A Beginner’s Guide to Pitch, Screwballs, and Women in Baseball

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Kylie Bunbury not actually throwing a screwball. Photo: Tommy Garcia/Fox

The best thing about Pitch, the new Fox drama about a female pitcher, Ginny Baker, who makes it to the major leagues, is that it's not just for baseball fans. Sure, it's got plenty of on-the-field action — and the fact that it's co-produced with Major League Baseball means it looks pretty amazing, too. But Pitch has a lot to offer viewers who don't set their clocks by opening day: a father-daughter plotline, strife in the clubhouse, and of course, a woman fighting to be taken seriously in a game ruled by men.

Still, it's nice to know what's going on, right? Especially when a show like this will undoubtedly spawn a mansplainer at every watercooler, a bro who wants to narrate the history of the screwball on every first date. Well, it's 2016, and there are women playing ball — on TV and IRL (read on!). We dug up the background on women in pro baseball, the teenager who struck out Babe Ruth, and why Ginny Baker’s screwball is so damn special. Read it and recite on your next Tinder date with a baseball snob — ahem, fan:

Start at the beginning, please. Ginny Baker’s secret weapon is supposedly her screwball. But what the !@#$%^&* is a screwball?
A screwball is a pitch that moves down and to the side as it crosses the plate. When thrown by a right-hander, the pitch moves from the left to right; when thrown by a left-hander, the reverse is true.

Fair enough. But that sounds pretty predictable — what’s the big deal?
Well, first of all, in baseball, you don’t know what the pitcher is going to throw. That’s the whole point!

I’ve seen A League of Their Own. I know that.
Okay, okay. No one’s doubting your baseball movie cred. Here’s the real answer: A screwball can be lethal because it’s a slower pitch, and it looks like it’s just going to float over the plate. But at the last minute, it breaks — usually down and away from the batter. It tricks the batter, and when done right, it’s almost impossible to hit well.

Okay, I’m sold. That sounds nasty. So does everybody in baseball throw these bad boys? They must, right, since it’s such an effective pitch?
Well ... no. In fact, the pitch has just about died out. Of the hundreds of pitchers in the MLB, there’s exactly one who’s known to throw a screwball. You can see that pitcher, Hector Santiago, talking about it — and throwing a gnarly one — here:

What?!
Baseball, like English grammar, doesn’t make much sense. People started to believe that the screwball, which requires a pitcher to grip the ball in a pretty unorthodox way (which you saw on Pitch!), was bad for the pitcher’s arm and could lead to injury. In fact, it’s not clear whether or not that’s true. But these days, almost no one throws it anymore.

Except Ginny Baker in Pitch! Right?
Well ... kind of. The problem with the screwball is, most people can’t throw it! Including Kylie Bunbury, who plays Ginny. So, with the exception of one screwball thrown early on, which we can assume was manufactured using heavy special effects, she’s not throwing any actual screwballs.

Okay. Screwballs aside, I want to know: Is it realistic for a woman to make it to the majors? Has anyone ever come close before?
Funny you should ask! Just this year, a minor-league baseball team, the Sonoma Stompers, made history by signing two women — 17-year-old pitcher-outfielder Kelsie Whitmore and 25-year-old pitcher-infielder Stacy Piagno. Women have made appearances in professional baseball before, but only a few times in the last seven-plus decades. (One of the first women to go pro, Toni Stone, played in the Negro Leagues and bore scars on her wrist from sliding runners trying to take her out with their cleats.) This is the first time a minor-league team has signed more than one woman at once. Check out Whitmore’s first ever minor-league hit here:

I heard some story about a 17-year-old woman striking out Babe Ruth. That’s just a myth, right?
Actually, it’s not! On April 2, 1931, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and the rest of the 1931 Yankees played an exhibition game against a minor-league team, the Chattanooga Lookouts. The Lookouts’ pitcher was a 17-year-old woman with a beastly curveball (sound familiar?) named Jackie Mitchell. She struck out the Babe in four pitches; the last was a called strike. Gehrig was up next and he didn’t fare much better: He went down swinging in three pitches.

Wait. This is a huge deal. A woman struck out Babe Ruth?
Yup. I know.

Why haven’t I heard about this before?
Dunno. Sexist history books? Patriarchy? But also, some people believe it was a stunt — that Ruth and Gehrig struck out on purpose.

Is that true?
If it is, they never admitted it. But even if they had claimed it was a ruse, I’d be suspicious. Every girl who’s ever beaten a boy at sports has heard, “Aw, I let her win!” And every girl knows it’s bullshit, too.