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Not surprisingly, most of what is written about baseball is about the men who play the game, with little attention given to life at home or to their wives and families. The baseball fan’s image of players’ wives— based on televised glimpses of them in the stands—is that they are pretty, wear stylish clothes, and lead a life of privilege. The reality is far different, as the demands of their husbands’ occupation have a large impact on their lives.
A Transient Life
Mobility is the feature of pro ball that exerts the greatest influence on the wives and families of ballplayers. In the minor leagues the men play in a different town almost every season. If they make it to the major leagues, trades and free agency make them almost as transient there. Because ballplayers rarely play in their hometowns, their wives and children must move every year, not once but several times. In March many wives follow their husbands to Florida or Arizona for spring training; six weeks later, when spring camp breaks, they relocate to the city where their husband’s team plays; finally when the season ends in September, they return to their hometown. If their husbands play “winter ball,” they may move yet again, usually to the Caribbean or Latin America. Every trade, promotion, or demotion during the season means an additional move. One baseball wife who moved twenty-three times during her husband’s ten-year career said, “We could probably stop in any state in the country and know someone from baseball” (Gmelch and San Antonio 2001, 338).
When a husband is traded or moved within the organization, he gets a plane ticket and a ride to the airport; his wife is left with the burden of moving— disconnecting the utilities, closing the bank account, removing the kids from school or camp, and then reestablishing the household in a new locality. It is she who packs the household possessions, loads the U-Haul, and transports the kids to the new town. Some wives enjoy being nomads, especially in the early years before they have children. As one wife put it, “You do get to see a lot of the world. . . . There are only a few states we haven’t been in or lived in, and a lot of people can’t even say that at the age of fifty or sixty” (Gmelch and San Antonio 2001, 339). But the appeal wears off pretty quickly for most wives, and the frequent changes of place cause many baseball families to postpone buying homes.
Baseball Wife or Baseball Widow?
Because every team plays half of its games on the road, husbands are away a good deal during the season. Inevitably, baseball wives spend a great deal of time alone; from April through September, they are without husbands about half the time. Some women jokingly refer to themselves not as baseball wives but as baseball widows. Young wives, who may be only a few years out of high school, are not just lonely, they feel vulnerable and insecure being on their own. Fran Kalafatis watched her husband and teammates pull away on the team bus for a road trip as a hurricane approached, leaving her and the children in the parking lot to deal with the approaching storm. As the bus pulled away, the players yelled out warnings and instructions to their wives.
Even when the team is at home, husbands are not around the house much. Ballplayers may spend late mornings at home, but they typically leave for the ballpark by early afternoon, and by the time the game has ended and they have showered and changed, it is after eleven o’clock before they leave. Even then, many players like to go out to eat and unwind before going home. In short, a player’s schedule does not mesh well with the needs of a family. Children are in school when he is home in the mornings, and they are asleep by the time he arrives home at night. The children’s school summer vacations fall in the middle of the season, when their father is most occupied. Nor do the men have weekends free like most other workers. What little time off ballplayers do have (about two days per month) never falls on a weekend. Even when they are home, the physical grind of the baseball schedule can leave husbands with little energy for family life.
The husband’s absence means the baseball wife cares for the children by herself—supervising homework, preparing meals, setting standards, enforcing discipline —acting as both a father and mother for much of the baseball year. With husbands away so much, and the operation of the household and its decisions left to her, it is not surprising that the baseball life requires a wife to be independent. Some of the things women learn to do for themselves are often reserved for men in more conventional households, such as repairing the car, fixing the plumbing, or disciplining the children. Former major leaguer and now baseball analyst Tom House (1989) thinks that baseball wives grow up faster than their husbands do because they have to stay at home to “anchor” the relationship and deal with the real world, while their husbands are off living in a fantasy world.
The Roles of a Baseball Wife
The baseball wife’s primary role is to support her husband and his career. The men depend on their wives as baseball careers are demanding, high pressured, and unfortunately, often short—an average of just four years if they make it to the major leagues. Competition from other players, trades, injuries, and prolonged slumps can end a career at any time. Given the uncertainty, husbands and wives want to do everything to maximize his chances of success. To this end husbands want to be able to focus on baseball, which means wives are expected to shield husbands from distractions. Sharon Hargrove (1989) and Cyndy Garvey (1989) describe in their memoirs how they screened calls, fielded requests for tickets, and dealt with the demands of unreasonable fans. Wives arrange household and children’s schedules to suit their husbands. “I am both the mother and the father until September,” explained Megan Donovan (Gmelch and San Antonio 2001, 343). Wives are expected not to trouble their husbands with domestic problems, except for crises, while the men were at the ballpark. The ballpark is sacrosanct. Beverly Crute (1981) quotes one baseball wife: “You just don’t call at the ballpark unless they’re [the children] on their deathbed or something. I mean, there are girls that have babies while their husbands are at the ballpark, and they don’t call them.” A wife may even support her husband by participating in his superstitions, such as by preparing certain foods, wearing particular clothes to the ballpark, and following other ritualized behaviors her husband deems important to playing well. The enormous financial rewards for those who make it to the major leagues, and the brevity of the average career, justify in the minds of most wives the sacrifices required. Also, the baseball life is not completely burdensome. Many wives say they feel fortunate to be able to go to the games and watch their husbands at work and that ballgames are usually enjoyable affairs. By providing free tickets, child care, family lounges, and special sections in the stands for wives and children, the teams en-courage family attendance.
