn on it. It needed to be replaced. This was the podium for the trophy.
The medal games took place on a Friday. At 1 p.m. Team USA played Canada for the bronze medal. At 6 p.m. Chinese Taipei played Japan for the title of World Champion.
The USA vs. Canada game started off mild. After four innings, USA was up 2–0. But Canada staged a comeback, scored three runs, and in the bottom of the 7th, the United States came back to tie. The game went to extra innings where (according to rules of the Women’s World Cup) each half-inning started with runners placed on second and third. Still, the game went ten innings before Canada clinched the bronze medal, winning 8–5.
This was baseball at its best: incredible defensive plays, starting pitchers being brought in as relievers, a true rivalry that goes back a decade. To watch it, you would have either had to travel an hour outside of Orlando on a Friday in August, or have known to visit the WBSC’s YouTube page. None of the games of the Women’s Baseball World Cup were televised in the United States.
“I wish people could see this,” Sementelli says. “I shouldn’t have to worry about this…Do you think Bryce Harper is worried about whether or not his game will be on TV?”
“We tried very hard to get the games on television,” says the USSSA’s Wabick. “That was the thing I wanted to accomplish most. I think there needed to probably be a little more runway to get it on TV, because by the time we were calling, TV schedules were already set.”
USSSA learned that they had won the bid for the 2018 World Cup in October 2017. Because of that, they had less than a year to coordinate when, where, and how the event could take place. The timeline, Wabick says, also made it difficult for him to get major advertisers to sign on, since they had to move so quickly. Because the host country and organization was decided so late, USSSA only had space for the two-week tournament in their schedule in late August. This timing has not been a problem in other countries where games have been located in cities and local populations value women’s baseball. “If we are fortunate enough to have another opportunity, we’d probably shift the dates.” Wabick says.
Do you think Bryce Harper is worried about whether or not his game will be on TV?
USSSA has a history of putting on good tournaments. The stadium had beautiful facilities. The players raved about getting to go to the Kennedy Space Center and being treated like professionals. But at the same time, no one seemed to know the tournament was happening despite the fact that the professional women’s softball team (the USSSA Pride), which normally plays in that stadium, average around 2,500 fans at each of their 25 home games every year. Only one shirt — a white shirt promoting the tournament with a smudged Canadian flag — was available to purchase. There was no merchandise available for any of the national teams: no hats, no jerseys, no rally towels.
Team USA lost to Canada, a country where parents and coaches have only recently begun to build a Little League structure for all-girls baseball. After the game, none of the players were brought to the press room for the general press. “I leave it to their discretion,” the WBSC spokesperson said, mentioning that it was a tough loss and that he couldn’t make them do press because they weren’t professional athletes. “It was a very emotional loss,” the spokesperson said. One of the biggest criticisms of female athletes is that they are too emotional to play.
This gave Team USA the appearance of extremely poor losers, despite a more complex reality. Later, a player told me that they were scheduled so tightly they barely had time to do interviews after the game. They had 30 minutes from the minute their game ended to be on the bus back to their hotel — 30 minutes to eat, shower, say hi to loved ones, and maybe do media.
“It’s almost like sabotage,” Ring says when asked about whether the tournament could indeed increase awareness of the sport as everyone hoped. “They were set up for failure.”
“I think we had the most talented team,” Coach Alvarez says. “I think our downfall is that we only get one week together before playing and then its game time. I wish that we had more time together.”
Losing a chance to medal, though, felt like more than just a personal loss for many players and fans of women’s baseball. It felt like a missed opportunity for the sport of women’s baseball overall. “The [United States medaling] would have been something that would have helped us get the United States sports people to go, OK. Let’s start girls baseball.’ Instead, of just having a tournament here or there for girls to come and play in,” Sheldon says.
Of the more than 25 people involved at all levels of women’s American baseball I spoke to, all agreed that the best thing that can be done for the sport is the creation of girls baseball leagues. They would love for something like what happened in Japan — a wealthy benefactor creating a small pro league — to happen in the States. But even if that were to happen there has to be a pipeline for women to reach that league. Right now there’s next to nothing.
“As it relates to a women’s professional league, we have to ensure that a sustainable infrastructure is in place.” MLB’s Reagins says. “In order to make this sort of investment a success, we need to make sure that what is put together will not only survive, but thrive. We don’t believe we are there yet, but who knows what could ultimately happen as women’s baseball gains more momentum.”
There is a village of people fighting for women’s baseball in America: the Rockford Peaches, the players, the parents of players, the fans. Former players are creating teams for girls and tournaments with their own money. “I have been involved as a player at every level, and I have never seen the amount of passion for this game as I did with the people I met in women’s baseball,” Wabick says. “If the right people get in the room, they can bring the right attention.”
I think our downfall is that we only get one week together before playing and then its game time. I wish that we had more time together.
But who are the right people? Currently, there are many proponents of the women’s game, but no real leadership. Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the Godfather series, was at the World Cup. He has consistently financially supported women’s baseball, pushing the Sonoma Stompers, a men’s professional team, to recruit and play women. There are no women on the Stompers roster at the moment, although two members of this year’s Team USA (Kelsie Whitmore and Stacy Piagno) played on the Stompers in the past. Coppola, though, is just one man. USSSA is a governing body, so while they could support girls Little Leagues financially and logistically, the organization doesn’t have the capability create them. USA Baseball could create a 14U — short for ages 14 and under — or a 20U team for women, but without WBSC tournaments (which exist at 23U, 18U, 15U, and 12U for men) there would be no one for them to play. According to WBSC spokesperson Oscar Lopez the “feasibility and rollout [of creating programs for girls are] under review” currently. There is no timeline for that decision to be made.
The vast divide that exists between the resources being given to men’s baseball and those being given to women’s baseball are almost cartoonishly illustrated at the only level where both exist: the World Cup. The 2017 Men’s Baseball World Championship game was played in 2017 in Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, averaged just over 27,000 attendees per game, and aired on MLB Network in America. Championship hats were immediately handed out to Team USA when they won the gold. On an erected blue stage, the team of men stood behind a shining circular podium that held their trophy.
A year later in Viera, Team Japan hoisted their trophy above their head. A platform less than a foot off the ground had been constructed for them to stand on, and each player warily eyed it as she stepped up, as if worried it might collapse. It is the same platform used for WBSC tournaments except for the men’s World Championship, which has a real stage, champion hats, and confetti. The announcers mispronounced even the names of the players on the Canadian team for their bronze medal. And the posters on the spray painted podium were starting to peel from the humidity.
Most of the women on 2018’s Team USA won’t get to play again until the next World Cup in 2020. Underwood, at 37, is still deciding whether or not she’ll keep playing. They will return to their lives and their real jobs. They will dream about playing on the diamond again and wake up disappointed. Each year, thousands of girls will switch over to softball, or quit playing the game entirely because no one has made a path for them to go forward.
“That’s the story of women’s baseball,” Underwood said. “We don’t get to play in the same facilities. We don’t get the same attention. We don’t get the same opportunities.”
Kelsey McKinney is a writer living in Washington, D.C.