Baseball is often referred to as America's favorite pastime. Millions watch their favorite sports teams battle it out for position and, hopefully, a championship. But why aren't there more women in baseball?
Join me this week as I dive into the history of women in baseball.
Adler, David & Andrew Simon. “Women break barriers in baseball history.” MLB.Com. January 9th, 2022. (LINK)
Craig, Mary. “Vassar and beyond: Women and baseball in the 1800s.” Beyond the Box Score. September 19, 2017. (LINK)
“Girls of the Summer.” Science of Baseball. The Exploratorium. (LINK)
Francis, Bill. “League of Women Ballplayers.” National Baseball Hall of Fame. (LINK)
“Philip K Wrigley.” All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. (LINK)
Rothenberg, Matt. “30 years ago, the AAGPBL came to Cooperstown.” Baseball Hall of Fame. (LINK)
Shattuck, Debra A. “Women’s Baseball in Nineteenth-Century New York and the Man Who Set Back Women’s Professional Baseball for Decades.” Society for American Baseball Research. 2017. (LINK)
Shattuck, Debra A. Bloomer Girls: Women Baseball Pioneers. United States: University of Illinois Press, 2017.
“Women in Baseball.” Ken Burns in the Classroom. PBS. (LINK)
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“Woman is nowhere on earth more out of place than on a baseball diamond.” Frances Richter, 1890.
“Ball playing is as good a method for developing the girls as it is for the boys.” The New York Herald.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey peeps, welcome back.
My favorite sport to watch has to be baseball. I have been a fan of the game for over two decades, falling in love with the history that is the New York Yankees. I know, I know. As a California native, and a female baseball fan to boot, I have fielded a lot of hatred for my love of the evil empire, so be kind okay?
While the Yankees remain my favorite team, I have always wondered why women weren’t more prevalent in the sport. The game of baseball requires agility, speed and coordination; all things women have demonstrated to be more than capable of. It got me thinking why is baseball dominated by men? How did it become a quote unquote man’s game? Why are women relegated by and large to the game of softball? And why aren’t women a larger part of major league baseball?
So this week, I am diving into the history of women in baseball. Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Admittedly, when I dove into the topic of women in baseball, I thought for sure that it would start with the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, which came to prominence during World War II. This league was popularized with the hilarious and amazing film A League of Their Own starring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks.
The AAGPBL as it became known, was the brainchild of Phillip K Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs and gum magnate who, during World War II, faced the possibility of having to suspend the season due to the lack of male talent available to take the field as men were sent overseas to fight. A life long lover of the sport, and a man of exceptional means, Wrigley came up with an ingenious solution to the problem: bring women into the fold. As a long time fan of the game, Wrigley wanted to ensure his league would be taken seriously and therefore recruited the top talent available and paid for several advertisements aimed at combating the notion that women were somehow less femine for engaging in the sport.
In maintaining the feminine expectations of the day, Wrigley made sure the women fielded for his team played in a skirted uniform and had strict behavioral rules for them to follow both off and on the field; some of the off the field requirements included wearing high heels, skirts and make up and several players were even sent to finishing school to make sure they walked appropriately.
The AAGPBL was a tour de force for about a decade before the powers that be over at Major League Baseball forbid women from playing professional baseball. And as fascinating a story as that is, it isn’t the beginning of women’s participation in the sport.
Baseball has been around in some form or another as early as the eighteenth century. In her analysis of women in baseball, historian Debra Shattuck wrote quote: “as early as 1734, the rules for Harvard College Freshmen mentioned the accouterments of bat and ball games” end quote. One of the first published references to the actual game of base and balls came from a book published in England in 1744 and the colonies in 1762.
In its infancy, baseball was not considered solely a male sport. Girls and boys enjoyed the game evenly throughout their youth. Initially, it wasn’t an acceptable game for adults at all, seen as mainly childs play. However this aversion to the idea of it being a child’s game also evolved and beginning in antebellum America, more and more adults were becoming interested. By 1858, more than 100 baseball teams were commissioned in and around the New York area alone.
