League of Their Own II : Glendale Man Making His Pitch to Bring Back Women's Professional Baseball

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Boyd can murder a baseball. With a cruel crack of his bat, the still-taut 39-year-old can send the spheroid spiraling into earthly orbit--bound for the moon, it seems, never to return.

But just ask the older brother of former major league pitcher Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd and he'll tell you his batting idols aren't Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio or even Hammering Hank Aaron.

It's a woman named Girtharee (Sweetie) Boyd--his late mother.

"To this day, I can still hear that smack when my mother hit a baseball," recalls the Glendale resident, one of six baseball-crazy Boyd brothers born in Meridian, Miss. "If you saw her, you wouldn't care about Maris or Mantle.

"She'd hit the ball a mile and then walk out a single--because she had big breasts and didn't want people to laugh when they saw her run. But man oh man, could my Mama hit a baseball."

These days, as Coach Boyd takes to a Burbank playing field for an afternoon practice, the image of his mother lives on in the throwing and fielding exploits of his players--an all-woman squad Boyd hopes to soon turn into seasoned pros.

The girls of summer.

Call it Mike Boyd's field of improbable dreams. He wants to start a women's professional baseball league--complete with head-on slides, 80-mile-an-hour fastballs, double plays turned like well-oiled clockwork.

And, of course, child care in the dugouts.

For too long, Boyd says, professional baseball has been a rarefied realm of chest-beating, tobacco-chewing, butt-slapping men. It's time, he insists, to give women another run at the sport.

Women briefly held the spotlight during World War II when the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League cheered up a battle-weary nation with teams such as the Grand Rapids Chicks, Springfield Sallies and the Battle Creek Belles--an era captured in the recent film "A League of Their Own."

But the 14-team league folded in 1953, a victim of television and returning armies of invading male athletes. Since then, Boyd reasons, women have been shunted into a forgotten ghetto of amateur slow- and fast-pitch softball leagues.

By this fall, he wants to launch a league of six to eight all-woman teams in California or Hawaii. If successful, games could be played during the usually baseball-barren winter months when the men are off filming commercials or playing golf.

"Women have a place in professional baseball and it's right there on the playing field," he says. "Baseball is more than brute strength. It's technique and intelligence. And these women have an abundance of that.

"Baseball needs to be less selfish. Baseball needs more hugs. Baseball needs women."

Women like Gina Satriano--by day a Los Angeles lawyer and by night a fastball pitcher who has tried out for several major league teams. And Shauna Oetting, a 23-year-old Nebraskan who former Dodger Lee Lacy once described at practice as "pure grace, a ballerina on the infield."

Coach Boyd is emphatic about giving his girls a chance to play. Because he also knows the frustration of being an outcast of baseball. The first black to play baseball for Meridian High School in 1971, his pitching arm helped lead the team to a state championship.

But this was seven years before his youngest brother, Dennis Boyd made his big league splash with the Boston Red Sox. In the still largely segregated South, Mike Boyd says it was the color of his skin and not any lack of talent that kept him out of baseball.

He was eventually drafted by the Dodgers in 1973 but never signed. A tryout with the Oakland A's also failed to land him a major league contract. While he cannot prove racism, Boyd says "the major leagues basically told me that I couldn't play with their baseball. So I went out and found my own."

As ensuing years saw Boyd try singing and acting, his heart stayed true to his sport.

Using a technique he calls "Step, Hip, Hands," Boyd has taught private batting lessons, as well as fielding and throwing techniques, to aspiring baseball players from 2 to 67--charging up to $100 an hour for his services.

All he asks of his girls, however, is dedication and hard work.

It was two years ago when, like a single lashed into left field, a light flashed on in Mike Boyd's mind: a revival of women's professional baseball. At parks throughout Los Angeles he had spotted women who could hit the ball like his mother, Sweetie, and wondered if there were more where they came from.

Before long, Boyd had founded two teams--the Prophettes and the Gatekeepers--composed of more than two dozen players: working women, managers, attorneys and students, each of whom would give their right arm to drop their briefcases or book bags and play professional ball.

A league of their own.

Last August, Boyd staged what he calls the first professional women's baseball game in 40 years. Six hundred people paid $5 apiece to watch the Gatekeepers trounce the Prophettes, 11 to 2--a game that included three home runs, one more than 340 feet, Boyd says. The fan reviews, he insists, were stunning. Women's baseball was a hit.

