As the rest of her Gophers teammates spent part of a recent softball practice stretching together on the field, designated hitter Dana Ballard stood about 50 feet away discussing African-Americans playing a “white middle-class” sport.
Ballard, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, has gotten used to being the only African-American player on the team.
“It doesn’t bother me,” she said. “Since I started playing softball at age six, it’s always been that way. I grew up in a very diverse area, and there still weren’t very many African-Americans who played softball in Illinois or the Midwest.”
There still aren’t. Teammate Michelle Bennett grew up in Hermantown, Minnesota.
“I come from a place where I didn’t know an African-American person,” Bennett said. “I played on traveling teams that had African-Americans, but it wasn’t something that was in my school. We didn’t really have any in the community.”
Bennett has seen an increase of black athletes playing softball since coming to Minnesota, but admits that she “really hasn’t paid attention to that sort of thing.”
Lara Severson also grew up in small-town Minnesota. Like Bennett, Severson wasn’t exposed to African-Americans on the softball field, mostly because of where she grew up.
“A lot of them play basketball and track,” Severson said. “But it’s all where you grow up and what you’re parents get you involved in at a young age.”
Gophers co-coach Lisa Bernstein was an assistant coach at minority-rich Arizona for five years before coming to Minnesota at the end of 1991.
“Over half of the team was Hispanic at Arizona,” Bernstein said. “We’re looking for people who can come in and play. Women of color are certainly in our recruiting pool, just like everyone else. We try to get the talent that best fits our needs, chemistry and the direction we’re headed.”
There are considerably fewer African-Americans who live in the Midwest than on the West Coast, which has helped fuel the ethnic disparity in the sport.
But Ballard believes the disparity between whites and blacks who grow up playing softball in the Midwest is starting to narrow.
“(Softball) has definitely gotten more popular since I’ve grown up,” Ballard said. “You can see the College World Series now on ESPN, and people are starting to notice that.”
But the shortage of black athletes in America’s heartland means that more recruitment and other tactics will be crucial in raising interest in softball.
The Minnesota women’s athletics department has taken heed of race issues at the University. The department has an African-American mentorship program, which has allowed Ballard to meet other female black athletes and learn about what experiences they have had and what it’s like to be on their respective teams.
Ballard hopes programs like the mentorship one will increase exposure and lure African-American kids into the sport, so upbringings like Bennett’s and Severson’s will become rare.
“I think we need to find where minorities are and present our sport to them,” Ballard said. “And not just limit it to middle-class white suburban kids. I think all sports need to be presented to everyone, so everybody can find out if they have a chance.
“I think that’s our job after we’re done (playing); to go out and help them in their communities.”