Justine Siegal, a 40-year-old Jewish woman who lives in Southern California, made history last month as the first woman to be employed as a coach by a Major League Baseball team.
For two weeks, she worked as a guest instructor for the Oakland Athletics’ Instructional League team in Mesa, Arizona.
“It’s a dream come true,” Siegal told the San Francisco Chronicle when the news broke. “The A’s are a first-class organization and it will be an honor to wear their uniform.”
Siegal grew up in the Cleveland area and attended Indians games with her father and grandfather, developing a passion for baseball that she turned into a career — and a string of pioneering moments.
In 2009, she became the first woman to coach men professionally when she was the first-base coach for the independent league Brockton Rox in Massachusetts.
And in 2011, she became the first female to throw batting practice to major leaguers, first with the Indians and later for five other teams, including the Oakland A’s.
Siegal told the Chronicle that Billy Beane, then Oakland’s general manager and now the team’s executive vice president of baseball operations, was the first major-league official to say “yes” when she was inquiring about throwing batting practice, even though her first experience was for the Indians.
“The Indians said yes because Billy Beane already had,” Siegal told the Chronicle. “So I’m a big fan of his.”
Siegal started playing baseball at age 5 and went on to play in male leagues. Her first job was working at a batting cage as a high school senior, and from 2008 to 2011, she served as an assistant coach for the baseball team at Springfield College in Massachusetts, where she earned a Ph.D. in sports psychology.
In 2010, she founded Baseball for All, which works to increase opportunities for girls and young women to play baseball. Siegal said the organization has “inspired the creation of girls’ teams and leagues around the country, with others in the works.” One of the teams is the San Francisco Bay Sox, for girls 11-13, which will be one of the “home teams” next summer when Baseball for All holds its national tournament, for girls 7-15, in San Francisco.
At the Instructional League, where an organization’s recently drafted players and other prospects hone their skills or learn a new position, Siegal’s tasks included working with infielders, hitting fungos and throwing batting practice. She also employed some sports psychology techniques in helping the team’s youngest prospects. She mentioned that one of the players there was 17, the same age as her daughter, Jasmine, who tagged along one weekend.
Using what she termed a “sly” approach, Siegal would sit next to a player and allow him to initiate a conversation about any difficulties he was experiencing. Eventually the discussion would lead to possible solutions and hopefully to the player reaching a conclusion on his own.
“I want them to come up with the idea and make the connection, [so] it’s something they own,” she explained. “It builds confidence. When I coach girls and women, respect is there right away. With men, it’s ‘Who is she, and does she know what she’s doing?’ ”
Siegal said she sensed admiration from some of the players. One told her it was “cool” that she was expanding the reach of baseball. Others expressed hope that she’d be back with the A’s in spring training.
“They knew how hard I fought to continue in baseball,” she said. “And they understand hard work and sacrifice.”
Dan Feinstein, the A’s director of professional scouting and baseball development, called Siegal, who lives in Malibu, “a great addition” to the organization’s Instructional League staff.
“She can do a little bit of everything, and helped out in a variety of roles,” he said. “She [was] also an asset in our off-field classroom instruction.”
Siegal said when she was a kid, “I just dreamt of playing for the Cleveland Indians. My love for the game came from my family’s enthusiasm for baseball.”
Siegal’s family history also includes strong Jewish communal ties. Her grandfather and his wife endowed the Cleveland College of Judaic Studies, which is now affiliated with Case Western Reserve University and is called the Laura and Alvin Siegal Lifelong Learning Program. For many years, Alvin Siegal led the fundraising for Israel Bonds in Cleveland.
Alvin Siegal, 92, is most responsible for the family’s connection to baseball. He began attending games when he was 8 with free tickets distributed at school. The trolley delivered him to League Park, then the Indians’ home.
Little could he have known that one day his granddaughter would be a baseball pioneer. A few years back, he saw her throw batting practice to the St. Louis Cardinals during spring training in Florida.
“I think she’s the most wonderful young lady. She’s just a hard worker,” Alvin Siegal said. “I think she knows more about baseball than some major league managers.”
Hillel Kuttler of JTA contributed to this report.