Bianca Smith became the first black female coach in professional baseball history when she was hired by the Boston Red Sox in January 2021.
She is one of a growing number of landmark female appointments in Major League Baseball (MLB), as well as across wider elite professional sports teams in the United States.
Smith started her Red Sox career at the franchise’s development facility in Fort Myers, Florida, working in a range of coaching roles, and is now being promoted to a full-time coaching position for the impending 2022 season.
This year she will also be joined at the Red Sox by Katie Krall following her appointment as a development coach with their minor league affiliate team the Portland Dogs, at AA level – two tiers below the major leagues.
Something is clearly happening in baseball, though change always brings out one or two teething problems: “When they initially ordered uniforms, they were not prepared to have a five-foot coach,” Smith explains, when discussing her first year with the Red Sox.
“So, the first week my uniform was really big on me and eventually they ended up making me another uniform that fit a little bit better. Thankfully, I’m used to that.
“It’s a little bit different getting to know the players, being a woman trying to build those relationships, because obviously I can’t relate in quite the same way.
“But I mean, I’m used to that too. So I was able to build up relationships, I think I just have to approach it a little bit differently than the other coaches do.”
When it comes to relationships, the 30-year-old feels any time a player comes to her and wants to talk about something that’s not baseball-related, she considers it a “big deal”.
“That means I’ve developed that relationship, but they’ve learned to trust me,” she adds.
Krall and Smith’s appointments make the Red Sox the first organisation in affiliated baseball to have two women on their coaching staff.
In 2022, 11 women in all will work as on-field coaches across major and minor league teams, with eight of those hired for their current role either last year or this year.
As an African-American woman working in a male-dominated sport Smith is clearly a trailblazer in two respects, fitting for someone who grew up idolising Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in MLB.
Baseball is progressing where other sports are failing miserably.
In the national game in England, football, not one Premier League side currently has a full-time female coach as part of its staff for their men’s first team.
It is the same story in men’s rugby union in the UK. In cricket, Sarah Taylor made a breakthrough with Sussex last year – change is not happening swiftly.
The Red Sox’s appointments of Smith and Krall came after Alyssa Nakken became MLB’s first full-time female coach for the San Francisco Giants in January 2020.
Six months later, Nakken became the first woman to coach in a major league game, serving as first-base coach in a Giants win over the Oakland A’s in an exhibition match.
Nakken was followed by the Miami Marlins’ hiring of Kim Ng as general manager in November 2020, making her the first female to hold that title in any of North America’s four major professional sports leagues.
This season, Rachel Balkovec will become the first female manager in Minor League Baseball after the New York Yankees appointed her to one of their affiliate teams. She will manage the Tampa Tarpons, who play at Low-A level, one of the lower tiers of the minor leagues.
In Minor League Baseball, players typically take several years to move up through the system, often starting in rookie or Low-A leagues after being signed or drafted, before moving up to High-A, AA and eventually to AAA, the final level before reaching the majors.
Smith continues: “I definitely see that there’s a change happening and I think it’s happening faster than fans realise.
“It’s actually kind of faster than I expected.
“The fact that teams are not only hiring women coaches, they’re actually actively trying to make this an easy transition for us.
“I know teams are looking into changing their facilities, not just for woman coaches, but also for women who are in the front office, making it easier for them to find restrooms at the field, things like that.
“I think MLB can be that kind of inspiration as long as they continue not only to hire qualified women, but to develop them and make sure that they have a voice and continue to look outside the box.”
Much of baseball’s recent progress stems from its ‘Take the Field’ programme, launched in 2018 with the aim of promoting and helping prepare women for jobs in the sport.
Since it began, 18 women who have attended the programme have gone on to be hired as full-time employees, fellows or interns at major or minor league level, or for MLB directly.
Elsewhere in America, less than a decade after Jen Welter became the first woman to serve in an NFL coaching role, the 2021 season started with a record-breaking 12 women serving in coaching positions, believed to be the most at one time in NFL history.
On the staff of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during their 2021 Super Bowl victory over the Kansas City Chiefs were Lori Locust, a defensive line assistant, and Maral Javadifar, an assistant strength and conditioning coach – the first female coaches to win a Super Bowl.
A year earlier, San Francisco 49ers’ offensive assistant Katie Sowers became the first woman and openly gay coach to coach in a Super Bowl, when the 49ers lost to the Chiefs.
In December 2021, Jennifer King stepped in as Washington Commanders running backs coach in their visit to the Philadelphia Eagles, making her the first black woman to act as a lead position coach in an NFL game.
Despite growing change in the US, Smith, like many other female coaches, has faced issues throughout her career.
She has previously said that in her time as a coach at Carroll University’s baseball team she was often presumed to be the team’s equipment manager, trainer or a player’s girlfriend.
The pioneering coach was initially introduced to the sport by her mother, and with a love developed through watching classic 1990s baseball movies like The Sandlot, Rookie of the Year and Angels in the Outfield – “If I watch one, I end up watching the other two right after” – now has the twin goals of continuing to inspire others and to become an MLB manager.
“I have been able to travel a little bit but it has been more, just trying to network and let people know what I’m interested in doing in the future, so I can start going to other communities that I haven’t been to yet and coach there too,” says Smith.
“I think most coaches, their goal is majors. It’s just like with players, you want to get to the top.
“But I mean I’m happy where I’m at and I’ll just continue to move forward. My short-term goal is just to keep coaching.”
Why is it that baseball has made these progressions in diversity of staff and other sports are trailing? What is it about British football that is embarrassingly outdated and reluctant to let men be coached by the other 50% of the population?
Helen Nkwocha had to travel to the Faroe Islands to become the first female head coach of a European top-flight men’s team, just a few months ago.
There have been a few female coaches dotted around the men’s game – Nia Davies and Natalie Henderson were two of the first full-time female coaches in the Premier League, Davies with Swansea’s academy in 2014 and Henderson with Newcastle’s academy.
In the 2018-19 season, Natasha Orchard-Smith managed at Arlesey Town, in the ninth tier of English football, at the time the only female to hold a coaching position in men’s semi-professional football.
Even in the women’s game, where according to a 2021 report by the Female Coaching Network, despite there being more female head coaches than ever before, outside the UK fewer than 25% are female in Europe’s top leagues and America’s National Women’s Soccer League.
However, there are positive signs in the English game with the Women’s Super League leading the way with 56.26% of permanent head coaches in 2021 having been female.
In June last year, Premier League side West Ham announced the appointment of Nicole Farley, the club’s first full-time female coach.
Farley joined the club on a 23-month coaching placement having applied through the Premier League’s coach inclusion and diversity scheme. She works in the club’s academy with all age groups from schoolboy to Under-23s.
In December 2021 the Premier League, Football Association, English Football League and Professional Footballers’ Association agreed to collaborate to create the Coach Index, a self-registration system providing black, Asian, mixed heritage and female coaches with access to information about employment and development opportunities within professional football.
Alongside Smith and the example that baseball is increasingly setting, there is much lost time to be made up for.