By Cathy Pickles, NWHM staff member
It’s finally spring! Passover and Easter are over and Americans can now begin to celebrate the season in more worldly ways. For many, this means baseball. Spring training and exhibition games are now in full swing and fans nationwide are poised to spend hours, hot dogs in hand, cheering their team at thousands of diamonds across the country. From Little League to the majors, baseball is a beloved institution. But most Americans know little about the history of women in baseball.
I became interested in this while preparing our April women’s history facts for Facebook. I came across this tidbit: In 1931, 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell, a minor leaguer, pitched in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. She struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The next day, the baseball commissioner voided her contract, saying baseball was too strenuous for women. This story is a perfect metaphor for the struggles women have gone through in their fight for equality. What I love most, however, is the photo I found of Jackie. She is clearly just a kid, but her stance, steely gaze and tight-lipped expression are those of a mature, professional player.
Yet Jackie Mitchell is just one of hundreds of female baseball players. The first team at any level to be paid to play baseball was the Dolly Vardens in 1867. They were African American women who began playing a full two years before the first male professional team and did so in corsets, long skirts, long sleeves and high button shoes. After Amelia Bloomer designed her famous Turkish-style pants, women donned them and took to the ball park as “Bloomer Girls” who traveled the country competing against male teams. They earned their living playing solid ball from the 1890s until the early 1930s. Yet, public opinion reflected an entrenched belief that baseball was far too dangerous and strenuous for the “delicate” female constitution.
Inroads were made when female softball leagues were formed. The All-American Girls Softball League was formed in 1943. It eventually became the 600-player-strong All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBL) which played for twelve seasons. These teams were immortalized in the 1992 film, A League of Their Own, and they finally dispelled the belief that women were too weak to play baseball.
After the AAGBL dissolved in 1954, few women were able to break the gender barrier of America’s Pastime. Toni Stone, Connie Morgan and Mamie “Peanuts” Johnson played alongside men in the Negro Leagues, but significant female representation in the sport has never materialized. In 1998, minor league pitcher Ila Borders became the first woman to win a professional game, but still could not break into the majors and retired two years later.
This is yet another “forgotten” chapter in women’s history which deserves to be more widely-known. If you find yourself in a ballpark this season, don’t forget the girls of summer.
More than a Man’s Game: Pennsylvania’s Women Play Ball
by Leslie A. Heaphylegacies v. 7 n.1 blauners bobbies HALF
The popular 1992 film A League of Their Own paid tribute to the “All-American” professional female baseball players of the World War II–era, but author Leslie Heaphy reveals that women have been playing ball since the 1800s. The history of women in baseball is as old as modern baseball itself, and the changing role of women in the sport has reflected the changes of women’s roles in public life and society at-large.
Although officially excluded from organized baseball in the 19th century, like African American men, women formed their own teams. Colleges fielded nines of blondes and brunettes and competed against other schools’ reds and blues. Local towns and cities also formed teams, and Pennsylvania was no exception. Philadelphia alone boasted the Bobbies, the Strikers, the Red Stockings, the Blue Stockings, and the African American Dolly Vardens—the first known all-female team in country, formed in 1867. These teams traveled as far as Chicago to play other all-women teams, and in 1885, the Female Baseball Club of Philadelphia played the all-male Neenahs—the women beat the men, 8–7. But as Heaphy points out, the press reports nonetheless focused more on the women’s looks than on their athletic abilities. Heaphy tells the stories of individual Pennsylvania women who managed to make headlines on their merits, including: Lizzie Stride of Mahanoy City, who played a season with the all-male Philadelphia Reserves; Edith Houghton, who at age thirteen traveled with the Philadelphia Bobbies to play in Japan and later became the first female scout for Major League Baseball; and Effa Manley, a white woman married to an African American man with whom she owned the Negro league’s Newark Eagles, lobbied for the inclusion of the Negro league players in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and was herself inducted in 2006.
Heaphy traces the ebb and flow of women’s progress in the sport and draws parallels to the status of women in the wider society. From the19th-century “bloomer” teams that were more spectacle than sport, to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the 1940s and the postwar decline of women’s pro ball, to the first female Little Leaguers in 1974, women have made their mark in the world of baseball regionally and nationally, as amateurs and professionals, as players and owners.
For the full story, Become a Member of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania and receive Pennsylvania Legacies.