TORONTO — A 2012 study by Indiana University found that until puberty, girls and boys are equally athletic, with no difference in performance between boys and girls under eight, and a minimal discrepancy at ages 11 and 12.
So, when Dana Bookman’s athletic then 6-year-old daughter, Noa Rae told her that she wanted to play on an organized baseball team — but not with the boys — Bookman immediately began to surf the web and make endless calls to find a league for her little slugger. Unfortunately, her search was in vain.
“When I searched for baseball leagues, specifically baseball leagues for girls my daughter’s age [not softball], I was shocked to discover that none existed. I thought that in a baseball-mad city like Toronto, there would be at least one girls’ league but there were none. Not in Toronto, not anywhere across the Greater Toronto Area, and not in the province of Ontario,” said Bookman.
So the Jewish mother of two, demonstrating the same determination, grit and drive that her daughter exhibited on the field, decided to start her own league just for girls.
It may sound like a juvenile version of the 1992 film “A League of Their Own,” starring Tom Hanks and Geena Davis, which tells a fictionalized account of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPL). But unlike the film, there is nothing fictional about Dana’s Toronto Girls Baseball League, an oasis for girls who want to play in a league with coaches and equipment — just like their male counterparts. It’s a safe, supportive, and most importantly, fun environment, where being told that “You throw like a girl,” is the ultimate compliment.
“I’m flattered when people tell me the league reminds them of that film. Just like the television series, ‘Pitch’, which follows the major league baseball career of the fictional first woman to play in the majors, these types of shows let these girls know that if you work hard at baseball, or anything that you’re passionate about, the sky’s the limit,” said Bookman.
“It lets them dream and aspire. That’s a big part of our philosophy. But, unlike ‘Pitch,’ I also think instead of focusing on a woman joining the men’s team we should focus on women in the sport as its own entity, just like any other sport — basketball or hockey for example.
“We have a national women’s baseball team — not softball — and it’s second in the world to Japan, but not many people know that. We need to help fund and grow the sport so these girls in TGB have a place to play beyond the majors,” she said.
The league, which began in 2016 with just 42 players, boasts more than 350 today. In its first year, Toronto Girls Baseball was comprised mostly of youngsters who were attending Jewish day schools — a trend that continues today with a large roster of Jewish participants.
According to Bookman, despite the tremendous success Toronto Girls Baseball has enjoyed in such a relatively short period of time, she has no time — or plans — to rest on her laurels.
“We’re really just getting started,” she said. “One program in the city is simply not enough. In Canada, 41 percent of girls aged three to 17 do not participate in sports. And young girls who are not physically active by the age of 10, only have a 10% chance of becoming active adults.
“Two recent studies featured in the New York Times suggest that participating in physical activity, particularly sports, has benefits for girls including a reduce risk of developing cancer, better grades, and high self esteem.
“The league empowers young girls, and shows them what they can aspire to. The club even has players from the Canadian National Women’s Baseball team as coaches. The coaches are role models empowering our girls, showing them that anything is possible,” said Bookman.
As a Jewish woman running a league, Bookman knows the importance of mixing baseball with a few basic Jewish values. She says that she grew up in a home where tzedaka, or charity, came first, and that for as long as she can remember, her mother was a volunteer for United Jewish Appeal. Baseball is Bookman’s way of giving back.
Toronto Girls Baseball recently organized a special baseball game for visually impaired children. It was the first time these youngsters had the chance to enjoy all that baseball has to offer.
Bookman teamed up with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and, with the help of a beeping baseball and with audio guides letting the kids know where the bases were, Bookman and her league were supporting the value of tikkun olam, repairing the world.
“Girls can play baseball, visually impaired people can play baseball. If you want to do something, you can do it,” explained Bookman. “Being part of a team is not just about being active, it’s about confidence, coordination and teamwork. And, it teaches our daughters that throwing like a girl is something to be proud of.”