Spectators gasped as the baseball — thrown inadvertently off course by the pint-sized pitcher — plunked the batter high on the arm.
Charlie Martin, 7, a girl with a traditional boy's name playing in a boys' world, stood at home plate in her baggy uniform, determined to remain as stoic as a big-leaguer in front of everyone at the Towson recreational field.
"I wanted to cry but I knew I shouldn't," said Charlie, whose ponytail extended from her cap and fingernails sparkled with polish. "And even though it hurt a lot, I just tried to tough it out."
Sometimes, there really is no crying in baseball, particularly when you are the only girl on the team and bent on proving your mettle in a sport that stubbornly remains a male bastion. Baseball — whose appeal is grounded in tradition — remains in many ways an anachronism. Even as athletic opportunities for girls have mushroomed since the 1970s, an unwritten custom endures: Baseball for boys, softball for girls.
"I think the challenge is that America has accepted this myth," said Justine Siegal, founder of the nonprofit organization Baseball for All, and the first woman to serve — albeit briefly — as a coach for a major league team, the Oakland Athletics. "Many people believe they are the same sport," Siegal said. "And clearly they are not."
University of Nevada-Reno political scientist Jennifer Ring worries about the larger consequences of restricting girls' opportunities in baseball.
"A girl who has been part of a team of boys hits the glass celing and suddenly she and the boys get the message she's not good enough anymore," Ring said.
In youth leagues around the country, a smattering of girls — including Charlie Martin, 9-year-old Charlotte Glorioso and 13-year-old Grace Parcover —refuse to yield to convention.
Forgoing girl's softball, played in the nearby Lutherville-Timonium rec league, they choose instead to play in the Towson Recreation Council's baseball league, which counts about 35 girls among its 710 players from ages 4 to 15. Each of the three is the only girl on her team.
Charlie — it's her real name, not a nickname — is a soft-spoken but self-assured public school principal's daughter who doesn't see why she shouldn't play the same sport as her 9-year-old brother.
"Sometimes they can ask me why I'm on the team because they think only boys should be on the team," she said. "I tell them because my dad signed me up for baseball and I don't really care what you guys think, but I think I should be on this team.
"Everyone should get to do what they want to do."
The 35 girls are an intrepid group, league commissioner Chris Pierce said. He has three sons in the program.
The girls ''for the most part hold their own," he said. "There's a little mental toughness about them — they're unfazed."
More than 4 million kids from 6 to 12 play baseball, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. The number of girls playing has been estimated at 100,000, said Siegal, whose organization works to create opportunities for girls in the sport.
Area youth league organizers see a familiar pattern. Girls join teams as early as age 4, and stick with the sport for several years. Then their numbers thin out, until almost none are left playing by about age 13.
Reisterstown Recreational Council Baseball counts 14 girls among about 500 players, or about 3 percent. Nine are ages 4 to 6, three are 7 to 8, and two are 11 to 12.
The numbers are similar in the Towson rec league, where about 5 percent of the players are girls. None are older than 13.
At younger ages, coaches and parents say, the girls seem to care less about who is on the team than they will later on. As preteens, when puberty kicks in, their teammates' gender suddenly matters.
Some girls become self-conscious in a male-dominated setting, and feel an increasing tug to play sports and socialize instead with female peers.
In older divisions, size can also be a challenge, as the boys mature and become more physically imposing.
Playing mostly with boys can create pressure for girls "to perform well all the time because there are enough outside forces telling them they should quit," Siegal said. "Some girls internalize that and try to prove to themselves that they belong, with every at-bat and every pitch — which I think is unfair pressure."
'I want to do baseball'
None of that seems a problem for Charlotte Glorioso, the only girl on her team, the Athletics.
"She kept bugging and bugging and bugging, and I said, 'We'll do softball,'" said Lindsay Glorioso, her mother. "And she said, 'Nope, I want to do baseball.' She has two older brothers that have played, so she has grown up watching it."
