Sixteen-year-old knuckleballer Eri Yoshida made news earlier this week when she was selected in the Kansai Independent Baseball League draft. Remember the name, because you might hear it again in a few years when the Red Sox sign Yoshida to replace her idol, Tim Wakefield. We're kidding (we think).
Of course women playing baseball against men is nothing new. In fact, it was only 11 years ago that the all-female Colorado Silver Bullets were barnstorming across the country, challenging men's pro, semi-pro, and amateur teams from coast to coast. Here's a look back at the history of the team.
The Beginning: The man behind the creation of the Silver Bullets was Bob Hope, the Atlanta Braves' former vice president of promotions (not the late actor and comedian). Hope had developed a reputation for his unique ideas while with the Braves. On "Headlock and Wedlock Night," wedding ceremonies at home plate were followed by a professional wrestling exhibition. During another one of Hope's promotions, an Atlanta disc jockey nearly suffocated after diving headfirst into the world's largest ice cream sundae.
Still, Hope garnered the financial backing of the Coors Brewing Co. in 1993, and under the ownership of Whittle Communications in Knoxville, Tennessee, the Silver Bullets became the first women's team to be recognized by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. Hope tabbed former Braves pitcher and Hall of Famer Phil Niekro as manager and Shereen Samonds, the only female general manager in Double-A baseball at the time, as the team's top front office executive. Niekro would manage the team for its first three seasons.
The Tryouts: In a process reminiscent of the women-only league portrayed in the movie A League of Their Own, 1,300 women attended tryouts at 11 different locations across the country in the spring of 1994. Forty-eight were invited to the team's training camp in Orlando, Fla., before the team roster was whittled to 24. Legal assistants, nurses, teachers, waitresses, college students, and a Sports Illustrated writer were among those who tried out in hopes of being a part of history. And then there was Geri Fritz. After she was let go in one of the final rounds of cuts, it was revealed that Fritz was born a man. Fritz formerly went by Gerald and played college and professional baseball, but claimed to be legally female. The $20,000 that players earned for making the team could've helped the unemployed Fritz pay for the sex-change operation she wanted.
The First Season: To say the Silver Bullets struggled in their first season would be like saying Coors Light isn't the world's greatest beer. Colorado compiled a 6-38 record in 1994 and was outscored 57-1 in its first six games. The brutal start prompted the team to cancel its remaining scheduled games with Northern League teams and to schedule semi-pro and amateur teams instead. As the season wore on, it became increasingly clear that while the Silver Bullets could field and, to a lesser extent, pitch on par with some of their male counterparts, hitting was another story. Stacy Sunny led the team in nearly every offensive category, including runs (11), RBI (11), hits (23), and average (.200). As a team, the Silver Bullets averaged 1.9 runs per game and hit .154.
The Reaction: The Silver Bullets were a big draw at the gates during their first season. While they normally played in smaller minor league ballparks, they attracted crowds of more than 30,000 fans for games in Denver and San Diego. Silver Bullets souvenirs were hot items and the team generated a media buzz wherever it went. Not everyone was enamored with the idea, however. New York Times sports columnist Barbara Walder wrote: "This sad, slightly embarrassing stunt is just another way women have dropped the ball in their sporting quests over the last 20 years. Not even the most-reflexive feminists can work up much excitement for this enterprise. For instead of being bravely ahead of its time, the Bullets are badly behind, resorting to an attention-getter "“ sports women versus men "“ that like Bill Veeck's baseball-playing midget, can only work once."
The Improvement: The team improved its win total from six to 11 to 18 over the first three seasons, but the novelty of the idea slowly started to wear off. Average attendance dipped from approximately 8,000 in 1994 to 3,500 in 1995 as the team continued to struggle to compete and score runs. After starting the 1996 season 4-19, the Silver Bullets switched to aluminum bats and won 14 of their final 30 games. The team traveled to Taiwan for six exhibition games against men's teams from the Taiwan Major League in the offseason, but were outscored 69-18 and lost all six games. Searching for ways to cut costs, the Silver Bullets established a home base in Albany, Georgia, where they played close to half of their games in 1997.
The Brawl: On June 11, 1997, Kim Braatz-Voisard stepped to the plate with two outs in the ninth and the Silver Bullets trailing an 18-and-under state champion team from Georgia by four runs. One pitch after she told the opposing team's heckling teenage catcher to shut up and play ball, she was drilled in the back with a fastball. The pitcher then laughed at Braatz-Voisard, who charged the mound and set off a bench-clearing brawl.
"I don't blame her," first-year Silver Bullets manager Bruce Crabbe told reporters afterward. "If Albert Belle gets hit by a pitcher who laughs at him, you think he might charge the mound?" The opposing team's manager said his pitcher did not intentionally throw at Braatz-Voisard, who one year earlier hit Colorado's first out-of-the-park home run. Attendance received a boost following the brawl, including a crowd of 10,000 for a game in Alaska. "It's almost a validating thing," Hope said. "This is a baseball team. If you're willing to brawl, you care about what you're doing."
The End: The Silver Bullets finished the 1997 season with their first winning record (23-22), but disbanded after losing Coors as their sponsor. A Coors spokesperson said the decision had nothing to do with the team's play, but Hope was disappointed nonetheless. "We don't want to sound ungrateful to Coors for giving us this opportunity, but it brings into question whether they consider this a corporate responsibility program, or just a novelty act," Hope told a reporter. "The idea apparently lost its freshness." The idea, apparently, lacked a Frost Brew Liner.