Women? There’s No Women in Baseball!
“Take me out to the ballgame, take me out to the crowd…” every baseball fan knows this tune, they sing the chorus during the seventh inning stretch. Written in 1908, by Jack Norworth, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” became a popular baseball anthem. What they do not know, is that the song is about a female fan of the game. “Katie saw all the games,/ knew the players by their first names;/ told the umpire he was wrong,/ all along, good and strong.”1 Baseball history is much like the song; it is well known, but the women are forgotten. Women have not forgotten baseball, however; since baseball first emerged, women have been involved somehow with America’s national pastime. Why, if women love the game so much, do we not see more women in baseball? Does the reason go beyond sexism in professional sports?
Men feel uncomfortable when women step out of their so-called “separate sphere”; so, when women try to step into baseball, men try to prevent them. Because of this, funding for women’s baseball is seriously lacking, as are their opportunities in baseball. While sexism in sports is not solely to blame for the lack of women’s baseball, it certainly makes it more difficult for women. Women continue to love baseball just as they did when baseball first started to take shape.
Around 1845, Alexander Cartwright created rudimentary rules that shaped baseball into what it is today. Cartwright decided on three strikes per batter, nine players on the field, bases at equal distance, and the use of an umpire.2 Baseball gained popularity throughout the mid-1800s, even with women. The first evidence that suggests women too played baseball came in a letter published in 1859 by Harper’s Weekly; the letter stated that baseball was a recreation “often engaged in by youths of both sexes.”3 Many men thought women were not capable of playing the so-called masculine sport. Men felt baseball “…requires strong bones, tough muscle and sound mind…testing a man’s powers of endurance most severely.”4 The pitcher, Albert G. Spalding felt women could not play baseball, as it was too strenuous.5 Another strike against baseball was its association with bad morals. Baseball games were places known for drinking and gambling.6
In the early days of baseball, women did not frequent ballparks even as fans. Victorian men considered ballparks their domain, an escape from society’s polite standards. Men could swear, drink, and behave like men. When women attended the ballpark, men could not behave rowdy and rambunctious, much to their dismay. Men also felt women were ignorant of simple baseball fundamentals and caused distractions with their constant chatter.7 Though male fans did not want women sharing the stands, the heads of organized baseball felt differently. Baseball needed to fill the stands and make more money. In order to create revenue, they needed female fans. Team owners subsequently created Ladies Days in the 1880s.8 Droves of women attended Ladies Days, creating more revenue for the ball clubs. Women were able to attend games because men needed them to create revenue. Women’s new ability to attend ball games created more fans of the game. Opportunities for the new fans to play ball were slim; however, there were some opportunities for young women to play baseball.
Founded in 1865, Vassar College created opportunities for young women. As an all-girls college, they could play baseball freely. By 1866, Vassar had two baseball teams.9 Women’s collegiate baseball teams did not always last; with the strict structure of the school’s schedule, Vassar did not allow much time for the girls to play ball and eventually, their clubs petered out.10 Girls were not welcome to play ball in co-ed colleges. In 1875, women first played baseball for pay; however, these games were a gimmick created by men to earn some cash. They were not professional athletes, but professional entertainers. Played by teams such as the Blondes and Brunettes, the games were purely entertainment; ending in ridiculous high scores, such as 42-38.11 These spectacles did everything but convince baseball fans that women could play professional baseball. By the mid-1880s, the fun of watching women playing bad baseball wore off and the teams practically disappeared. Women in these early days of baseball played the game in long, heavy skirts, which proved difficult while running bases. Eventually, most girls switched to the much more practical bloomers.
