SI Vault
Joan Ackermann-Blount
July 16, 1979
Embarrassed by her feeble tosses, the author-shortstop seeks to learn why she throws a ball "like a girl"
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July 16, 1979

Up In Arms About My Arm

Embarrassed by her feeble tosses, the author-shortstop seeks to learn why she throws a ball "like a girl"

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Throwing. It has to be just about the simplest thing in the world. So simple, in fact, that if you don't know how to do it and you want to learn how, nobody can explain it to you because no one's ever thought about it. Not even Sandy Koufax or Reggie Jackson. I know. I asked them. I'm talking about a nice plain overhand throw. Not a fancy fast pitch. Just a simple here-to-there throw.

Last summer I joined a women's softball team, so I needed to learn to throw. I played for the Sheffield Bar and Grill in Sheffield, Mass. We had maroon shirts with crossed martini glasses on the front and were called the Grillettes. There were 10 teams in the league, and we played three nights a week all summer. It was wonderful. After a game we'd drink beer at a rest stop along the highway and whistle at men jogging by. Frogs would be croaking, our hair would be soaked with sweat, and our shirts would be hanging out. The warm summer nights made you feel especially disheveled and strong. My cleats—they were my first pair—let me feel the highway up in the muscle of my calf. I felt charged and able to outrun any of the cars that went whizzing by. Everything to do with being on the team was inspiring. But I could not throw. It was a real handicap.

I practiced. I threw with my husband and my stepson in the field next to our house. My stepson was nine last summer and half as tall as I am, but he could throw twice as far as I could. Why? Everybody gave me advice. "Kiss your ear with your thumb," one woman on the team told me over and over. If I had tried to kiss my ear with my mouth I couldn't have had a harder time of it than I did in trying to get the ball from my hand to the person standing in front of me.

Now, there are plenty of things that I can do. When I was eight I could skate backward around a rink on one foot while holding the other leg straight out and eating a Fudgsicle. When I was 11 I could ride a unicycle and direct traffic simultaneously. When I was 12 I could water-ski backward, and when I was 13 I stood barefoot on the back of a cantering horse while my friend played the French horn on a sawhorse in the middle of the ring. But, despite all this evidence that I possess athletic ability, I could not throw a ball. It was downright embarrassing.

Equally humiliating was the notion—one I had a hard time repressing—that, well, I was "a woman" and that accounted for some of my difficulty. I know that sounds silly. I mean, just because I can't read Di Lampedusa in the original, I don't think of myself as "a woman who can't read Italian" or someone who reads Italian "like a girl." When I can't remember the zip code of my friend in Taos, N. Mex., I don't say to myself, "Gee, I'm just another woman who can't remember zip codes." Still, I couldn't help wondering if my stepson hadn't begun life with an arm that was better suited to throwing than mine.

I began talking to people about women's arms. One sportswriter friend said, "Oh, I know someone you should talk to. He plays for us, and he throws just like a girl. You should see him. I think maybe he had polio or something when he was a kid." Others had more subtle responses. "Oh, it's the bone structure," or, "Something about the muscles. Yeah, women don't have a certain muscle." Twice I heard, "Well, a woman's elbow is crooked so she can cradle a baby." If all those things were true, why was it that so many women I saw could throw well? If I were missing a certain muscle, why weren't Karen Smith and the other members of my softball team missing it, too?

I went to spring training last March to find out. My quest was twofold: I wanted to find out if there was any physical reason why I couldn't eventually throw as well as my 9-year-old stepson, and I wanted to improve my throw. I went to Vero Beach, Fla., where the Dodgers train. Dodgertown is an especially friendly place. Families come with picnics to spend the day and watch practice games. There is no fence around the field, so children roam onto the outfield where they can scramble for balls and pretend they are on the team. Palm trees and orange trees are planted symmetrically around the field, and I heard from several people that it has never rained on an exhibition game at Dodgertown. When I was there, the sky was a blazing blue, the players were accessible, and everyone seemed to be in a good mood. I wandered around with my Softball and my press card in my knapsack.

Asking a major league player how to throw is like asking a mathematician how to write the number 7. It is too basic a question. He looks at you slightly crosseyed, as if from a great distance, and squints.

Steve Garvey, the Dodger first baseman, stressed wrist action. "It's all in the wrist," he said. "The main thrust comes from snapping the wrist to get the back-spin on the ball.' He flicked his wrist to demonstrate, but all I could think about was that a person with massive arms like Garvey's shouldn't have to get bogged down in little flick-of-the-wrist details. If Garvey used his arm as a bat, he could hit the ball farther than I could throw it.

"Thanks," I said, flicking my wrist. Backspin. I didn't even know you could put backspin on a ball.

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