On a recent weeknight, the 9-year-old had a traditional baseball look: gray pants, high black socks and, occasionally, a wad of chewing gum stuffed into her cheek. The only things setting her apart from her teammates were a ponytail and earrings depicting tiny green elephants.
"I kept saying, 'You're going to be the only girl,'" her mother recalled. "She said, 'I don't care.'
"If she has the confidence to go play with a bunch of boys, why wouldn't we let her?''
The boys on the Athletics regard Charlotte as just "a teammate," said 10-year-old Baxter Pierce, the league commissioner's son. Her gender, he said, "doesn't make any difference."
Charlotte said she wanted the challenge of hitting a regulation baseball and overhand pitching. In her 8-9 age division, the pitchers struggle with control, and she often reaches base on walks.
"I guess I just grew up with brothers, and I kind of wanted to play baseball, too," she said.
The softball debate
Softball, with its smaller field, larger ball, underhand pitching and fewer innings, can appear to be a fraternal twin to baseball — similar, but decidedly not the same. It's played at a high level by women in college, and the Olympics — and also by older men and women seeking a slower-moving recreational sport than baseball.
To Ring, the political scientist, softball is the "culprit" siphoning girls away from baseball.
Ring is the author of "A Game of Their Own," about women who stuck with baseball.
"I know I get in trouble every time I say this, but I teach a course on the politics of sports, and I refer to softball as 'Jim Crow baseball,'" she said.
Her daughter, Lilly Jacobson, now 27, was the only girl on her high school baseball team in northern Nevada.
Jacobson was good enough to play on the mostly unheralded national team that won the 2006 Women's Baseball World Cup.
Even now, Ring said, the women's national team receives little acknowledgment. It's made up of many of players who love baseball but played softball to earn college scholarships.
While boys can receive college baseball scholarships, girls need to switch to softball to vie for the same opportunities.
Boys "can dream their baseball dreams until they figure out they're not good enough to get a Division I scholarship or make the pros," she said. "The girls have been completely shut out of that mindset. Except that I have a feeling every little girl dreams for a while that she will be the first girl to play major league baseball."
Little League, the nation's largest youth sports organization, began allowing girls in 1974. They had been sued over a prohibition against girls — the National Organization for Women helped lead the fight — and lost in court.
While there are no rules against girls in the sport now, their advocates say there aren't many opportunities, either, because all-girls teams are scarce.
About 300,000 players participate on Little League-sanctioned, girls-only softball teams. The organization says it doesn't collect demographic information on how many girls play on its baseball teams, but it's believed they are a small minority.
It doesn't offer baseball exclusively for girls.
"In the past, we have looked into developing a separate girls' baseball program," spokesman Brian McClintock said. "And while our affiliate leagues were open to the idea, they had difficulty securing enough female interest to get started."
In Towson, Pierce said, there aren't currently enough girls to sustain a separate division for them, but that could change one day.
Siegal threw batting practice during spring training for several big-league clubs in 2011.
"I do think that Little League should offer girls baseball," she said.
Other sports, such as soccer and basketball, offer girls opportunities to play on their own teams at early ages.
Siegal's organization is trying to prove there is sufficient interest among girls to sustain baseball leagues, too.
Last year, Baseball For All organized the first national baseball tournament for girls ages 13 and under. Twelve teams participated in Orlando, Fla. They came from as far away as California.
The nonprofit is working with the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department on another girls' tournament scheduled for July.
Looking for role models
For years, baseball-obsessed girls lacked female role models in the sport.
In the 1990s, the all-women Colorado Silver Bullets, sponsored by the Coors Brewing Co. and managed by Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Niekro, played a series of exhibition games, mostly against men's amateur, minor-league and semi-pro players.
"Girls watched it on TV and said, 'I want to do that,'" Ring said.
The 1992 movie "A League of Their Own" offered an interpretation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the real-life organization that was launched in the 1940s, when World War II had depleted the major leagues of much of its male talent.
Tom Hanks, as the alcoholic former big-leaguer who manages the Rockford Peaches, made famous the line: "There's no crying in baseball."
