A few years ago, there were no options for young girls in Canada to play baseball with other girls — softball was the only option. Dana Bookman’s six-year-old daughter, however, loved the Toronto Blue Jays and would play catch with her brother. She wanted to play baseball.

“They’re two completely different sports. It’s like asking the difference between ringette and hockey,” says Bookman. “You can like softball and you can like baseball — they’re just different.”

So, in 2016, Bookman founded Toronto Girls Baseball, the first all-girls baseball house league program in Canada, and was surprised to find that the turnout was even greater than she had anticipated. Since then, she has expanded to five locations in Toronto and one in Winnipeg, with two locations in Nova Scotia set to open this summer. Together, they constitute The Canadian Women’s Baseball Association, which hopes to empower young girls across the country through sport.

The league hosts its Opening Day on Saturday, May 5th, in Winnipeg, and Sunday, May 6th, in Toronto. Recently, BarDown was able to speak with Bookman over phone about Toronto Girls Baseball, discussing topics including the league’s background, its growth across the country and recent collaborations with Major League Baseball.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. All photos from the Toronto Girls Baseball website.

BarDown: So, where did the idea for an all-girls baseball league come from?

Bookman: I have a daughter, and when she was six years old, she played in a co-ed house league program where she ended up being the only girl with 400 boys in her age group, and she was prepared to quit. I looked all over for a girls’ program because she really loves baseball, and I couldn’t find one for her age group, so I thought we could get some friends together at a park, we could get some uniforms and some coaches, so she could keep playing.

It turns out that the first time I put it out there, 42 girls came out ... and then one year later in Toronto, we had 350 girls. Now, we’re entering our second year and we have so far registered almost 600 girls for this season of baseball.

Have you heard any feedback from other parents that may have been in your position, who may not have had that option for an all-girls league previously?

I get emails so often still, saying, “I just found out about your league, and my daughter was the only girl on her team and she didn’t like being the only girl, and I’m so happy that I found Toronto Girls Baseball,” and I’ve heard the same thing from Manitoba and Nova Scotia. Parents are really happy that this option exists. We’re not the only league that has girls playing, there are other leagues with all-girls teams, but we’re the only all-girls league with all of these age groups.

Toronto Girls Baseball founder Dana Bookman and her daughter

What kind of experience are you trying to provide for young girls in the league?

Our league is very much about creating a positive and empowering environment. We try to empower girls through sport. We have all-female instructors, we give them uniforms that fit them properly, and we encourage them to build upon their team-working skills, so that they get the soft skills to use for their future careers and their lives, so that they understand what it’s like to win and lose.

Baseball is amazing for resilience. There’s not really any other sport where you pick that up by yourself in front of a group of people, and have to try to do something and possibly fail over and over again. It’s hard to swing and hit the ball every time, so they have to learn to shake it off, get up and try again. It’s a very individual ‘team sport,’ and I think that they actually get a lot of confidence, and even empathy. They encourage each other, they create friendships. Girls don’t often have an opportunity to create those kind of relationships in a team sport environment.

So, you actually touched on something that I noticed on your website, because one thing that stands out is that women are overwhelmingly present in positions of power, as coaches and staff. How important has that been to you?

I think that there’s that saying, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” For these girls who are playing baseball with us, whether they’re playing because of the social aspect or whether they really love the sport of baseball, they can see that they have these role models who are not only amazing young women, but also incredible athletes. They can aspire to be like them in so many different ways and they can see that there are people like them. It’s very powerful to see yourself reflected in somebody else in a position like that.

Usually, you know, it’s men, male coaches, and they can’t really relate in the same way. So, all of these coaches who work with us have gone through the baseball system, they’ve been the only girl on their team before, and they know what it’s like for the players who are coming to us. They want to encourage them to love the sport too, so they can see more girls playing. We’ll also have, for the first season this year, all-female umpires. We have an umpire clinic that was run by an amazing female umpire, Lisa Turbitt, and now we have our first group of female umpires, so the whole league will be all-female.

We also do have dad coaches who volunteer. We have parent coaches on the field, moms and dads both. It’s really important for sports to be a part of the family context, so we try to bring the sport home, too.

Judging from the success of your league, it’s clear that it has resonated with a lot of young girls across the country. What has your strategy been, in terms of reaching out to them and engaging their interest?

You know, the Blue Jays are popular, girls are finding out they want to play baseball, but they just haven’t had a place to play. So, as this has spread by word of mouth, they’re finding us, and I think that it’s growing because we’re the only ones really offering this kind of program.

