March 28th, 2014
Baseball began in England before the 1740s as a game for young people, and it was played by girls as commonly as it was by boys; often the two played together. Writing in 1798 the novelist Jane Austen—in Northanger Abbey, published posthumously two decades later—has her heroine, Catherine Morland, say that she prefers cricket and baseball to reading—“at least books of information.”
In the United States, beginning in the 1860s, women formed baseball clubs of their own at the Seven Sister colleges of the Northeast. Two nines competed in 1869, at Peterboro, New York, an upstate village some seventy-five miles from Seneca Falls where the women’s suffrage movement was born. The contest was reported in a New York newspaper called Day’s Doings, a sensationalist sex-story journal self-avowedly devoted to “current events of romance, police reports, important trials, and sporting news.” Unsurprisingly, the Police Gazette and the Sporting Times depicted the young baseballists as strumpets.
The following years provided a rich alternative on-field history through novelty nines, barnstorming clubs, and active amateur play. Women were prized as spectators at early matches because it was thought they lent tone and decorum to a game that otherwise might produce, in heated moments, unseemly verbal and physical displays. By the mid-1870s exhibitions of women’s baseball had generally taken the form of Blondes versus Brunettes, with varying geographic modifiers applied to each. These pulchritudinous nines typically used a smaller than regulation ball made only of yarn, played the game on a fifty-foot diamond, and barnstormed their way through a legion of appreciative “bald-headed men,” a code name in theatrical circles for voyeurists of a certain age who liked to sit in the first row.
It was into this tawdry realm of women’s baseball that a Broadway actress, Helen Dauvray, stepped in 1887, leaving a historic mark. She is not only the creator of baseball’s first world championship trophy, but also a woman of several identities and a remarkable life story that I have told in three parts at Our Game. See:
Ladies’ Day had been a popular innovation of the 1880s, though its origins stretched back to the amateur era. In the ’90s women were seen at the ballpark more frequently than they had been in the early 1870s, but the crudeness and violence of the “evolved” game was now deterring their patronage.
If women were becoming disinclined to watch professional baseball, they were still interested in playing it. Bloomer Girls clubs, named for the ridiculed but liberating harem pants invented by Amelia Jenks Bloomer in the 1850s, started up in Boston, New York, and Kansas City and barnstormed successfully for many years. A milestone event occurred on July 5, 1898, when Lizzie (Stroud) Arlington, with the blessings of Atlantic League president Ed Barrow, later famous as the general manager of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, pitched an inning for Reading against Allentown. She gave up two hits but no runs in this first appearance of a woman in Organized Baseball.
Another female baseball pioneer, little noted until now, is Ida Schnall, a formidable athlete of unprecedentedly diverse prowess. The baseball club she formed in 1913, and for which she pitched, was the New York Female Giants. For her outstanding dare-deviltry and sports achievements Ida became the pet of newspapers coast to coast and hobnobbed with the great figures of her day, including Babe Ruth and Al Jolson, in whose Passing Show of 1912 she starred on Broadway.
Much has been written about Jackie Mitchell, the purported flamethrower who fanned Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in 1931, and the All American Girls Professional Baseball League of 1943-54. Less has been said about Amanda Clement, Alta Weiss, Ruth Engel, Ila Borders, and Justine Siegal, pioneers of the women’s game who share Jane Austen’s vision of baseball as a game that could be played by all.
This portfolio–like the ones on Ruth and Robinson that preceded it–does not pretend to be comprehensive. I simply offer images that may be unfamiliar and pleasing.