In 2014, Mo'Ne Davis became the first girl to throw a shutout at the Little League World Series. Her picture appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and her jersey was sent to the the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. First lady Michelle Obama tweeted about the player's achievements.
Spike Lee directed a documentary called "I Throw Like a Girl."
"I stand for girls who want to play sports with the boys," Davis said in the film.
Davis, 14, now aspires to play another sport — basketball — in college and the WNBA. Girls in Baltimore-area baseball leagues still talk about her.
"She really inspired me," said Hannah Sawa, 15, who played in the Towson rec league for eight years.
On Sunday, softball great Jennie Finch is to serve as "guest manager" of the Bridgeport Bluefish, a men's minor league baseball team in Connecticut, against the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs.
The Bluefish are saying it will be the first time a woman has managed a professional baseball team. Finch led the University of Arizona to a national championship in 2001 and played in two Olympics, winning gold in Athens in 2004.
'It's just weird'
Victoria Ebaugh, 11, is trying to explain how much she enjoyed playing baseball — and why she no longer does.
For three years, Ebaugh was an infielder and pitcher in the Towson league. Only a few girls played in her age division.
Pierce, the commissioner, was her coach for a time.
Ebaugh "was so focused, so coachable," he said. "She just loves the game."
Seth Geller, Ebaugh's stepfather, said he enjoyed watching her mow down opposing batters.
"They thought because she was a girl, they were going to crush it," Geller said. "She would get a lot of strikeouts. All the boys loved her, but she'd still sit on the bench by herself. They'd be picking their noses and playing in the dirt."
Ebaugh, a sixth-grader, decided not to play after last season.
"It was fun and I had wanted to try it out," she said. "It's just kind of awkward because we're older. So now it's just weird" — she paused, and laughed — "with boys now."
This spring, she's playing lacrosse, on a girls' team.
Defying the pattern
Hannah Sawa defied the pattern. She played baseball on predominantly boys' teams for eight years, until she was 14.
Now 15, Hannah was among the most accomplished players in the Towson league, of either gender.
In 2009 — when she was 8 — she batted .606. She wore a confident smile in the team picture that year and was the tallest player.
Her coach signed a plaque citing her "passion, strength and ability" and calling her the "best catcher in the league."
For years, Hannah immersed herself in the sport. She played, volunteered as an umpire and watched games on television.
She lives five minutes away from Towson's six baseball diamonds, where the sounds of the sport fill the air on weeknights and Saturdays, and kids and their parents buy hot dogs and sodas from a snack shack staffed by volunteers.
Four shiny trophies and a league all-star team shirt are displayed at her home, along with an assortment of gloves, bats and balls, including some signed by members of the Orioles, her favorite major league team.
Like other girls interviewed, Hannah said she was treated well by her teammates. But she noticed that boys sometimes got embarrassed if she batted ahead of them in the lineup, or got a hit off them.
"There were some discouraging words sometimes," she said. "But I pushed through it.
"I think the reason I like baseball more is because in this society it's more of a baseball world. There aren't really softball teams that are professional. There's Major League Baseball."
This year, Hannah faced a wrenching choice — continue to play baseball with boys or switch to softball at the all-girls Bryn Mawr School.
She opted for softball because Bryn Mawr doesn't offer baseball, and she was eager to represent her school.
But she doesn't want to be away from the game. So several times a week she heads to the diamonds to help coach the team of her brother, Leo, 8. She offers instruction, shouts encouragement and helps the catchers — all boys — put on their equipment between innings.
Under different circumstances, she said, "I would have loved to play baseball for another year."
With Hannah gone, Grace Parcover — a tall 13-year-old who likes to play infield and hopes to pitch one day — is the league's most senior girl.
In Grace's family, she said, baseball has created a bond.
Her brothers, ages 11 and 9, play the sport, and "me and my dad and my brothers always talk about the Orioles," she said.
"Baseball is my passion and I love it. I'm going to stay with baseball as long as I can."