In 1890, girls started adopting bloomers as their baseball uniform of choice. Along with the bloomers came women’s professional baseball. The Bloomer Leagues, named after loose-fitting Turkish-style pants of the same name, lasted from the1890s-1920s.12 Though the baseball world respected several Bloomer League players, the Bloomer League years was not without its troubles. Society viewed women traveling the country playing a man’s game as risqué and immoral; many also believed rumors of using bloomer teams as a front for prostitution.13 Even though many looked down on women’s baseball at this time, many still respected prominent players. Newspapers noted Maud Nelson, whose long career spanned from the late 1890s until the 1930s, as being a respected and talented baseball player. As the San Francisco Call noted in 1897, “But with Maude Nelson it was different. Maudie is the pitcher and knows her business…All the others had the upmost confidence in Maud…they knew she would understand what to do next.”14Nelson continued to pitch in the league for most of her career, even making guest appearances for the Boston Bloomer Girls up until her forties when she switched to managing and owning Bloomer League teams.15
Like Maud Nelson, Lizzie Arlington was a well-respected baseball player. At just twenty-two years old in July of 1898, she became the first woman to sign a minor league contract.16 Edward Grant Barrow, owner of the minor league team in Reading, said that Arlington had a lot of control over the ball and could pitch well.17 Arlington was a talented pitcher, but the minors did not sign her because of her skills; they signed her so they could fill the stands. Barrow signed her thinking the novelty of a woman baseball player would make him a significant amount of money. One thousand spectators came to see Arlington pitch against Allentown; for Barrow, a thousand curious fans were not enough, so he voided Arlington’s minor league contract.18 After Barrow let her go Arlington joined a bloomer team. As Barbara Gregorich states, Arlington “…was signed for two reasons but let go for one- signed because she was a woman and a good ballplayer, let go only because she was a woman.”19
Lizzie Arlington was not the only woman whom men used as a gimmick in men’s professional baseball. In 1931, Jackie Mitchell became the second woman signed to a minor league contract. Mitchell signed with the Chattanooga Lookouts, a minor league team owned by the former pitcher Joe Engel.20Mitchell was set to pitch in an exhibition game against the Yankees on April 1, 1931. The rain forced a delay, so Mitchell took the mound on April 2. Scores of reporters and fans alike filled Engel Stadium ready to witness history. Mitchell did not start the game; that privilege went to Clyde Barfoot. After Barfoot gave up a double and a single, resulting in a score of 1-0, Mitchell replaced him.21
At just seventeen years old, Mitchell faced two of the most famous men in baseball: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. She struck Babe Ruth out in just four pitches (one ball, two swinging strikes, and a called strike); Lou Gehrig struck out next, this time with three swinging strikes. After she walked her next batter, the manager yanked her out of the game.22 Soon after the Yankee-Lookouts exhibition game, the Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided Mitchell’s contract. He believed baseball and its way of life was “too strenuous” for women.23Controversy surrounds Jackie Mitchell’s incredible feat. Many suspect that both Ruth and Gehrig planned to strike out for publicities sake, as the game was originally scheduled for April Fool’s Day; however, Mitchell believed until her dying day that she honestly struck out the two men. As with Lizzie Arlington, the minors used Jackie Mitchell as a gimmick to sell tickets; unlike Arlington Mitchell did sell tickets, but the men of professional baseball never took her seriously as a player.
Professional baseball struck again just twelve years later. With many of America’s favorite ball players off to fight in WWII, baseball team owners still wanted to make a profit. Philip K. Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, wanted to provide baseball fans with entertainment during the war.24 Initially known as the All-American Girls Softball League, it soon morphed into what we now know as the All-American Girls Base Ball League.25 Because the team managers tended to be former major-league baseball players, the league changed from softball to baseball. Team owners and managers also felt that using a smaller baseball as opposed to a larger softball would be more entertaining for fans.26
The talented women of the All-American Girls Base Ball League, or AAGBL, were not chosen solely on their skills. The league also selected these women based on their looks. Wrigley wanted the women of the AAGBL to look feminine at all times, even their uniforms were feminine. They had to wear relatively short skirts, instead of the more practical long pants that the men wore.27 Notorious base stealers such as Sophie Kurys went home with countless bruises and injuries. Sophie Kurys set the record for most bases stolen in a season; at 201 stolen bases, only major leaguer Rickey Henderson comes close with his 130 steals in 1982.28 Kurys commented on the perils of sliding in a skirt, “They thought that having skirts would show that we were extremely feminine…I think all of us would have rather played in standard uniforms…I had strawberries on strawberries.29 Sometimes now, when I get up in the morning, I have problems with my thighs.”30 The creators of the AAGBL focused on their players looking cute and feminine, ignoring the reality of injuries caused by this feminine look. The AAGBL wanted to remind onlookers that their players were real women as well as real ball players.31
The heads of the AAGBL wanted women to show how feminine they were playing a masculine game. Before they could play ball, the girls of the AAGBL had to attend charm school, receive make-up lessons, and learn how to walk in a lady-like fashion. On the field, the AAGBL required their players to wear make-up at all times and have long hair.32 Though the players had to go through silly feminizing rituals, their team managers knew their girls had talent. As the manager of the Fort Wayne Daisies told his players, “You are true major leaguers in my eyes.”33 The players proved themselves as great ball players, as well having to prove their femininity. Some popular players included Dorothy Kamenshek, Connie Wisniewski, Dorothy Wiltse, Sophie Kurys, and Rose Gacioch. The All-American Girls Base Ball League lasted from 1943 to 1954.
