Let Them Play Baseball
Ivette van Putten is a name that any women wishing to play baseball in Europe should know. She is a pioneer for the sport and the sole reason that the Netherlands has a women’s national team. European Baseball & Softball Magazine sat down with Ivette to learn what lead her to create the organization. Though the club is just seven years old, the planning started nearly a decade before.
Ivette explains that, growing up in the Netherlands most clubs allowed women to play baseball until they hit adolescence. “What would happen is that lots of clubs would just say, Hey, you’re 12 years old now so, it’s been fun, you had a baseball team together with the boys but now the girls are going to play softball and the boys are just going to stay and play baseball. Girls were thrown out of their own teams at that age. That’s sort of traumatic. That’s something I did not experience because I didn’t decide to play baseball until I was 12, so when I asked they said, ‘No. You’re now too old. You cannot play baseball anymore. You have to play softball.’ For me, it was less traumatic other than someone said to me, ‘Hey, you’re a girl, you cannot do that.’”
Take a minute to read that again, “For me, it was less traumatic other than someone said to me, ‘Hey, you’re a girl, you cannot do that.’” What must the process be like for a woman to walk away from something they truly want for themselves, feeling lucky for their experience in comparison?
Ivette explained that, in athletics at that time, girls could not do some sports, the pole jump for instance. That is different than allowing them to play and then taking the sport they love away however. When van Putten turned 14 athletics rules changed. “I just thought, okay, it will change eventually also for baseball and I will just be able to play baseball after all because I really just did not like softball.”
Tell me what about softball you didn’t like?
Well it just was such a different sport to me with the way it is underhand and the smaller field. I love to hit and with a softball you just don’t get that far and the ball is really big for just small little girl hands. I just felt like no. I want to be able to have the smaller ball, throw hard, hit hard, big field.”
By the time Ivette reached 18 women were still not allowed to play. “I started to talk with the people around me. A lot of girls said ‘Oh yeah, I would love to play baseball if it was there. I also don’t like softball.’ I said, maybe we should just set something up ourselves.
I feel that you have to have played in order to coach, so I needed a coach. I was dating a player at the time. He told me, ‘I totally agree with you. I want to do this but I just want to finish my studies first.’ So we waited for a couple of years and then he brought it up saying, ‘I think now is the time we can start something up.’
In two weeks we had, only in the region where we were, 25 girls and we just said, ‘Wow. We need to have a meeting, see what these girls expect.’ We wanted to start with some practices the following year but, actually, they were so enthusiastic, we just started then and there.”
With the help of Robert Eenhoorn, utility infielder for the NY Yankees, a member of the Dutch National Team and, at the time van Putten began her quest, Technical Director of the Netherlands national baseball team, she went to the Federation. “They said we actually don’t know if that’s possible. We have to look up the rules. Within an hour they came back and said, ‘It’s nowhere stated that it’s not possible so I guess it is possible so just enroll in the competition.’
So we had our first team in the regional competition against the men. Afterwards, the clubs were more open to girls playing amongst the men instead of having to have a whole women’s team.
I really thought I would start up a women’s league but that was just undoable. I tried at first. I wanted to have women’s team but it was so difficult. A lot of girls came and went again because they needed to study or they became pregnant and never came back. It was not possible really to get a good team, like 12 people together, in every region.”
The women integrated into their local men’s clubs teams the following year but they also wanted to continue to play together. They asked van Putten to find a way for them to compete as a team. In 2009, she contacted the International Federation (IBAF now WBSC) about joining the Women’s Baseball World Cup. “They said, ‘Oh that would be so great because we don’t have anyone from Europe yet. If you would like to do that we would like to help. Please enroll. Just do it!’”
Even during the 2010 Women’s World Cup the team was reminded of the gender issues that arise. “We could not walk on the streets in Karakas because we had a lot of blonde girls with us. They just said, ‘No, you should not do that. You should just not go outside without escorts and preferably by bus and not walking because there’s a lot of kidnapping going on around here.’”
Since that first World Cup, Ivette has met many women who have helped her continue to grow the sport in the Netherlands. She mentions Justine Siegal, who is on the Board of Directors for Baseball for All. You may know her better as the first woman to coach an MLB team (2015 Athletics), the first woman to throw batting practice for an MLB team or simply the chair of the Women’s Commission for WBSC. Segal told an audience in which van Putten was seated that she wants to further women’s baseball and that starts, of course, with the youth.
Another spot van Putten goes for inspiration is Cuba. According to van Putten, as far as Europe is concerned, Cuba is the best team in baseball. When Cuba headed the delegation a few years ago, someone asked the speaker discussing Cuban baseball about girls playing softball first and then switching to baseball. They wanted to understand how it worked. The Delegate said, ‘No, of course not. They choose which sport they want to play. They’re 5 years old and if the girl says I want to play baseball then its baseball. Also for the men, it’s the same thing. You can choose whichever sport you like more and play.’
Van Putten says, “I think things are changing but they are going really slowly, especially for the people involved.” She explains how she now addresses naysayers since meeting the Cuban league leaders. “You say, ‘Hey, I just want to give the kids a choice. It’s a different game, you agree on that right?’ They say, ‘Yeah, it’s somewhat different, so yeah, you should maybe be able to choose between them.’ And then I say, Yeah. The boys can do that. The girls can’t. That’s weird right?’ ‘Yeah, that’s sort of weird, okay. Yeah, I see your point.’”
As she discusses the difficulties, the weariness is clear in her voice. I asked Ivette how much longer she’ll go on. “For me it’s been my life for a long time now and I do notice also that I just want other people to pick things up because I’m getting a bit tired. I just hope that it will be so normal that there is a national team and that there are players in all the club teams, just women. I don’t think I have to worry about girls not being able to play anymore because that was my main concern at first. I wanted to just be sure that they would not hear a no when they would register at a club.”
All this from a woman who, herself, never played the game. “No, I didn’t mention it. I never played. When I started it up I was already at an age where I thought, ‘Well, I’ll never be good at it anymore.’ I’m highly competitive so I just want to be good at any sport I do. I spent a lot of time just organizing. I know that I can help other people play the game and that’s rewarding enough for me.
I wanted to say to people because I think a lot of people say to me, ‘Hey but they can never really achieve what the guys achieve right?’ I have a lot of examples already that the girls that have been playing from 5 years old and are now 16, they can play just as well. Maybe they don’t hit a homerun but that’s not what baseball’s all about. It’s not about being the strongest player out there. You have to have all the technique as well.’’
The MLB is amongst many ready to buy into van Putten’s line of reasoning.