As the game gained popularity amongst adults in the 1850’s, men made sure the rules and design of the game were compatible with the social norms of the period, placing an emphasis on masculinity and religious morality. They attempted to curb brawling in the stands and tried to advertise the game asn appropriate source of exercise. If they were going to change opinions about the game being solely for children, men knew they had to build as much support as possible and highlight the positive aspects as much as possible.
Men were not alone in enjoying a newfound appreciation of the sport beyond their childhood. As early as the 1860’s women attending Vassar College were playing the sport, with the support from the institution who helped establish two female teams in 1866. This was a time when many feared that women doing any kind of exertion, whether mentally with studying to get a college degree, or exercising like playing baseball, would lead to negative physical ramifications such as infertility. So having the support of the administrators of the college was an exceptionally novel idea.
Baseball, though touted as America’s pastime, was not initially a popular spectator sport. A lot of the early teams created during this time period were for recreational purposes and did not garner much public attention or fanfare. Since most teams were fielded by the players themselves, there was little structure and rules often varied from region to region.
But by the Civil War, baseball as a recreational sport was growing in popularity amongst adults, with at least two thousand teams throughout the country by 1867. With the increased popularity, came the idea of turning the game into a business venture. Instead of the player fielded teams at universities and local mens clubs, boosters began developing rules and regulations that would evolve into the sport as we know it today. And as investors saw the potential to turn a profit, the desire to protect their investment became paramount, leading to their push against anyone who was seen as a competitor to the game including black americans and of course, women.
One of the ways boosters aimed to protect their investment was through leaning into the idea of the masculinity of the game. In an article from Harper’s Weekly in 1865, a writer discussing baseball wrote quote, “there is no nobler or manlier game than baseball, and the more it is cultivated the better for the country” end quote. Despite these concerted efforts, baseball remained popular amongst women who continued to field their own teams and play the game.
Another tactic employed by those looking to remove women from the game was to warn them of their female fragility as a reason the quote unquote fairer sex should not participate. Since the prevailing thought was that women were at risk for reproductive damage for engaging in things like bicycling or playing sports, detractors hyped up these risks in an effort to dissuade women’s participation. Women were often prevented from all sorts of physical activity and found themselves relegated to private spaces, lest they be too taxed and lose their sensibilities.
However, though they tried to prevent women’s interest and participation, enough women bucked the trend and continued to play the game. It looked very different from men’s games; women’s fields were smaller and they played the game in long skirts. Not exactly an easy task to manage. And as women continued to buck the popular convention and play the sport, naysayers continued in their efforts to derail them and their participation by tying those who played baseball to the fast growing women’s suffrage movement. Again from historian Debra Shattuck quote: “reports of women baseball players in the 1860’s and 1870’s often appeared alongside articles about the women’s rights movement” end quote.
While some women may have been interested in the sport as a means to champion the suffrage movement, most women just wanted to play the game and have fun. Since they had no agenda other than to have a good time, women took extra steps to try to avoid any unwanted attention. They often played on fields outside of the view of most bystanders and like I mentioned before, continued to play in their approved female attire of long skirts and corsets. Unfortunately, this did not always work and women continued to be picked apart for their dress, ability and everything in between.
Though some were hesitant to support female baseball due to the supposed connections to the women’s movement, more and more began accepting that physical activity was not a hazard to a woman’s health and in fact had the opposite effect. While the perception of potential danger to women was still widely held, more women played the game, even entering semi professional leagues and games where they earned money for their ability, just like their male counterparts. Again from Debra Shattuck quote, “during its infancy, both men and women played on teams whose managers had to craft marketing narratives emphasizing the exciting and respectable nature of their entertainment product in order to attract middle and upper class audiences” end quote.