With the end of WWII and the major leaguers returning home, the novelty of women’s baseball started to wear off. “Real” baseball returned; however, the women’s baseball league continued until 1954. Philip Wrigley started the league in 1943 by creating four teams; he sold his share after one year to Arthur Meyerhoff. In 1948, Meyerhoff made a mistake that ultimately led to the downfall of the AAGBL; he expanded from eight to ten teams. It did not take long for the two new teams to fail financially.34 In 1950, Meyerhoff sold the teams to the franchise owners. The management cut back on spring training and promotion at a crucial time; fan attendance dwindled and the AAGBL ended in 1954.35 The AAGBL ended just as the Bloomer Leagues had, people lost interest in watching women play baseball.
The AAGBL did not accept African American women like Toni Stone, who had to look elsewhere for a league to play in. The Negro League did not ban women from playing with them as major league baseball did. Though the Negro League accepted Toni Stone as a player, many of the male players were not as thrilled to have her as a teammate. Stone knew her teammates did not believe she belonged there as she recalled, “They’d tell me to go home and fix my husband some biscuits, or any damn thing. Just get the hell away from here.”36 Syd Pollack, the owner of the Indianapolis Clowns signed Stone in 1953, claiming he only signed her based on her merit, and not for publicity. While she played baseball well, Pollack likely expected extra publicity for signing a woman. Pollack asked Stone to play in shorts instead of the standard pants, showing that he tried to do what the AAGBL did; Stone refused to wear anything but long pants on the field.37
With the retirement of Toni Stone and the players of the AAGBL, women’s baseball seemed to quiet down. Women did not stop loving the game, but their opportunities were slim. Many women switched to softball, which was more available to woman than baseball. From a young age, girls had no access to baseball; boys had Little League, but Little League did not let girls join. By the 1960s, some Little League coaches let girls join, only if they concealed their true gender. One Little League coach asked a ten year old girl to join his team, but on the condition that she cut her hair and go by “Bob.” The little girl stuck with softball.38 When the 1970s rolled around, even more little girls wished to play baseball. Twenty-two parents filed class-action suits against Little League; the league spent nearly $2 million on trying to keep little girls out of Little League baseball.39
In 1974, girls won the right to play Little League baseball. Little League still tried dubious ways to keep girls off their baseball team. Seemingly innocent, Little League created organized Bobby Sox Softball; many girls joined the Little League softball team instead.40 Winning lawsuits against Little League was not the only triumph for female athletes in the 1970s; Title IX passed in 1972, opening up opportunities in girls and women’s sports. Title IX states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational programs or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”41Under Title IX, women’s participation in sports grew. According to Jean Ardell in Breaking into Baseball, thirty-nine percent of high school athletes were female in 2003 and women’s participation in college sports raised exponentially.42
By the 1980s, women’s professional baseball surged again. Bob Hope, a former Atlanta Braves executive not the comedian, tried to create an all-women’s minor league baseball team in Florida. In 1984, Hope attempted to create the Sun Sox. The Class A Florida State League wanted to expand their league by two more teams, this expansion gave Hope an opportunity.43 Sixty women showed up to tryouts, soon they narrowed it down to twenty-five; their goal was to have nineteen Class A ready women. Hope and his team could not find enough women, and thought about filling the rest of the roster spots with men.44 Hope believed the Sun Sox would win the vote and become a team, the board of directors decided otherwise. With Florida off the table, Hope tried desperately to find another home for the Sun Sox to no avail.45 Women lost another chance to play men’s baseball.
The end of the Sun Sox did not mean the end of women’s baseball. Women all over the country play baseball on high school boys teams and sometimes even on college men’s teams. Women like Julie Croteau fought to play baseball on men’s teams. In high school, Title IX did not help her as her school had a softball team. In many schools, they treat girls’ softball as the equivalent to boy’s baseball. Schools can deny girls the right to play baseball if the school also offers softball.46 Though Croteau lost her court case against her school in 1988, the Fredericksburg Giants offered her a try out on their semipro team; she made the team.47 In 1994, Croteau joined the newly formed Colorado Silver Bullets.