How Important Is Appearance?
Baseball wives and girlfriends are expected to look attractive. In the words of a San Francisco Giants official: “When you see them all sitting together, it’s like a fashion show. They don’t come out to the ballpark like other folks, just to have a good time. They are here to watch their husbands play, but they also know they are being looked at and that they have to put their best foot forward. Their appearance is very important to them and to their husbands” (Gmelch and San Antonio 2001, 346). Such comments reveal another aspect of the role of the baseball wife—she is viewed in large measure as a player’s property, part of the assets he brings to the game. A wife’s looks and behavior, some wives claim, can even affect her husband’s baseball career. “You’re part of the package, and if you don’t look the part, well, some are going to notice,” said Sherry Fox (Gmelch 2001, 346).
His Status and Her Identity
Baseball wives enjoy a measure of status by virtue of being married to professional ballplayers. When they are with their husbands in public, they also receive attention. TV cameras focus on them at games, they are asked to participate in community and charity events, and they may meet celebrities outside baseball. But their identities are always tied to their husband’s. Marilyn Monroe aside, the baseball wife’s identity is hidden under that of her husband. He is seen as the breadwinner, and if he is in the major leagues, he probably earns more in a year than she will in a lifetime. He is in the limelight; he is in demand. To the public, baseball wives are not known by their names, rather they are always Mrs. Curt Schilling, Mrs. Roger Clemens, and so on. We came across an ironic illustration of the subservient status of wives on the dust jacket of Sharon Hargrove’s (1989) memoir Safe at Home. Despite having written the book, in which she discusses the identities of baseball wives as being ancillary to their husbands’, the biographical blurb about the author on the dust jacket reads: “Sharon Hargrove is the wife of Mike Hargrove, formerly a big league baseball player and presently a minor league manager….” Nothing else is said about the author, other than her having four children.
Transience is partially to blame for the wives’ dependent identity in that it makes it next to impossible for women to pursue their own careers. Even those who have the credentials or degrees have difficulty finding work as they are only in town for the six-month baseball season. Wives postpone starting careers of their own until their husbands leave baseball.
Another dimension of the wife’s dependency is that her status among the other baseball wives is influenced by her husband’s status. In the major leagues there is usually a loose pecking order among the wives in which their individual standing is swayed by their husband’s salary, performance, and standing on the team. The wives of star players bask in the glow of their husbands’ fame, while wives of lesser players, no matter how talented the women themselves may be, enjoy less prestige. Children may confound the pecking order a bit in that wives caring for young children are often drawn to other wives with young kids, overriding other considerations. Team hierarchy also influences relationships in that the spouses of players and the spouses of coaches don’t mingle much, even when they are of similar age. They may sit together at the ballpark, but rarely do they fraternize on the outside, just as in the business world the wives of management do not socialize with the wives of workers. The anomaly in baseball is that the workers and their wives are usually much wealthier than the managers and their wives.
Uncertainties of the Baseball Life
Baseball wives contend with more uncertainty than do many American women. In addition to having to move without notice, an injury to her husband can suddenly end his career and their livelihood at any time. The vagaries of baseball performance in which bad times or slumps inevitably follow good times make the baseball life an emotional roller coaster—highs when husband and team are playing well and lows when he and they are not. One day you are the toast of the town, the next day you’re invisible. And all of it is beyond the wife’s control.
Wives may also worry about their husbands’ faithfulness, especially while they are on the road. Wives are aware that there is temptation in every town: groupies, those often scantily clad, overly made-up young women who pursue ballplayers. While many players don’t indulge, groupies are successful often enough to make some wives uneasy about what their husbands do while away from home. Bobbie Bouton and Nancy Marshall devoted an entire section to the groupie problem in their joint memoir, Home Games (1983). Wives often cope by excusing their husbands’ behavior—”boys will be boys” or “what he does on the road is his business, what he does at home is my concern.” Overall, the wives have little choice but to accept the insecurity, though some say they try to keep their husbands happy at home in the belief that a contented husband is less tempted to fool around.
Clearly, there are both significant rewards and costs to being the wife of a professional baseball player. Baseball wives are fortunate to have the prestige and financial security if their husband reaches the major leagues, but they must also deal with isolation, heavy responsibility in daily life and parenting, and the postponement of their own career plans. It is no wonder that some people refer to the baseball wife as “the fifth base,” an anchor point outside of the field, but inextricably bound to the game itself.
- Bouton, B., & Marshall, N. (1983). Home games. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Bouton, J. (1970). Ball four. New York: World.
- Crute, B. (1981). Wives of professional athletes: An inquiry into the impact of professional sport on the home and family. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Boston College.
- Garvey, C. (1989). The secret life of Cyndy Garvey. New York: Dou-bleday.
- Gmelch, G. (2001). Inside pitch: Life in professional baseball. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Press.
- Gmelch, G., & San Antonio, P. (1998). Groupies in American baseball. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 22(1), 32-45.
- Gmelch, G., & San Antonio, P. (2001). Baseball wives: Work and gender in professional baseball. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 30(3),335-356.
- Hargrove, S., & Costa, R. H. (1989). Safe at home: A baseball wife’s story. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
- House, T. (1989). The jock’s itch. Chicago: Contemporary Books.
- Torrez, D. G. (1983). High inside: Memoirs of a baseball wife. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
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