A woman is lobbing softballs. Is she…a) a lesbian? b) a wimp? c) a journalist? or d) Reese Witherspoon?
It all depends on the context, of course, for softball, the most fraught of American sports. Beloved by schoolchildren, office jocks and, yes, some lesbians, it is the most popular extracurricular activity in America. But ever since President Obama nominated former University of Chicago Law School intramural player Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, a virtual brawl has erupted around what, if anything, it means to play.
Click the Image to View Our Gallery of Softball Playing Celebrities
Partisans from all sides have jumped on Kagan’s slow-pitch past as evidence of her homosexuality, a claim the White House and a number of her associates, including Eliot Spitzer, have disputed in the strongest terms. But these many affirmations of the brilliant, lunky, short-haired, and unmarried jurist’s sexual preference for men have done little to convince the doubters. Neither has the considerable volume of evidence linking softball to gay culture: the book Diamonds Are a Dyke’s Best Friend, for example.
The game has a long history in media and popular culture, and its depictions have hardly all been Sapphic. Before softball became a suspected euphemism for “lesbian,” it was what Larry King played in interviews and what Demi Moore had to pry Tom Cruise away from so he would return to the courtroom in A Few Good Men—something that doesn’t seem to be a problem with Kagan. In the 1980s, a vibrant Showbiz Softball League brought Michael Keaton, Tony Danza, and Billy Crystal (but no women) out for regular games in Encino, California. Michael Bolton is such a fan of the game that in 1993 he put out an instructional video called Michael Bolton’s Winning Softball: Hit Harder, Play Smarter.
Other than a black eye incurred while shooting, Reese Witherspoon’s upcoming softball movie doesn’t seem to have done anything to her image.
For women, of course, the connotations are different—at least in the real world. At the professional level, softball has its share of prominent lesbians, including Olympian Lauren Lappin and Jenny Allard, who came out while serving as head coach of the Harvard softball team. But in film and television, the sport has a more neutral presence. If anything, it’s mostly an excuse for pretty starlets to dress up in cute outfits and run around in the sun.
Witherspoon, America’s indisputably straight sweetheart, stars as professional softball player Lisa Jorgenson in How Do You Know, a new James L. Brooks romantic comedy scheduled to come out this winter. In the film, Witherspoon gets caught in a love triangle between a corporate executive and a major league pitcher (both men). Other than a black eye incurred while shooting, the movie doesn’t seem to have done anything to the actress’ image.
In the second season finale of Ugly Betty, Naomi Campbell, in specially crafted high-heeled sneakers, plays for the Elle magazine team, alongside editor in chief Robbie Meyers, in a showdown against Vanessa Williams and the gals at fictional glossy Mode. The game, in that case, is mostly played for laughs. When the cell phone-hurling supermodel emerges from the dugout, everyone ducks. “Don’t worry, darling,” she chirps, “I wield this bat with love.” She then takes a cell phone call from Bono and tells him she’s busy playing cricket.
Perhaps the most famous women’s softball movie is not, strictly speaking, about softball. A League of Their Own, though based on the true story of a fast-pitch softball organization formed during World War II, follows the first fictional women’s professional baseball league. Most of the players are hometown girls who spend their nights pining for boys overseas, but there is some implicit diversity, with unmarried Madonna and husky Rosie O’Donnell on the team.
The whole Kagan brouhaha began last week with The Wall Street Journal’s decision to print on its front cover a photograph, supplied by the White House, of the legal scholar playing “16-inch softball,” a recreational version of the game popular in Chicago. “It’s clearly an allusion to her being gay,” Cathy Renna, a former spokeswoman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, told Politico. “It’s just too easy a punchline.”
Since by this point candidates for the Supreme Court know better than to say anything interesting during the confirmation process, pundits looking to predict how Kagan will rule have been left to scour her college essays—and extrapolate wildly from every other shred of available evidence from her past.
For what it’s worth, one camp is giving Kagan almost universally high marks for her softball stint: Major League Baseball players. Shown the picture of Kagan that ran on The Journal’s front page, Washington Nationals catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez was impressed.
“I think the batting stance is perfect,” he said.
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.