‘Pitch’ and the Three-Pronged Psyche of Black Female Athletes

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Intentionally or otherwise, Fox’s new show peels back the layers of an experience that is studied by scholars, but not often represented on television.

By Joshua Adams

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In Fox’s Pitch, actress Kyle Bunbury plays the first woman to play in Major League Baseball. (Photo: Fox)

Historically speaking, black women have been perhaps the most marginalized players in professional baseball. In the 1940s and early ’50s, the All-American Girls Professional Ball League didn’t allow black women to play; after Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, it became largely acceptable for black men to play in the major leagues, but not women. This didn’t stop players like Toni Stone, Mamie Johnson, and Connie Morgan from playing in the Negro League — but their exclusion from the sport is what makes Fox’s new series Pitch so compelling. The show casts a black woman, Kylie Bunbury, as Ginny Baker, the first woman to play in Major League Baseball.

As a result, the show foregrounds a perspective that scholars increasingly study but television writers rarely represent: a black woman’s “triple consciousness.” In his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founding fathers of contemporary American sociology, proposed that African Americans possess a “double consciousness,” a divided identity as born-and-raised Americans and historically oppressed “others” in a majority-white society. Artists, writers, and scholars have since added that black women possess a “triple consciousness” — as women living in a patriarchal society, they experience an additional lens of alienation and “other”-ness in America.

Maya Angelou addressed the concept in her 1969 novel I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, as did several writers in 1993’s black women’s studies collection All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave. This year, Monique W. Morris arguedthat black girls’ “lives are misunderstood, highly judged … and degraded by the very institutions charged with helping them flourish” in her book Pushout:The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.

That Major League Baseball is, historically speaking, not an institution charged with helping black women flourish — heightens the alienation that Baker experiences in Pitch. As the single woman of color in a predominantly white sport, Baker is made to feel alone and different by newscasters, fans, even teammates and coaches. And yet Pitch only tackles the racial dimension of her consciousness halfway: It foregrounds Baker’s troubles as a woman in baseball, while showing how characters around her tend to overlook her third perspective as a black woman. The result is an imperfect, but crucial look at intersectional consciousness on TV.

Right from the beginning, the main narrative conflict in Pitch is that Baker is Major League Baseball’s first female player. When she takes the field in a match against the Los Angeles Dodgers, jubilant fans greet her with cheers and “Girl Power” signs, while players and many sports commentators see her as a gimmick (sports media personality Colin Cowherd says it’s “preposterous” to compare her to Jackie Robinson). Teammate Blip Sanders embraces Baker immediately, as they were teammates in the minor leagues, while others bet whether she is a lesbian and ask her if she has ever dated (coded for “slept with”) a teammate.

Though her very existence on the mound is a political statement, Baker says, in one early episode,that she doesn’t want to be treated like “little Orphan Annie,” but wants a chance to prove she belongs in a Padres uniform. Nevertheless, her teammates and opponents seize opportunities to remind her that she’s different: In one episode, sports news outlets broadcast locker-room video footage of her Padres coach commenting on her looks and how he was sure the guys would love to “have her.” Another episode revisits Baker’s past romantic relationship with another former minor leaguer, who reveals that his phone has been hacked for nude pictures of her. When Padres catcher Mike Lawson first meets her, he comments on how she is “the second prettiest teammate” he’s ever had (the first being Leonardo DiCaprio, who he once played with in a charity game).

The show alludes to Baker’s blackness more subtly — most often through comments made about her body.

But at other times in Pitch, Baker accepts her significance in the limelight. In one episode, she appears on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and though he has a “locker-room interior decorating” sketch scripted for her, Baker chooses to speak on a prominent Florida track and field rape case instead. “We don’t need to make sure every girl goes in the right room,” she says. “We need to make sure every boy knows it’s wrong to rape.”

