A Female Base-Ball Club

Mark Twain's Library of Humor, 1888

Mark Twain’s Library of Humor, 1888

In 1975, as a youngish book editor at Hart Publishing in New York, I helped to create a line of “Hart Classics”–reissues of once notable volumes that were no longer in print. Among the musty titles I proposed was Mark Twain’s Library of Humor, an anthology of more than 160 stories by such revered if today unread authors as Ambrose Bierce, Josh Billings, Eugene Field, Joel C. Harris, Bret Harte, Oliver W. Holmes, William D. Howells, Bill Nye, and Artemus Ward. Mark Twain contributed twenty of his own stories, while asserting on the book’s flyleaf page that, “Those selections in this book which are from my own works were made by my two assistant compilers, not by me. This is why there are not more.” Because I had not for decades lifted this compendium of jollification from my shelves, I had forgotten that one of the contributors, James M. Bailey (represented with four selections), had contributed a story titled “A Female Base-Ball Club.” It has been forgotten for good reason, perhaps, but it does illustrate how men once viewed the idea of women playing baseball (not to mention other sports), and thus may have some instructive value today. At the very least it is an oddity that scholars will appreciate.

Twain plucked this story from Bailey’s Life in Danbury, published by Shepard & Gill in 1873 and “carefully compiled with a pair of eight-dollar shears, by the compiler” from the pages of the Danbury News.  The story thus reflects the state of women’s baseball at some time before the advent of novelty nines later in the decade (Blondes versus Brunettes, and similarly described “pulchritudinous nines”). Now let’s permit Mark Twain to introduce us to the author and his tale.

JAMES MONTGOMERY BAILEY, so widely known as the Danbury News Man, was born at Albany, N. Y., September 25, 1841, and after receiving a common-school education, learned the carpenter’s trade. He fought through the war in a Connecticut regiment, and settled in Danbury at the close as editor of the News.

The only attempt on record of Danbury trying to organize a female base-ball club occurred last week. It was a rather incipient affair, but it demonstrated everything necessary, and in that particular answered every purpose. The idea was cogitated and carried out by six young ladies. It was merely designed for an experiment on which to base future action. The young ladies were at the house of one of their number when the subject was brought up. The premises arc capacious, and include quite a piece of turf, hidden from the street by several drooping, luxuriant, old-fashioned apple-trees. The young lady of the house has a brother who is fond of base-ball, and has the necessary machinery for a game. This was taken out on the turf under the trees. The ladies assembled, and divided themselves into two nines of three each. The first three took the bat, and the second three went to the bases, one as catcher, one as pitcher, and the other as chaser, or, more technically, fielder. The pitcher was a lively brunette, with eyes full of dead earnestness. The catcher and batter were blondes, with faces aflame with expectation. The pitcher took the ball, braced herself, put her arm straight out from her shoulder, then moved it around to her back without modifying in the least its delightful rigidity, and then threw it. The batter did not catch it. This was owing to the pitcher looking directly at the batter when she aimed it. The fielder got a long pole and soon succeeded in poking the ball from an apple-tree back of the pitcher, where it had lodged. Business was then resumed again, although with a faint semblance of uneasiness generally visible.

A Female Base-Ball Club, by E.W. Kemble

A Female Base-Ball Club, by E.W. Kemble

The pitcher was very red in the face, and said “I declare!” several times. This time she took a more careful aim, but still neglected to look in some other direction than toward the batter, and the ball was presently poked out of another tree.

“Why, this is dreadful!” said the batter, whose nerves had been kept at a pretty stiff tension.

“Perfectly dreadful!” chimed in the catcher, with a long sigh.

“I think you had better get up in one of the trees,” mildly suggested the fielder to the batter.

The game at Peterboro, NY, as depicted in The Sporting Times of August 29, 1868.

The game at Peterboro, NY, as depicted in The Sporting Times of August 29, 1868.

The observations somewhat nettled the pitcher, and she declared she would not try again, whereupon a change was made with the fielder. She was certainly more sensible. Just as soon as she was ready to let drive, she shut her eyes so tight as to loosen two of her puffs and pull out her back comb, and madly fired away. The ball flew directly at the batter, which so startled that lady, who had the bat clinched in both hands with desperate grip, that she involuntarily cried, “Oh, my!” and let it drop, and ran. This movement uncovered the catcher, who had both hands extended about three feet apart, in readiness for the catch, but being intently absorbed in studying the coil on the back of the batter’s head, she was not able to recover in time, and the ball caught her in the bodice with sufficient force to deprive her of all her breath, which left her lips with earpiercing shrillness. There was a lull in the proceedings for ten minutes, to enable the other members of the club to arrange their hair.

The batter again took position, When one of the party, discovering that she was holding the bat very much as a woman carries a broom when she is after a cow in the garden, showed her that the tip must rest on the ground and at her side, with her body a trifle inclined in that direction. The suggester took the bat and showed just how it was done, and brought around the batt with such vehemence as to almost carry her from her feet, and to nearly brain the catcher. That party shivered, and moved back some fifteen feet.

Columbian Register (New Haven, CT) November 5, 1870

Humor typical of the times: Columbian Register (New Haven, CT) November 5, 1870

The batter took her place, and laid the tip of the bat on the ground, and the pitcher shut her eyes again as tightly as before, and let drive. The fielder had taken the precaution to get back of a tree, or otherwise she must have been disfigured for life. The ball was recovered. The pitcher looked heated and vexed. She didn’t throw it this time. She just gave it a pitching motion, but not letting go of it in time it went over her head, and caused her to sit down with considerable unexpectedness.

Thereupon she declared she would never throw another ball as long as she lived, and changed off with the catcher. This young lady was somewhat determined, which augured success. Then she looked in an altogether different direction from that to the batter.

And this did the business. The batter was ready. She had a tight hold on the bat. Just as soon as she saw the ball start, she made a tremendous lunge with the bat, let go of it, and turned around in time to catch the ball in the small of her back, while the bat, being on its own hook, and seeing a stone figure holding a vase of flowers, neatly clipped off its arm at the elbow and let the flowers to the ground.

There was a chorus of screams, and some confusion of skirts, and then the following dialogue took place:

No. 1. “Let’s give up the nasty thing.”

No. 2. “Let’s.”

No. 3. “So I say.”

No. 4. “It’s just horrid.”

This being a majority, the adjournment was made.

The game was merely an experiment. And it is just as well it was. Had it been a real game, it is likely that someone would have been killed outright.

BONUS Bailey clip from the Danbury News:


Daily Graphic, April 11, 1874

Daily Graphic, April 11, 1874

One of the passengers at the depot yesterday attracted the sympathetic attention of every beholder. The fingers on both hands were horribly deformed. One arm was bent backward at the elbow, and part of one ear was gone. His nose showed the scar of having been broken in two or three places; one eye was entirely gone; the right arm had been fractured, and all the upper front teeth were swept away. There were two scars of scalp wounds, and one long one on the right cheek. There was much speculation as to the cause of these misfortunes. Some thought he must have slipped into a raw volcano when a child; others believed he had attempted to part two colliding locomotives; while others still were equally confident that at some time in his life he had been overtaken by a mowing machine. None of these contemplated the true state of the case, as it afterward transpired that the grand cripple was the captain of a champion base-ball club.

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