Little Leaguer Mo’ne Davis Stirs an Appreciation of Female Athletes

Philadelphia pitcher Mo'ne Davis.
Philadelphia pitcher Mo'ne Davis delivers in the first inning of a United States semi-final baseball game against Las Vegas at the Little League World Series tournament in South Williamsport, Pa., Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2014. –AP

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Fans lined up Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. for free tickets to see Mo’ne Davis and the Taney Dragons of Philadelphia, though Davis would not pitch for another 12 hours.

At noon, the handout began. By 1:30, the tickets were gone and latecomers were left to futile persuasion.

“One guy handed me his ID with money in the back,’’ said Denny Curran, who works the will-call window at the Little League World Series.

The announced crowd swelled to 34,128 as Davis struck out six but also gave up six hits and three runs — including a two-run homer — in 2 1/3 innings of an eventual 8-1 loss to Las Vegas.

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Philadelphia will play again Thursday. Win or lose, Davis at 13 has stirred another encouraging summer of awakening and appreciation of female athletes, four decades after the passage of Title IX, the federal law that prohibited discrimination based on gender at educational institutions that accept federal funds.

Two weeks ago, Becky Hammon of San Antonio became the first woman hired as a full-time assistant coach in the NBA. Now Davis has gained renown as the first female pitcher to throw a shutout in the Little League World Series.

Notably, both Davis and Hammon have been celebrated for the legitimacy of their accomplishments, not sideshow appeal. The Spurs announced that Hammon was being hired for her basketball IQ and never mentioned that she was a woman. Davis made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a pitcher, not a swimsuit model.

“It’s a terribly important moment,’’ said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “Rather than, ‘Oh my God, this is a publicity stunt or a circus act,’ the reaction has been, ‘Good for Becky Hammon, and good for Mo’ne Davis, and it’s about time.’’’

Davis’ ascendance with a tailing fastball, deft curve and unflappable composure has been reminiscent of the 1999 Women’s World Cup of soccer. That event, too, began with limited public recognition but generated consuming interest based on the skill of Mia Hamm and her teammates, not the hype of six-hour pregame shows like those that precede the Super Bowl.

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The penalty-shootout final against China drew 90,000 fans to the Rose Bowl. ABC estimated that 40 million Americans watched part of the match on television. Brandi Chastain made magazine covers in exultant, muscular celebration. “Girls Rule!’’ said the headline in Newsweek.

In today’s hyper news-media landscape, Davis’ impact has been more immediate, her story perhaps even more broadly resonant. First, she is a girl starring in a sport dominated by boys that has a wider overall appeal than soccer in the United States.

“She’s so confident,’’ 10-year-old Kayla Nothstein said.

Davis is believed to be the first African-American girl to play in the Little League World Series. She has helped disarm stereotypes, thriving in an elite private school and hinting that opportunity, not interest, might be the biggest cause of declining urban participation in baseball.

“If you give kids in the city what kids in the suburbs have, you get the same exact results,’’ said Steve Bandura, who has coached Davis in Philadelphia since she was 7.

In her hometown, Davis is being embraced by a populace consumed but often frustrated by its professional teams. The Phillies sit in last place in the National League East. The 76ers tied an NBA record last season in losing 26 consecutive games.

“People are starved for some kind of success,’’ said Mike Missanelli, a longtime sports talk-radio host and sportswriter in Philadelphia.

Beyond sport, James Peterson, director of the department of Africana studies at Lehigh University, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Davis brought a needed and triumphal counterpoint to the roiling tension in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting death by police of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown.

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“The emergence of Mo’ne has been a relief,’’ Peterson was quoted as saying.

Some have expressed concern that the attention being paid to Davis has been overwhelming and exploitative. But even that criticism suggests an advancement for women, said Kane, the Minnesota professor, adding that the question of “What price glory?’’ has seldom been asked of female athletes.

Some supporters of women’s sports have noted that Davis received attention only upon defeating boys, observing that female athletes still lag in recognition for achievement on their own terms.

But Billie Jean King, the pioneering tennis star who defeated Bobby Riggs in a landmark exhibition in 1973, seemed to argue that inclusiveness was a more urgent issue, posting on Twitter of Davis, “See what happens when you let everyone play.’’

In 1972, Maria Pepe of Hoboken, New Jersey, had to sue to gain entry into Little League, whose officials argued that girls lacked the strength and stamina to compete against boys. In 1998, Ila Borders became the first female pitcher to start a minor league game (at least one woman pitched in the Negro Leagues), but earlier in her career Borders endured taunts and was once asked in a radio interview, “Are you a lesbian?’’

By the time Pepe won her court case, she was too old for Little League. Now Hoboken’s assistant comptroller, Pepe, 54, said she was “glued to the TV’’ during the series and followed Davis closely, noting the cultural change over 40 years.

“Her teammates embrace her as a ballplayer not a girl,’’ Pepe said.

At Wednesday’s game, Rob Manfred, the commissioner-elect of Major League Baseball, threw out the first pitch. He was asked whether Davis’ success suggested that biology may no longer mean destiny in baseball and that women might one day play and pitch in the big leagues.

“Fifty years ago, people would have had a list of things women couldn’t do that was as long as your arm, and they’re doing every single one of them today,’’ Manfred said. “So I’m not betting against the gender.’’