As Olivia Pichardo makes history, women’s baseball awaits breakthrough

Olivia Pichardo is the first woman to make an NCAA Division I baseball roster. (Courtesy of Brown Athletics)

Olivia Pichardo is the first woman to make the roster for an NCAA Division I baseball team. The 18-year-old freshman will play for Brown in the 2023 season.

Yet her accomplishment, while inspirational, also highlights the dearth of opportunities in women’s baseball.

Pichardo started playing baseball since she joined Forest Hills Little League in Queens, N.Y., as a 5 year old. While she, like many girls, repeatedly was pushed toward softball, she stuck with her first love.

When she went to college, she wanted to continue with her sport. So she participated in walk-on tryouts in her first semester at Brown, and she earned a place on the squad.

Baseball for All, a nonprofit working to improve gender equity in baseball, tracks women playing college baseball. While at least eight others are on track to play in 2023, none of them play at the Division I level.

“I’m just really glad that we’re having more and more female baseball players at the collegiate level, and no matter what division, it’s just really good to see this progression,” Pichardo said. “It’s really paving the way for other girls in the next generation to also have these goals that they want to achieve and dream big and know that they can do it.”

Baseball and softball often have been treated as equivalent — the former as the boys’ game, and the latter as the girls’ — though they are different sports that require different fields, different balls and different rules.

While progress has been made toward opening up both sports, legally and socially, much work remains to be done. During the 2021-22 school year, 1,156 girls played high school baseball compared to 481,004 boys, per a participation survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations. In the same year, 536 boys played fast pitch softball, compared to 341,459 girls.

“Telling a girl that she shouldn’t play baseball because she’s a girl is a social issue,” Baseball for All founder Justine Siegal told The Athletic. “We’re talking about gender rights.”

Siegal supports girls and women playing on boys’ and men’s baseball teams. She also wants to create a pipeline for girls and women within the sport, which would include teams and leagues specifically geared toward them.

Baseball for All has hosted several women’s college baseball events, including several Women’s College Baseball Invitational showcases and the Women’s College Club Baseball Championship in March.

“NCAA women’s baseball isn’t much of a thing in our country the same way other women’s sports are,” Centenary University men’s baseball coach Scott Kushner told Sports Illustrated.

Centenary hosted the Baseball’s first Women’s College Baseball Invitational in August 2021.

“Other women’s sports are well supported and have an infrastructure, so it seems odd that there isn’t the same for baseball,” Kushner continued. “The end goal is not that baseball at the collegiate level should be co-ed.

“It is wonderful that we have some girls playing college baseball. They are trailblazers, and we should be very proud of them. But it isn’t like that in other sports. We don’t expect a women’s college basketball player to compete with a men’s college basketball player. If we can at least build up the infrastructure at the college level, whether it begins at the club level and then eventually turns into varsity, I think people will see that it is great for baseball as a whole.”