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She couldn't find a girls baseball team for her daughter, so she started a league of her own
Dana Bookman launched Toronto Girls Baseball in 2016. Now, she's empowering hundreds of girls with benefits that extend far beyond the diamond.
by Morgan Campbell - Sports Reporter
Published November 08, 2018
Photo: Dana Bookman had no baseball experience when she started
a homegrown girls baseball league two years ago.
The league has grown to hundreds of players and expanded to other areas and
she has become a keynote speaker on the topic. - by Richard Lautens
Where most people see obstacles, Dana Bookman sees opportunities.
So she didn't mope or complain in early 2016 when her daughter, Noa Rae O'Neill, found herself the only girl among more than 400 kids registered for their local youth baseball league. Nor did she indulge her daughter's initial urge to quit baseball and switch to another sport.
Instead, Bookman, who had no baseball experience until her two kids started playing, spread the word on Facebook that she needed four or five other girls and a coach to practise baseball along with her daughter. Then she upgraded her ambition, figuring 10 girls would make actual mini-games possible.
Word spread faster and interest ran deeper than Bookman anticipated. By that June, more than 40 girls had participated in Toronto Girls Baseball. In August, the program, with founder Bookman functioning as CEO, finished its third summer in Toronto. It also expanded to Halifax and Winnipeg this past summer. http://www.torontogirlsbaseball.com/
Bookman never imagined becoming a leader in the local baseball community, but she just couldn't stop herself from fashioning opportunity from a problem. Either way, the program she founded is transforming the way Canadian girls think about baseball, and helping change the gender balance in a traditionally male sport.
"(Noa Rae) was about to quit, but she stuck with it and learned you can do it," said Bookman, who is currently on leave from her full-time job as a producer at CBC. "(Baseball) gave her so much confidence. Whether she chooses to be a baseball player or something else, that's something she'll carry with her forever. To me, that’s what this is about."
Participation numbers have swelled since Toronto Girls Baseball’s inaugural summer — up to 350 in year two and more than 500 this past summer. This year’s edition needed 10 diamonds at five different city parks to accommodate rapid growth, Bookman says. And beyond just teaching girls the sport, it let them play. Toronto Girls Baseball fielded five competitive teams this summer, and hosted a 15-team tournament that featured a squad visiting from Arizona.
Bookman had no previous background in baseball. She earned a bachelor’s degree in African Studies from Queen’s and another in Journalism from Ryerson, but the 43-year-old’s current public profile is linked to her girls’ baseball advocacy.
Last year, she made the Canadian Baseball Network’s list of most influential Canadians in the sport, outranking several agents, coaches and active big-league players.
And earlier this year, she was named an RBC Woman of Influence, thanks to her leadership of a program whose enrolment ballooned more than 800 per cent in its first two years.
Baseball stakeholders say the program’s rapid growth highlights a latent demand for girls’ baseball that had gone unmet until Bookman intervened.
“I was surprised at the numbers on the field but not surprised it grew so fast. I know there were girls out there,” says Murray Carr, father of national team member and Toronto Girls Baseball coach Emma Carr. “Yes, it’s baseball but the drive behind it is the empowerment of girls. Anything that’s not ballet or something, you’re looked down on. (Toronto Girls Baseball) has turned that around.”
While producing world-class athletes isn’t Bookman’s priority, Baseball Canada executive André Lachance says the program serves as a critical intake point for a national women’s baseball team with ambitious plans.
In August, Team Canada finished third at the Women’s Baseball World Cup, trailing champion Japan and runner-up Chinese Taipei, and defeating the U.S. in the bronze medal game.
The result might not represent an improvement in absolute performance — Canada took silver in the 2016 World Cup. But in relative terms, given the growing popularity of women’s baseball worldwide, Lachance says Canada’s program has made noticeable progress. In 2004, only five teams contested the World Cup. This year, 12 teams participated, and Lachance says up-and-coming programs in countries like Mexico and Argentina could provide an even deeper field for the 2020 tournament.
Lachance, who managed Canada’s World Cup team, says international success starts with making baseball accessible and appealing to as many girls as possible, and that grassroots programs like Bookman’s foster opportunities at higher levels of the sport.
“The first experience in baseball, if it’s not positive, they’ll switch over to another sport,” said Lachance, now Baseball Canada’s business and sport development director. “The greater the pool of athletes we have, the greater chance we have to have better athletes at the national team level.”
