There's a compelling scene in the iconic film "Love & Basketball" where new neighbors Quincy McCall (Omar Epps) and Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan) are battling it out on the court as children. As she moves past McCall with ease, Wright tells him, "I'm going to be the first woman in the NBA."
Eventually, she ends up in the WNBA, a league that’s long been stunted by sexist disinterest in women's sports. She's arguably better than McCall, who spends time in the NBA before an ACL injury effectively shutters his career. Yet, Wright is still denied the glory of primetime, big endorsement deals, and enviable contracts.
"Pitch," a new Fox show that premiered Thursday (September 22), abandoned the basketball court in favor of the baseball diamond. But it still brings Wright's dream to life by firmly planting a Black female pitcher in the major leagues.
A Black woman in sports getting her just due? Now, that makes for a show worth watching.
Baseball has long been billed as America's sport, but there are few baseball narratives that center around women, and especially women of color.
Outside of "A League of their Own" and "The Bad News Bears," women baseball players have often been relegated to the sidelines, both in depictions of the sport and within it.
As Yahoo notes, there are women in Major League Baseball’s front offices and umpire stations, but there are none making decisions about the sport's future. Eleven women have owned MLB teams, but no current team is owned by a woman. No team is coached by a woman. There is no woman playing professional baseball.
"Pitch" wrecks the patriarchal hold men have on America's favorite past-time by centering the entire narrative around Ginny Baker, the new starting pitcher for the San Diego Padres.
She unleashes a lethal arsenal of pitches, including a killer screwball, at 80-miles-per-hour.
Baker, played by Kylie Bunbury, wears number 43, one up from Jackie Robinson — and her fictitious story is used to promote the idea that a Black woman's story of ascension through bigotry, uncertainty, and plain ol’ misfortune is a story as American as apple pie.
If we believe in the idea of American exceptionalism, or Americans being able to overcome personal and structural obstacles to achieve some semblance of a dream, then "Pitch" is the quintessential American story.
Baker finds her footing in a world that views her as less because of her sex, her mistakes on the mound, and preconceived notions of her Blackness. Yet, she gets up over and over again, dusts herself off, and casts another pitch.
The pilot episode features Baker gearing up for her first game in the major leagues. She's been called up from the minors to replace an injured pitcher, much to the chagrin of her new teammates, who refer to her "big ole bubble butt" as a deterrent from her talent. The Padres captain and catcher even slaps her butt, though he frames it as a way to connect with his teammates.
What quickly becomes clear is that Baker is simply a Black woman navigating a white man's sport, which means she's facing both racism and sexism.
It's clear from the beginning of the episode that there are high stakes attached to her first game.
Crowds filled with girls swarm her hotel waving signs like "I'm next." One girl even tells her she's going to be the next woman in the major leagues.
"If you want to say she’s only getting her shot because she's a woman, go ahead. But let’s be real, if you’re saying that, you’re a man," one sports commentator announces as Baker prepares for her first game. "You're a backwards-thinking, backwards cap-wearing, male pattern baldness-hiding man. So, bitch and moan all you want gentleman, but tonight, a girl is going to be the lead sports story in the world. And if that upsets you, well, maybe you're just getting your period."The pressure mounts to the point that Baker is unable to perform during her first game. She throws wild pitches, walks multiple batters, and is unable to live up to the moment.
Immediately, she returns to her hotel to have a screaming match with her father, whose guidance led her to the major leagues. He's passed away, as we learn later in the episode, but she recalls his ghost in order to push through.By her second game, Baker’s focused and striking out major league players. It is redemptive, and proves that this show is about more than baseball itself, as it has been billed.
"It's a show that takes place in the world of baseball," Dan Fogelman, the show's co-creator and co-executive producer, said during the Television Critics Association. "It's about this young woman coming of age with the lens of the world watching her."
She has a rude awakening after her successful second game when the injured pitcher confronts her.
"Nice game, pitch. Enjoy your moment in the sun because there’s 29 pro-teams as we speak figuring out that little trick pitch of yours, and when they do, I’ll get my job back, and you’ll become the answer to a trivia question… bitch,” the former starting pitcher, Tommy, told her.
His harsh comments remind Baker, and the audience, that "Pitch" is a show about overcoming obstacles. It is symbolic of American exceptionalism, no matter how fraught that concept has become.
In that regard, "Pitch" is also social commentary on how female athletes have often been dismissed as less than. We are 40 years past the passage of Title IX, legislation that has been monumental in creating parity in sports.
However, it also had devastating consequences, especially for the sport of baseball. Baseball for All, a non-profit organization that promotes girls playing baseball, found that over 100,000 girls play youth baseball, but only 1,000 girls continue playing through high school.
This is purposeful: In 1974, two years after president Nixon passed Title IX, Little League began pushing girls into co-ed softball programs rather than integrating them into high school- and collegiate-level baseball programs. As The New Republic pointed out, this sent the message that "baseball is baseball, and it's for men."
Yet, Black women haven't benefitted as much from Title IX, which is why "Pitch's" choice of a protagonist resonates so much. White women have been the biggest beneficiaries of Title IX, according to The New York Times. This is because the feminist movement, which is what Title IX arose from, tended to see gender as the sole barrier to topple.
"That's right out of the feminist movement," Dionne L. Koller, a law professor at the University of Maryland, told The New York Times. "To some extent, the sports piece of the feminist equality movement stayed stuck in a 1970s version of the equality axis of oppression, especially experienced by women and girls of color. In the work force, we’ve moved on; in our equality thinking, we’ve moved on. But in the sports construct, we've stayed at the 1970s thinking that it's one way, it's gender inequality, and that's it."
Is "Pitch" considering difference as intersectional, rather than singular? If it's based on real-life baseball phenom Mo'ne Davis, it definitely should contend with both racism and sexism.
Mo'ne Davis broke the gender and racial barrier in Little League in 2014, when she pitched two shutdown games during their World Series. Her excellence at the sport has made Fogelman believe that we're closer than ever to having a woman in Major League Baseball.
"I think this is going to happen in modern lifetime," he said during TCA. "The human anatomy makes it a challenge. It's addressed in the pilot. I think the right young woman is going to come along."
Last week, The New York Times caught ire for questioning how "Pitch" will “cater to the hard-core baseball fan expecting authenticity while still appealing to women.” Fox answered this tone deaf question in 48 minutes of television brilliance that showcases why, in a time of Serena Williams and Davis, this show can and will tell a quintessential story all sports lovers can grow to love.
As Baker's father said, "We ain't done nothing yet," but "Pitch" is well on its way to being one of the season's best shows. And it's all done on the shoulders of a Black woman.