In the opening scenes of Fox’s new high-concept sports drama, Pitch, commentators repeatedly compare Ginny Baker, a young, black pitching phenom played by Kylie Bunbury, to Jackie Robinson. She’s the first woman to join a Major League Baseball team, and the show—which was co-produced by the MLB—wants you to know that this a Very Big Deal. Ginny hurling her screwball through the glass ceiling is as significant, it seems, as Robinson breaking the color barrier over half a century ago.
This an obvious comparison—two pioneers, both black, joining the majors—but also a lazy one. Pitch, which debuts on Thursday night, misses a real opportunity to highlight three ballplayers who would make better analogues for Ginny: the three black women who gender-integrated the Negro Leagues in the mid-twentieth century.
Despite the Robinson comparison, the show’s pilot treats Ginny’s debut with the San Diego Padres as a breaking of the gender barrier: To the extent that she’s treated differently by the team, it’s because she’s a woman. Their jokes belie only sexism, a general disbelief that she can hack it because she isn’t a man. Race comes up only for humor’s sake, as when one character calls another “Black Yoda,” but Ginny’s blackness isn’t a part of the public discourse surrounding her.
Toni Stone, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, or Connie Morgan are not familiar names, but they should be—and they’re integral to the modern-day story Fox and the MLB are telling. Stone was the first woman ever to sign to a professional men’s baseball league; she joined the all-male, all-black Indianapolis Clowns in 1953. Morgan replaced Stone on that team the following season—the league’s last—between 1954 and 1955. Both Stone and Morgan played second base, while Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, who also played for the Clowns between 1953 and 1955, was a pitcher. These women faced not just resistance from their male teammates, but the racism the whole team faced on the road, traveling through the Jim Crow South for away games. Their distinct experiences of dual discrimination are rooted in identities Pitch’s Ginny Baker shares. Since the show is set in America in 2016, writing storylines that address both racism and sexism among athletes and sports fans wouldn’t have been a narrative stretch.
Nodding to Stone, Johnson, and Morgan should have been a no-brainer for the writers on Pitch. The frequent flashback scenes in the pilot could have shown a poster of one of the women on Ginny’s bedroom wall, or featured her father delivering a throwaway line that name-checked one of them. As it stands, Ginny’s interest in baseball is entirely attributed to men. As a kid, she considered Padres catcher Mike Lawson (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) her idol. And her father, himself an athlete who aspired to the pros, is her obsessive coach.
Ginny’s interest in the game is written as though it could only have existed within a silo of male influence. As she prepares to play her first game, she seems unsettled and put-upon when little girls approach her for autographs. She doesn’t want the burden of their adulation, and resists being treated like a gender pioneer, something Bunbury conveys with weary glances at fangirls and alludes to in conversations with her publicist and Lawson. But perhaps the weight of female fans’ expectations wouldn’t be as oppressive for her—or for the show’s viewers—if Ginny knew she wasn’t actually the first, that she was merely extending the legacies of the women baseball players who preceded her.
It would help young fans to know this. In 2016, Fox and the MLB are marketing Pitch’s premise as daring and groundbreaking. In his New York Times review of the series, John Koblin calls the show’s premise an “attention-grabbing gimmick” then goes on to question how the show will “cater to the hard-core baseball fan expecting authenticity while still appealing to women,” as though those groups are mutually exclusive. Too many people still believe that a prospective Ginny Baker is firmly rooted in the world of fiction, when in fact Pitch is more accurately a case of art imitating life.