Since then, Boyd has sought corporate money to fund his new league. But after contacting more than 50 possible sponsors, he admits that he has yet to collect even the first dime of the $1 million he says is needed for the league's first year.

That fact hasn't stopped Boyd or his girls.

Three nights a week, they practice at George Izay Park in Burbank, working on their fundamentals, waiting for their new league to get its legs.

Karen Kenney, a 24-year-old outfielder from Boston, slaps a fist into her mitt and sums up the attitude around this infield. "I'm definitely ready to play ball," she says in a flattened "pahk-the-cah" accent.

"I can do anything that a guy can do."

The grounder scorches a trail down the third-base line, zinging into the outstretched glove of third baseman Jill Schenk. Her teeth clenched, she drills the ball to second baseman Christina Hernandez, who relays a throw to first. Double play.

So what if it is only practice? Like cheerleaders, the entire infield jumps and screams in delight.

"That's the way we play baseball, ladies," Coach Boyd yells from the sidelines. "Let's meet at the mound for a group hug."

Like some baseball version of "I'm OK, You're OK," the entire team joins in an octopus embrace. With their beaming coach in the middle.

Over the last year, Boyd has seen the highs and lows of baseball--from the near-perfect form of his veterans to the Keystone Kops high jinks of the beginners. He's seen beefy power hitters jump back from an inside fastball and scream bloody murder, "just like they saw a mouse."

And he's seen gritty players beaned in the forehead by a speeding baseball--only to jump up minutes later to rejoin the practice.

But Boyd treats them all the same, insisting that with the right instruction, they're all potential major leaguers. His method involves a series of freeze-frame moves that has brought grace from the goofy.

Suddenly, at a field shared with a Little League team, Boyd shouts several code-worded commands and watches his players drop their gloves to perform like an aerobics class moving through a series of sinewy poses. "Peel the banana!" he commands. "Melt butter!" "Water fountain!" "Hood ornament!"

For most, Boyd is more than just a baseball coach. Indeed, his practices often take on the guise of a personal counseling session. Even when grounders slip through his players' legs, Boyd refuses to criticize them.

Boyd calls himself "The Minister of Baseball."

"Sometimes I feel like God led me to this man," Kenney says as she does a set of leg stretches. Several months ago, the athletic blonde was approached by Boyd at the same park as she watched her boyfriend play softball. Her life changed.

"He teaches us to think of ourselves as human beings, not men or women, black or white," she says. "He says that God has given us a talent that we shouldn't throw away."

Adds Jill Schenk: "We're his disciples. And he's like our Pied Piper."

But some players believe that Boyd has become a false god, one who has made promises about salaries and free travel that he can't keep. Others have felt pressured to forsake jobs and careers for the playing field--a tactic that has driven women from the team.

"There are a lot of demands," says Margaret Christopher, a San Fernando florist who brought her 6-year-old son to practice. "Mike doesn't like us to say we're out here to have fun. If that's the case, he tells us to stay home. He believes we're here to work, to be seen as baseball players.

"But I'm a single parent with a child to support. And baseball isn't paying the bills."

Satriano sees things differently. Like Boyd, the 27-year-old Los Angeles County deputy district attorney grew up around baseball. Her father, Tom Satriano, played third base for the Angels during the 1960s.

At age 7, Satriano's family says, she became the first girl in California to play boys' baseball. Since then, when not practicing law, she has played semipro ball on all-male teams and not long ago tried out for the Seattle Mariners.

She says she lost her shot at the majors when her fastball came up 2 m.p.h. short of the 80 m.p.h. cutoff. Still, Satriano hits the ball with power and can throw a ball faster than most men her age.

Now, the thought of languishing in a women's fast-pitch softball league saddens her. But Coach Boyd has given her hope.

"I'm just happy to be here," she says, swinging a bat like a weapon. "This league has given me a chance to play baseball again."

However penniless, the league has its supporters.

"Both Mike and I have seen women who could perform on a baseball field--our sisters and our mother for starters," Dennis Boyd says. "When Mike told me about this idea, I wasn't surprised. You've got girls who want to play baseball. Women saying, 'I can do what you can do.' "

But Dottie Collins has her doubts about women taking a full swing at baseball. When it comes to sports, the former pitcher for the Fort Wayne Daisies of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League says women are equal--but still separate.

"I'm one of those women who believes that women can't invade the men's game," said the 69-year-old league veteran. "We have our own place. These aren't the war years. I think we should concentrate on fast-pitch softball before taking on any baseballs."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°