The first weekend in October, the Mets asked their rookies to squeeze into too-small dresses and parade around the streets of Philly, where they were holed up for the final series of the regular season. “Dress Up Day,” as the tradition is known, does not always put players in feminine clothes; last year the Mets went for children’s superhero costumes. But there’s a general theme to the antics — emasculation, with a little gay panic thrown in — and this year it was turned all the way up to eleven. The rookies were made to wear reproductions of the small-waisted, short-skirted rompers that Geena Davis and Madonna had to squeeze into for A League of Their Own, the 1992 film about the early days of professional women’s baseball. The players were then sent to fetch coffee for their more senior teammates, completing the domination ritual. The official Mets Instagram post tagged a photo of nine players, in pale pink and bright yellow, with “#StillBetterThanAAA,” as in: How awful for these guys, but at least it’s not the minors.
Whatever team spirit this tired male-bonding routine mustered seems not to have fortified the players sufficiently: A few days later the Giants crushed the team’s World Series dreams with a 3–0 win, courtesy of a ninth-inning home run off the Mets’ closer, in the NL wild-card game. And though USA Today declared that the team, some of whose members were also wearing cheap wigs, “won for best costumes” and were “totally own[ing] it,” very few outlets covered Dress Up Day. So let’s take a moment to revisit why a major professional sports franchise thought dressing its players up like women athletes was a funny idea.
These dresses weren’t just any dresses. They were imitations of the uniforms worn by the only women who ever got to call themselves professional baseball — not softball — players, the athletes who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League between 1943 and 1954. They were allowed to compete only because the men were off at war. And compete they did: In the years the league was active, more than six hundred women joined, fielding, at the league’s peak, fifteen teams. The game they played resembled softball at the start but evolved to become almost identical to men’s regulation baseball, save for a slightly smaller field. They trained, got injured, and won and lost with as much passion as anyone. But they were not considered legitimate athletes — that much is obvious from how little the women were paid (as little as $615 a week in 2016 dollars). And then there were the uniforms — hardly athletic, designed to prettify instead of protect — and the promotions for the games, which treated the women’s existence as a sweet-as-pie novelty. The league dried up not because no one had attended (they had, in the cumulative millions) but because sponsors moved back to men’s baseball when the war ended. It was a foregone conclusion that everyone preferred the status quo ante.
This is the history the Mets’ stunt mocked. That USA Today article also suggested the rookies were “paying tribute,” but if that’s what they wanted to do, they would have donated their time to a girls’ development team or voiced support for the women who want to play their sport professionally now — no women’s baseball league ever formed after the AAGPBL’s demise. Instead, the Mets took an already stale joke and made a laugh out of the few women who briefly got a seat at the table. Instead of seeing women continue to get to wear baseball uniforms, we see the inheritors of the men who took them away, donning them in a manner intended to humiliate the wearers.
Women are left, again, as an athletic afterthought. Women’s baseball — and basketball, soccer, hockey; everything besides sports like gymnastics and beach volleyball, at which spectators can comfortably leer — is still marginalized. Women earn less (or, as is the case with cycling, are guaranteed no income at all) and get less coverage; fewer people can then watch their games, only fueling the self-fulfilling stereotype that women are just not as good at sports. The only place a woman can play at the highest level of baseball this season is on TV, in Fox’s Pitch, where Kylie Bunbury’s hurler, Ginny Baker, faces a volley of abuse for being the first woman to join the MLB.
The Mets’ symbolically denigrating women is shocking, but not quite as shocking as the steady stream of news items about football or baseball players beating the women in their lives. And just as Dress Up Day escaped notice, male athletes accused of domestic violence often get off just as easy: According to a 2010 paper in the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law, domestic-violence cases involving athletes result in convictions less than half as often as for the general population. The Mets signaled their indifference to this reality when they hired back José Reyes, who played in last week’s season-ending game. After allegedly throwing his wife into a sliding glass door, Reyes was suspended from the Colorado Rockies for just seventeen days this past May, and was forced to donate $100,000 to a domestic-violence charity (Reyes’s Rockies contract was for $38 million). But he skirted legal ramifications after his wife refused to cooperate in the trial and the charges were dropped. The Mets snatched him up as soon as the suspension ended, and their fans welcomed him back onto the field in July with a standing ovation.
If the Mets had wanted the hazing experience to be actually traumatizing, they could have also subjected their players to the same violence that people perceived as male often endure for wearing dresses in public. Trans women, gender-nonconforming people, or really any masculine-looking person who wants to wear feminine clothes out of doors does so at significant risk of harm — often from law enforcement officers themselves. The rookies, by contrast, have a multibillion-dollar sports machine to protect them. They’re not going to lose their jobs or get arrested in the bathroom for dressing a certain way. No one is going to beat them up or murder them. Because otherwise, the Mets would have to admit this joke isn’t funny anymore.