In a twist of irony, women’s baseball was slightly more popular when looking at total attendance. One of the potential reasons for this edge, tiny though it was, was the makeup of the women’s teams. Unlike the men's teams, which were focused on demonstrating skill and mastery of the sport, a lot of women's teams were made up of entertainers who were more acting the part of a player than someone who actually knew the game.
As the popularity grew, so too did the chance for revenue, if everyone could get on the same page. In 1876 William Hulbert and Albert Goodwill Spalding organized the National League and restructured baseball. In his league, Hulbert limited team participation to only cities with populations in excess of seventy-five thousand. During the inaugural season, there were eight teams to root for from New York, St. Louis, Boston and Chicago, amongst others.
Women’s professional teams were also established, but did not enjoy the organized structure of the National League. Oftentimes, women’s teams were created by less than model citizens and while both male and female players were financially exploited, women had to also worry about sexaul exploitation. One of the most infamous women’s baseball team creators was none other than Sylvester Wilson. Wilson, who would eventually be arrested for having sexual relations with a girl under 16, spent the better part of two decades fielding various female ball clubs. But they almost always ran out of money and players were constantly stranded in cities without the proper fare to make it home.
Mismanaged though they were, women’s participation in the sport was seen as enough of a threat to warrant the attention of the organizers of the National League. To give themselves an edge over the women, the league began distinguishing “male baseball” from “female baseball.” This included attacks on the players’ looks, their playing ability and their outright erasure from the history of the game, claiming American and British baseball were different because no girls ever played the American game.
In the decade before the new century, women’s baseball began to benefit from true lovers and players of the sport. Not so much the theatrical performances prevalent in earlier decades, the 1890’s saw a generation of women who had grown up playing the game and were liberated from the concerns about the impacts to their health. This is known as the Bloomer Girls era of baseball, thanks to the loose fitting, wide-legged turkish style pants the female players wore while playing.
Lizzie Arlington, Carrie Moyer, Maud Nelson and Alta Weiss were just some of the players of this era. Lizzie Arlington, a pitcher, made headlines when she participated in an organized baseball game, meaning a men’s team, where she pitched a single inning and allowed two hits and a walk and no runs.
Alta Weiss began playing baseball in her childhood and joined a boys team at the age of 14. At just 17, she made her semi-professional debut. Weiss, also a pitcher, gave up four hits and one run during five innings of work. I would be ecstatic to get that from a starting pitcher today, so I can only imagine the attention she garnered as a woman. Her father was a supporter of her efforts, even buying a traveling, or barnstorming, team in 1908, renaming it the Weiss All Stars. Weiss, like most women, didn’t play long and used her time in baseball to help fund her education.
While Bloomer girl teams continued for several years, historian Debra Shattuck points to the publication of the book Baseball for Girls and Women in 1929 as the point where the line between men and women’s baseball was finalized. The book promoted a separate and distinct version of the game between the sexes making baseball an official men’s sport.
In the decades since, women have flourished playing softball and in the 60’s and 70’s sued for their rights to be able to play little league. The baseball hall of fame finally dedicated some museum space to the women of the sport in 1988, but overall, their participation and integration into the game has been limited to mainly coaching or back office roles. Some women were able to pitch in the Negro Leagues, such as Mami Johnson, but no such progress was seen in the majors. As of this recording in 2022, no woman has ever been signed to a major league playing contract.
And why don’t we know more about the women who did play? Most of them used stage names and garnered little press that actually published their information. And since women’s baseball wasn’t an organized business venture, they lacked the kind of attention given to their male counterparts.
So while it is important to celebrate the Jessica Mendoza’s and Kim ANG’s of the world, let’s not forget the women who slid in first.
Before I sign off today, I wanted to let you know I recently did a little guest spot over at Operation History. We dove into the Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education and its ramifications on segregation. Go check out the episode and check out Operation History; they dive into great historical topics and their conversations are always fascinating.
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Thanks peeps, see you next week.
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.