Curiously, as Pitch approaches its sixth episode, other characters do not explicitly mention Baker’s race, even as it plays a role in the way she is treated by the press and by her teammates. The show alludes to Baker’s blackness more subtly — most often through comments made about her body. Take the scene when Baker first meets her new teammate Lawson: As she introduces herself, he slaps her butt. When Baker reads the gesture as low-grade sexual harassment — “You think you’re the first teammate to slap my ass to get a laugh from his friends?” she asks — he retorts that he is an “ass-slapper,” that he slaps all of his teammates’ butts.

While congratulatory slapping of a teammate’s rear end is, certainly, a major part of machismo sports culture (Baker eventually alleviates tension by slapping Lawson’s butt in return), butt-slapping means something different for a black female athlete. For black women, it is unlikely that butt-slapping can be read as just a friendly gesture; it’s also a reminder that they are judged on the appearance of their bodies as well as their athletic performance.

Black female athletes’ body parts are often objectified by more than just pals in the locker room. Off the court, competitors, tennis officials, and Twitter has commented that 38-time tennis title winner Serena Williams’ physique is too masculine or too sexual — opponent (and friend) Carol Wozniaki once even stuffed her top and skirt to do an impression of Williams in Brazil. Ballerina Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be named as the principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, has said that the ballet world makes body-specific “excuses” for excluding African-American and Latina dancers — telling them that they are too muscular, not lean enough, or have flat feet, for instance. Recently, feminist writers criticized the International Association of Athletics Federations’ calls for a “sex test” for South African runner Caster Semenya; Bitch Media has stated that it was a “policing” tactic on people who have hyperandrogenism, or higher testosterone levels than average women.

While black female athletes’ bodies have been subject to intense scrutiny by sports organizations and the media, sports owners have profited from it. In her Radical History Review piece “No League of Their Own Baseball, Black Women, and the Politics of Representation,” Amira Rose Davis writes that Negro League Owners in the 1950s “used varying representations of athletic black womanhood to sell game tickets and generate business for a league in decline.” Negro League owners like Syd Pollock of the Indianapolis Clowns sought out players like Stone not only to help the team win games (she batted .243 in her first season), but to increase revenue as major-league teams drained talent from Negro League teams. Davis writes that Stone was “box-office magic” for Pollock, who didn’t widen the team’s scope to bring in many more female players, fearing that more female players would lessen the spectacle of women in baseball, and, subsequently, the profit.

For black women, it is unlikely that butt-slapping can be read as just a friendly gesture; it’s also a reminder that they are judged on the appearance of their bodies as well as their athletic performance.

Pitch foregrounds a similar spectacle when Baker is selected to the MLB All-Star Game. The honor comes at a bad time for Baker, who was simultaneously building camaraderie with her teammates, and who knows that she shouldn’t be an all-star based on her pitching stats. If this moment tackles her struggle to prove she belongs in the bullpen as a woman, it also recalls the current status of black players in the MLB: Today, black players in the MLB face becoming a curiosity as well, as the number of African-American players has steadily declined (though the league says this decline is overstated).

It’s just another aspect of attempted authenticity on the part of Pitch’s showrunners, who have also partnered with the MLB to share real uniforms, sportscasters, and a stadium for filming. And while Pitch is ultimately still a fantasy and has its share of pitfalls in trying to depict intersectionality, the show is grounded in reality: Baker wrestles with breaking the glass ceiling, juggling her desire to fit in with the realization that she stands out, and trying to maintain her sexual autonomy while remaining aware of how she is sexualized as a black woman.

There are, of course, other shows depicting black women’s perspective right now — such as the Bordelon siblings in Queen Sugar, the main character in Insecure, and Zazie Beetz’s “Van” in Atlanta. But in portraying an icon and a “first,” Pitch perhaps goes furthest in depicting the overlapping, complicated nature of black women’s perspectives. “An American girl has a better chance of growing up to be president than of taking the field in a major league baseball stadium,” professor Jennifer Ring writes in her 2009 book Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball. When a black girl attains a position that may, indeed, be harder to get to than the White House, Pitch shows that she’s likely to feel just as excluded, at least at first, than finally included.

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