So, that interest was already there, and they just needed a place to play?

I think so, and we also offer a program where girls can try it out. We offer a series of eight-week programs throughout the year, and they’re relatively inexpensive. We’re offering them a program in a way that’s accessible for them and their families, and you know, like I said, it’s a social activity also, where they’re doing it and they might get their friends into it.

Then, for some of them, they really do just want to play baseball, and I’ve heard from many girls playing with us, or their parents, that they thought they were the only girls that liked baseball. So, we bring them all together on our Opening Day, where we’ll have hundreds of girls who are all going to be on the same field at the same time. There’s power in that, to see that there are other like-minded girls and how many of them there are. Then, these coaches, who are women, who are also like-minded, show that you can love the sport, and there’s power in that also.

Toronto Girls Baseball Fall 2017

What kind of challenges or perceptions, if any, do you still face, particularly as an all-girls baseball league?

Well, I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve had some meetings with the Blue Jays and a meeting at the Major League Baseball office in New York, and everybody is really supportive, which is nice. I think that there’s a lot of not knowing where to begin with girls in baseball — softball is so big in the States that it’s hard to bring baseball over, but there’s interest, and Major League Baseball is starting to take notice.

One of the barriers I really do think is real is that we can’t get female coaches quickly enough. We’re growing so fast that we need female coaches, especially in Ontario. I want coaches who have played baseball like our staff coaches, and it’s very difficult to find them in the numbers that I need them, because girls haven’t played baseball traditionally. They haven’t gone up through the system, so there’s fewer of them. Hopefully, some of my players turn into those coaches. [laughs]

Something you mentioned, and something that was told to me, was that you’ve had conversations with [Blue Jays president and CEO] Mark Shapiro and the MLB. Are those conversations something you can share?

First off, I want to bring awareness to girls in baseball and to what’s missing with their health and cooperation. I’m hoping that we can expand the field for girls and make it a place that girls feel safe. For Major League Baseball, there’s a whole 50 percent of the population that is often being left out of the conversation, because baseball is still very much an old boys club. I have to say that both Mark and the people at MLB were extremely open to helping and to keeping the conversation going, and I hope that we’ll have much more to report going forward.

We’re doing a co-branded Blue Jays Girls instructional clinic at our park with the Blue Jays, and it’s girls-only in Toronto. They don’t have to be a part of our league, any girl in the city who wants to try baseball is invited to attend, and registration is on the Blue Jays website. I hope that we can get hundreds of girls to come out — it’s for ages eight to 14, and it’s on the morning of May 26th.

Toronto Girls Baseball 2018 Indoor Training

You mentioned Winnipeg and Nova Scotia earlier as places that you’re expanding to. What are your long-terms goals for the league?

My goal is that there’s a place for girls to play baseball in every city across the country, whether it’s Toronto Girls Baseball or The Canadian Women’s Baseball Association or any of our provincial counterparts. I would just like there to be a place for girls to have an experience like ours, in a safe and inclusive environment, where they’re happy to go and have fun. This is about fun and physical literacy and all of those soft skills that I talked about earlier in regards to leadership and empowerment. So, that is my goal.

Let’s bring this full circle, then. What has the experience been like for your daughter, being able to play baseball with other young girls like her?

You know, it’s funny, I was just saying this to somebody the other day. For my daughter, who was so prepared to quit when she was six years old — she’s now eight, turning nine — she was just invited to work out with the U16 Ontario team, because she’s a really good baseball player. So, I think of all of those other girls who stopped playing, who quit, who left the field, whether it’s baseball or anything else. I mean, what are we losing from these girls dropping out of sports because they don’t feel comfortable?

For my daughter, she takes a lot of pride in being a baseball player and she loves it. She’s so proud of being the reason behind this, and she helps out with all of our uniform handout days and on our Opening Day, she’s right in there. She loves the sport, and you know, she also loves ballet, so I think that these girls have to know that they can love to dance, and baseball doesn’t replace all of those other activities. We talked about dance and gymnastics, and individual sports like that — this is in addition to those. You can do everything you want to do.

So, I’m happy that I’ve been able to show that to my daughter. I tell her that ‘can’t’ starts with ‘can,’ so [laughs] I hope that she’s learned that through this experience, and that she continues to grow and love the sport. And so far, she does. But I tell her that she doesn’t have to play if she doesn’t want to — this is going to go on anyway.

Registration and additional information is available at the Toronto Girls Baseball website.