Registration numbers show men’s and women’s participation tend to rise and fall together. In 2014, according to Baseball Canada, there were 11,943 registered female players nationwide, compared with 102,615 males. The following year, participation among both groups dipped sharply — 8,179 females and 92,672 males registered in Baseball Canada-affiliated leagues in 2015.
By 2016, enrolment figures rebounded, with 105,799 males and 11,546 females registered nationwide. Last year, male participation continued to climb, with 113,206 registered players, while female players’ numbers levelled off at 11,523, with approximately 75 per cent of them participating in men’s or mixed-gender leagues.
When men’s registration jumped in 2016, Baseball Canada issued a news release crediting the Blue Jays 2015 playoff run — capped by José Bautista’s monster home run and signature bat flip against the Texas Rangers — with attracting young players.
Bookman points out that the Blue Jays’ influence on prospective new baseball players crosses gender lines.
“Girls want to be like the Blue Jays just as much as boys want to be like the Blue Jays,” Bookman said. “It’s a different sport. It’s fun and it’s social.”
Emma Carr stars on Ryerson’s softball team, but considers the sport — with its bigger ball, smaller diamond and underhand pitching — her hobby. Baseball is her craft and her first sporting choice, but Ryerson, like many North American universities, doesn’t have a women’s program. As a second-year undergrad, she has learned to balance both sports, playing softball for her university and baseball for the national team.
She says Bookman’s program, where she started out as a coach in the summer of 2016, will give successive generations of female players the tools to navigate both baseball and softball instead of making a premature choice between them.
“It’s really important, especially for baseball, because a lot of girls get discouraged from playing,” said Carr, who played in the World Cup in August. “A lot of girls get forced into softball, and it’s a different sport.”
Baseball Canada, too, has recognized the importance of actively recruiting female baseball talent instead of hoping standout players cross over from softball. Lachance points out that while some top Canadian women’s players also play softball, the program relies on players who prioritize baseball.
And by the summer of 2017, Bookman’s initiative had attracted the attention of Baseball Canada executives, who invited her to give a presentation at the organization’s annual convention. By the end of the event, Bookman had received queries from baseball officials in Nova Scotia and Manitoba, hoping she could duplicate her program there. Bookman says 150 girls enrolled in a summer program in Halifax, while 60 more played this spring in Winnipeg.
In every city where her girls’ baseball programs have taken root, Bookman says she sees benefits that reach beyond the diamond. The statistical reality is that very few players will duplicate Carr’s success. Last year, nearly 12,000 girls and women registered to play baseball in Canada, but the World Cup roster contained just 20 players.
But Bookman says the confidence that comes with learning new skills and implementing them in a team setting will benefit program participants no matter how far they pursue baseball.
“The best players fail seven out of 10 times and your team has to be there for you,” Bookman said. “We’re teaching girls how to win, how to lose. We’re teaching girls resilience. We’re teaching them empathy.”
Historically, advances in women’s baseball happen in response to manpower shortages in the sport’s mainstream.
During the Second World War, more than 500 major leaguers, including stars like Ted Williams, joined the U.S. armed forces, boosting the war effort but creating a significant talent drain. Into that void stepped the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which operated teams in the Midwestern U.S., and later inspired the 1992 movie A League of Their Own.
And in the 1950s, as the racial integration of Major League Baseball gutted Negro League rosters, three different women succeeded in suiting up for Negro League teams. Nearly a decade after the all-white AAGPBL denied her a tryout, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson signed with the previously all-male Indianapolis Clowns.
“I’m glad (the AAGPBL) turned me down,” Johnson told The New York Times in 2010. “To know that I was good enough to (play) with these gentlemen made me the proudest woman in the world.”
More than 60 years later, it’s still newsworthy when a woman earns a spot on a men’s pro team. Five different women played minor league baseball alongside men in 2017.
But Bookman’s long-term goal is to normalize a sport still often treated as a novelty.
As her network of girls’ programs grows, Bookman hopes to impress upon participants that girls’ baseball isn’t a dead-end sport. Even with a dearth of college and university women’s baseball programs, Bookman says Carr’s career path — national team baseball and university softball — points the way for the handful of girls who develop into elite women’s players.
But more immediately, Bookman wants her initiative to expand from three cities into a national grid of girls’ baseball programs. That women and girls account for just 9.2 per cent of registered players in Canada isn’t a problem for Bookman. It’s an opportunity to narrow the gender gap and make a tradition-bound sport more inclusive.
“Baseball is a tool for me for something I’ve become really passionate about,” Bookman said. “I’m passionate about empowering these girls through the sport of baseball.”