Ida Schnall and the New York Female Giants
James E. Sullivan, right-hand man to Al Spalding’s publishing empire, had a problem in 1912. The hosts of the Stockholm Olympic Games opened the quadrennial competition to female swimmers and divers. As secretary of the United States Olympic Committee, Sullivan, however, viewing himself as a defender of modesty, refused to let American women compete. In the following year, Ida Schnall—one of these barred American swimmers and an all-around athlete as well as a vaudeville entertainer—wrote to the New York Times, now as a member of the New York Female Giants, a baseball club: “He objects to a mild game of ball or any kind of athletics for girls. He objects to girls wearing a comfortable bathing suit. He objects to so many things that it gives me cause to think that he must be very narrow minded and that we are in the last century.”
Sullivan died suddenly one year later, before he could see Miss Schnall in her next starring role, as a movie actress wearing what appeared to be a very comfortable bathing suit. (Indeed, the film precipitated an obscenity trial in Kentucky.) Undine was a gauzy aquacade (“breezy, bewitching nymphs”) of the sort that had made a star of Australian-born swimmer Annette Kellerman. During the filming of Undine, Ida Schnall dove 130 feet off a Santa Cruz Island cliff, though she had never exceeded a drop of 75 feet before. Upon the film’s release in 1916 a reviewer wrote, “No one really cared much about the plot of Undine: It was enough that the sylphlike Ida Schnall showed up from time to time in various states of near-nudity.”
Viewing the picture of the New York Female Giants accompanying this column one would hesitate to call Ida Schnall—third from the left at top—a sylph, but standards for female pulchritude were different then. Largely forgotten today, Ida was a great celebrity in her day. She:
- Won the grand prize at the San Francisco Exhibition of 1915 for being “the most beautifully formed woman in America.
- Won the women’s bicycle race from New York to Philadelphia.
- Starred in the now lost film Undine, in which she dove off a 135-foot cliff in the Channle Islands off California.
- Starred in Al Jolson’s revue, The Passing Show of 1912, where her fancy diving in the harem scene won her plaudits.
I could go on in this vein, but we are about baseball here, so let’s begin with that.
Women entered the playing arena at the Seven Sisters schools of the Northeast. In 1866, Annie Glidden, a student at Vassar College, wrote home describing campus life: “They are getting up various clubs now for out-of-door exercise….They have a floral society, boat clubs and base-ball clubs. I belong to one of the latter, and enjoy it highly, I can assure you.” Ultimately, women’s baseball largely devolved from such high-toned clubs to novelty acts with a girlie-show air, generally in the form of scantily clad Blondes versus Brunettes, with exotic geographic locators applied to each.
Pulchritudinous Broadway stars like Helen Dauvray would be seen at the Polo Grounds simply to be seen, though they exhibited some interest in baseball and its handsome practitioners. Miss Dauvray went so far as to marry one of them, Giants’ shortstop John Ward. In 1887 she funded the first World Series trophy (the “Dauvray Cup”) for the champion Detroit Wolverines.
The first woman to play in Organized Baseball was Lizzie (Stride, sometimes rendered Stroud) Arlington, who on July 5, 1898, with the blessings of the president of the Atlantic League (a Class B minor league) Ed Barrow, later famous as the man who made pitcher Babe Ruth an everyday player, threw an inning for the Reading Coal Heavers against the Allentown Peanuts. She gave up two hits but no runs. Although she never again pitched against men in Organized Baseball, she did so frequently in her many years of barnstorming exhibitions.
Women also played with professional traveling teams like the Boston Bloomer Girls (based in Kansas City, actually). Ida Schnall, a famous swimmer, started up the New York Female Giants and her two squads, composed of Jewish and Gentile young women, played exhibition contests in 1913. Ida invariably pitched and, as a Broadway celebrity, provided the sort of curves that commanded attention.
The Female Giants’ first intrasquad game was played on the grounds of the Westchester Golf links on April 27, and was witnessed by over a thousand fans. A game played on Sunday, May 25, 1913, which culminated in a police shutdown when one of the players attempted to sell scorecards, was reported in the New York Tribune thus on the following day:
The batter hitched up her skirt. The pitcher nervously adjusted a side comb. Girls will be boys, and the Reds and the Blues of the New York Female Giants were playing an exhibition game at Lenox Oval, 145th Street and Lenox Avenue.
The story of Ida Schnall (1889-1973) encompassed so much more than baseball. A Jewish immigrant from Austria–her mother’s maiden name was Priwa Perlmutter–she became a star athlete in every sport she tried, and then a Broadway sensation and a Hollywood attraction. Decade after decade, she kept forming ball clubs (she reorganized the New York Female Giants in Hollywood in 1928), joining the women’s wrestling tour or playing a highly competitive brand of tennis. Gussie Moran, a famous tennis star, said in 1950 that Ida was, even in her fifties, the greatest woman tennis player who ever lived. “Maybe she hasn’t got the snazziest backhand in the world,” Gussie noted, “but she tries real hard and cheats like mad. She’s great because it’s fun to watch her play.”
William Howard Taft invited her to the White House. Howard Chandler Christy painted her portrait.
At the age of 21 she married Adolph W. Schnitzer, an insurance agent ten years her senior, on January 25, 1913. In the anti-German period after World War I, he renamed himself Will Carver; he died in 1962, eleven years before Ida departed this life.