Friday’s game San Rafael Pacifics game will be the first chance Bay Area baseball fans have to see Eri Yoshida play. Yoshida, a pitcher for Na Koa Ikaika Maui (translated as “The Strong Warriors of Maui”), is the first woman to play professional baseball in two countries, the U.S. and her native Japan. Her first American team was the Chico Outlaws, where she made her debut on May 29, 2010.
I was part of a horde of national and international media in Chico that evening who saw her first pitch; here’s my story for the California Report.
Yoshida gave up four runs and logged a no-decision in her first game, but she became the first female to get a hit in a men’s pro league since the 1950s, when women played in the Negro Leagues.
Mamie Johnson, who pitched for the Negro Leagues’ Indianapolis Clowns in the 1950s, told the New York Times in 2010 that she admired Yoshida, but hadn’t been able to throw a knuckler herself. “Hands too little. Couldn’t grip it good enough,” she said.
Yoshida throws the knuckleball, a pitch she studied as a child in Japan by watching videos of Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox. Wakefield and Yoshida met at spring training in 2010, and the veteran spent some time coaching his teenage protege. “I kind of know where she’s at, because I was there when I first started throwing. Nobody knew what to do,” Wakefield told the Associated Press at the time. “It’s pretty cool that I’m able to give back to somebody that wants to carry on the tradition of throwing a knuckleball.”
Because it depends less on upper-body strength and more on finesse, baseball experts have predicted that a talented woman pitcher could throw the knuckleball and be competitive on the major-league level. Pitchers such as Wakefield, Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm have been able to continue throwing the knuckler well into their forties, long after more conventional pitchers have lost their stuff. R. A. Dickey of the New York Mets is the best-known current practitioner of the pitch; he’ll put it on display in the MLB All-Star Game on Tuesday. (By the way, if you missed Dickey’s April appearance on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, the All-Star Break is a good time to check it out.)
In 1944, Annabelle “Lefty” Lee threw a perfect game with the knuckleball for the Minneapolis Millerettes of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Lee never played in the big leagues, though her nephew Bill “Spaceman” Lee would go on to fame with the Red Sox and the Montreal Expos.
In fact, no woman has ever played in Major League Baseball. There haven’t been many even in the independent leagues, to which the San Rafael and Maui teams belong. In 1997, Southern California native Ila Borders signed with the Saint Paul Saints and won games for Duluth-Superior and Madison. In 2010, when Yoshida played in Chico, Tiffany Brooks signed with a Texas independent league team, but didn’t make it out of spring training; she’s currently teaching.
Jackie Mitchell may have had the most impressive achievement of any woman in baseball so far: in 1931, playing for the Chattanooga Lookouts in an exhibition game, she struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Tonight’s game is at 7:30; if you can’t watch in person, the Pacifics have a live webcast.