With only two days to go until the start of baseball season, a Slate reader wondered: Why doesn't baseball have cheerleaders?
Actually, there are cheerleaders in American baseball, but it's a relatively recent development. They first appeared in Southern California during the go-go '90s, and in recent years, dancers have graced the tops of dugouts for the Angels, Padres, Blue Jays, Expos, and Marlins.
For decades, baseball spurned pompoms. The first American cheerleaders were men who worked the crowds at college football games in the late 19th century; women didn't get involved until the '20s and '30s. In the years that followed, football and basketball players had their feats heralded by organized squads of cheering women, but baseball players had to make do with hollers from the crowd.
Baseball historians aren't sure why the sport went without for so long. But it was a handful of entertainment executives from the Walt Disney Company who helped initiate the change. When Disney purchased the California Angels in 1996, it added some bells and whistles: a six-piece Dixieland jazz band, zany sound effects for foul balls, and the Angel Wings Cheerleaders. The Angel Wings danced on the top of the visitors' dugout between innings, attempting to rile the crowd.
The crowd got riled. Apparently the Angel Wings dancers frequently blocked the views of season ticket holders behind the dugout; from the very start they were heckled and booed. Disney management quickly moved the dance team to a platform in the stands out in right field. From there they continued to lead "dance-offs" that tested the crowd's skills at the macarena and the chicken dance. The Angel Wings Cheerleaders were abandoned the following season.
Despite the shaky start, the Toronto Blue Jays have since brought in the J-Cru Fan Activation Team (now known as the J Force), and the Florida Marlins have introduced the Marlins Mermaids. San Diego has a dance team known as the Pad Squad—pronounced "Pod Squad"—which runs around the field at Padres home games, clapping and tossing T-shirts into the crowd. (Reaction from San Diego fans has been mixed.) The Expos had cheerleaders, too: Indeed, there were those who felt that the Molson EX Girls (who danced to Bananarama on top of the dugout) were an excellent reason to keep baseball in Montreal.
With such a motley record, it's unclear what the future holds for American baseball cheerleaders. But cheerleading already has a firm foothold in the rest of the baseball-playing world. It's de rigueur at games in the Dominican Republic, where women in body stockings dance to recorded merengue music on top of the dugouts. In Korean baseball, football-style cheerleaders with whistles, megaphones, and pompoms get the crowd excited, while college games in Japan feature women dancing quietly with pompoms while men dressed in black lead the cheers.
Explainer thanks John Zajc and the other members of the Society for American Baseball Research.