Illustration: Elena Scotti (GMG), Photo: 20th Century Fox/Shutterstock
I believe in the Church of Baseball. I was raised in it after all, taken to a stadium with plastic seats that got so hot they'd roast the back of my thighs while the tops of them burned. I learned the liturgy and the scriptures and the seventh-inning hymns. The smell of dirt and fresh-cut grass became my incense and the hot dog my holy wafer. The Church of Baseball has many members, plenty of leaders who draw crowds and convert nonbelievers. But I have always been a disciple of Annie Savoy.
"I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring," Annie Savoy says. It's a line that could come out of any fan's mouth except that she follows it up with "… which makes it like sex. There's never been a player slept with me who didn't have the best year of his career." Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon in the 1988 classic baseball movie Bull Durham, is the best representation of female fandom in any sport—not because, mind you, she sleeps with players, but because she has a deep knowledge of and undeniable love for the game. There are, of course, plenty of women who worship in the Church of Baseball. But all too often, we are ignored in popular representations of the sport.
The wallpaper in Annie's home is light pink, baby blue, and adorned with flowers. Her mint green Victorian home in North Carolina has a wraparound porch, white shutters, and a white fence. But its best selling point is that it's walking distance from the minor-league baseball stadium. Annie Savoy has a vanity with three mirrors, a bed with a full frame, a bottle of perfume she uses to douse herself on each side of the neck and between her breasts. In another room, she has a separate shrine, adorned with a few mitts, a couple of balls, a half dozen candles, and a player piano, devoted to the Church of Baseball.
Bull Durham came out 30 years ago this week, four years before A League of Their Own, before the popular imagination remembered that women have played and do play and love baseball. Very few women play baseball professionally in America (though some do), but every team has a choir of Annie Savoys, women who love the game deeply, wholeheartedly, and who do not fit into any single stereotype of female fandom—who are not there only out of lust, or to please a boyfriend, or as just casual viewers.
In the movie, Annie Savoy attends games in an A-line full skirt with a waist ribbon, a silver brooch, and heels. Throughout the Durham Bulls' fairly terrible season, she's pictured wearing a a boatneck shirt, a cashmere sweater, a hat with a veil, an oversized blazer. She's feminine, Southern, and a damn good fan. At games, she sits with a box score, a glove, a notebook filled with her tight, curly handwriting, binoculars, and a radar gun. When players do stupid things like pull their hips, she hastily sends a note down to the dugout.
Bull Durham is a romantic comedy set in a baseball stadium. It is a movie as much about sex and love and relationships as it is about the diamond. But Annie is not reduced to her decision to pick out on player every season to sleep with, or her obvious attraction to many of the players. This is a key mindset of the movie from the very beginning, when Annie's best friend Millie is caught having sex with the new starting pitcher in the clubhouse and refuses to be called a "piece of ass." The two are heterosexual (ostensibly) and openly attracted to and sleeping with players. But the movie takes great strides to present them as fans as well.
Photo: Orion Pictures
In the stands they discuss pitch speed and batting stance, they take rigorous notes. In one scene, in the backyard, Millie plays catcher in an impromptu throwing session for the young, inexperienced pitcher Nuke LaLoosh. The movie may be 30 years old, but this idea is still revolutionary: that women can be fans of the sport as deeply as obsessively as men, despite (or without) any attraction to their favorite players.
I am a Washington Nationals fan. I go to the games. I keep boxscores. I know which of our outfielders cannot take a good line to the ball to save his life (Andrew Stevenson) and who gets lost in his head the most (Trea Turner). Do I love Bryce Harper for his beautiful head of hair? Absolutely. But I love him more for the slight adjustment he made to his swing this spring, limiting his kick out to gain power through the zone. Do I smile every time Anthony Rendon throws a wink at a teammate? Can't help it! But I smile bigger if he makes a snags a cut up the line on his backhand and whips it to first in time for the out. Sure, the #Thirstbaseman hashtag is fun. But you know what's more fun? Winning. I guess it's too bad I'm a Nationals fan, then.
Last season, I went to a game in high summer. This swamp of a city had triple-digit temperatures, and when my husband took a break from the heat to go to the bathroom, I was left alone in the stands for no longer than 15 minutes. That was all it took, a woman alone with a boxscore in the stands even momentarily, to be demeaned. "I wish my girlfriend would come to the game with me," the man next to me said, trying to congratulate me on being able to sit through a whole game. "Actually, he's here with me," I said. My husband appreciates the game, has learned to enjoy it, but I converted him. I am the one who knows the nuances, the strangeness of this overly complicated sport.
There are always unbelievers in a stadium, but not all of them are women.
At one game, I sat in front of a crew of men pretending to know what they were talking about. "Scherzer's great and all," one of them said to his friend referring to our three-time Cy Young winner, "but I just can't respect a pitcher with only two pitches." Inadvertently, I laughed. Max Scherzer has five solid pitches: a four-seam fastball, a changeup, a cutter, a curveball, and a slider. "Something funny, sweetheart?" he asked. It had been rude of me to laugh, but now engaged, I told him why. His friends laughed at him, made fun of him for being shown up by me, a woman.
I could tell dozens of these stories: about men who have relentlessly hit on me because I keep a boxscore, about men who have brushed off my opinions about the team at parties, about fellow fans who have treated me as a tourist in their home country, someone who doesn't belong. Of course, there are exceptions. But they are exceptions, not the rule.
Major League Baseball does a terrible job of acknowledging and appreciating its female fans. All of the "women's cut" gear is form-fitting, much of it is pink. "At all stages in history, women have had to fight for their place in baseball," Mary Craig wrote in an excellent history of MLB's failure to accept female fans. "The only time they are taken seriously is when economic necessity dictates it, and they are immediately discarded as soon as doing so is not detrimental to the sport or the teams."
Craig makes her point most convincingly in her history of "Ladies' Night" promotions, which have been happening in the National League since 1888. It's a controversial promotion mainly because having control over spaces of entertainment is a particular kind of power that allows you to behave however you want, that men are extremely unwilling to relinquish in sports arenas. In the '70s, male fans became so upset over Ladies' Nights that they filed a gender discrimination suit against them. The men in this suit were the ones being discriminated against. (Still, during locally broadcast Nationals games, there are advertisements for "Ladies Nights.")
In popular lore, male fans of the 1960s wanted women dismissed from the fandom so badly they made up a historical riot. They claimed that in 1897, a slew of female fans for the Washington Senators had charged the field and attacked an umpire in a mob after a heartthrob pitcher was thrown from the game. Reports of women "tearing up seats and breaking windows" over this "handsome young pitcher" appear in books about baseball history and dozens of articles.
Darlene Langley of FanSided did an in-depth research piece on the riots in 2015. She found that there was no record of a mob charging the field, that windows could not have been broken because the Senators stadium at the time did not have any, and that only one Washington newspaper (of three) even reported any kind of upset on Ladies Night that year. What actually happened is that an umpire made a controversial call in the seventh inning, and after the game, they screamed at the umpire for his mistake (allegedly, one woman even hit him). This is obviously objectively bad behavior and sportsmanship, but it is also what passionate fans do. All fans scream at umpires. The twist that made this lore demeaning to women wasn't that they rioted, but that they did so over handsome sweetheart rather than a bad call that went against their team.
In Bull Durham, even though Annie Savoy sleeps with plenty of baseball players, and attraction plays a large role in her consumption of the sport, she also has nuanced, articulate opinions about the game and how it should be played. She adjusts the new pitcher's form, gets him out of his own head. Her attraction to him does not diminish or increase her obsession with the game.
Women are baseball fans, and serious ones, and have been for longer than MLB has existed. As early as 1901, the Washington Sunday Herald pointed out that, "It is now fashionable for ladies to make up a party and go without the usual male escort." Sister Francis Evans attended Texas Rangers games for more than 30 years before she died last summer. She brought her drum to every game to lead cheers and when she died, the ballclub released a statement of adoration and appreciation. She is not an aberration, and she certainly wasn't interested in the game only because she was horny for players. There are long lines for women's bathrooms at games for reasons of numbers. For every woman there on a date, there is a man unwillingly there for a corporate event. There are always unbelievers in a stadium, but not all of them are women.
But Annie Savoy represents an ideal world, the one I want to live in: one that a woman's opinions on baseball are taken seriously enough to be fought with, and to be considered seriously. One where you don't have to wear, or say, or abide by a certain stereotype to be taken seriously, where just loving the game is enough. Early in the movie, the veteran Crash Davis gets a note from Annie, and the assistant manager (whose job she could easily do) backs up her knowledge of the game. She's respected by the players and fans alike because she is a fan. That's what should matter in the stands of any sport: not that fans be or act a certain way, but that they care and love the game. All should be welcome in the Church of Baseball.
Kelsey McKinney is a writer living in Washington, D.C. You can follow her on Twitter here.