Riding on the success of the 1992 film, A League of their Own, Bob Hope once again attempted to start a woman’s professional baseball team. In 1993, Hope succeeded. Coors Light, the beer company, sponsored Hope’s new team: the Colorado Silver Bullets.48 Over a thousand women tried out for the Silver Bullets. Most of the women who joined the team had backgrounds in softball, not baseball. The switch from softball to baseball was difficult for many of the new players.49 Hope’s expectations for the Silver Bullets may have been too great. He expected his players to play against professional male players, with barely two months training under their belt. In their first season, the Silver Bullets had only six wins with thirty-eight losses, the score of some losses as extreme as nineteen to zero.50 Hope’s Silver Bullets lasted only four seasons.
More hope for women’s baseball appeared just seven years after the Silver Bullets played their last game. Established in 2004, the Women’s National Team (WNT) for USA Baseball gave women another chance to play hardball. Every two years, the WNT takes part in the Women’s World Cup baseball tournament. Unfortunately, for the women on the WNT, they are virtually invisible. Donna Mills, a former player for the WNT, believes that, “nobody wants [sic] to know we exist!”51 However, just the fact that the WNT exists, is good news for women who love playing the game. Major League Baseball funds the WNT, and sends our national team to face twelve different countries’ best female baseball players every two years.52 When they are not playing for the Women’s National Team, the players play a few exhibition games; other than the exhibition games and the Women’s World Cup Tournament, the WNT does not play much baseball.
Playing baseball is not the only way women have tried to be involved with the sport. Female umpires are a rare commodity, but that does not mean they do not exist. In 1904, Amanda Clement, a sixteen-year-old girl, umpired her first professional game. She attended a semipro game, in which the umpire did not show; the game needed an umpire. Hank Clement, Amanda Clement’s brother and a pitcher in the game, suggested she should umpire the game.53 From that point on, Clement started umpiring professional games. Her skills widely known and respected, teams often requested Clement as their umpire.54 Players respected Clement; however, women today have a harder time becoming umpires.
Umpiring school is required for men and women to become umpires today. In 1967, Bernice Gera applied to Al Somers Umpire School; they accepted her, misreading her name as “Bernie” Gera. When Somers realized his mistake, he quickly rejected her, not wanting a woman at his school. Gera finally found an umpire school that accepted her, Jim Finley’s Florida Baseball Umpire School.55 Once Gera graduated, she had trouble finding work opportunities. The Class-A New York-Pennsylvania League rejected her, claiming she was too old and too short to be an umpire.56 Fed up with gender discrimination, she decided to take the National Association of Baseball Leagues (the NABL) to court. After a stressful legal battle and costly bills, Gera won her case. During her first game, she blew a call, which she soon reversed. As soon as the game ended, she resigned.57 Other female umpires included Christine Wren and Pam Postema.
Christine Wren umpired in the late 1970s; she lasted three seasons in Class-A baseball. Opportunities to umpire spring training games fell through as they claimed that there were no changing facilities for women. She left umpiring before her fourth season.58 Pam Postema, arguably the most well-known female umpire, nearly made it to the Major Leagues. After she graduated umpire school in 1977, she umpired in Class-A baseball; by 1980 she umpired in Double-A. When she started umpiring for Triple-A in 1983, she started getting blowback. In one Triple-A game that she umpired, someone left a frying pan at home plate that told her to go home where she belonged.59 Then, in 1987, she was asked to umpire the annual Cooperstown Hall of Fame game indicating she might be moved to the Majors. In 1988, two Major League spots were open and Postema was one of seven contenders; but because she ejected too many people and allegedly had a bad attitude, she did not make the cut.60
Postema did not buy these reasons, and decided to sue Organized Baseball for sex discrimination. The results of the lawsuit are not public, but she settled in 1995.61 Throughout women’s baseball history, gender discrimination has kept women from truly enjoying the sport they love. In the early days, baseball kept women from being spectators until money was scarce and they needed women’s patronage. Ladies Days were so successful that baseball had no choice but to let women come to the stadium. One way or another, men used women as a way to fill the seats.
Female ball players often were used a gimmick or as some type of entertainment. Spectators see women as a rare commodity in the sport; any time there is a chance to see a woman playing baseball, a so-called “man’s sport”, people have to see it. The Bloomer Leagues and the All-American Girls Base Ball League were popular for a while, until the public got bored with the idea. Women’s leagues became old hat, and the public lost interest. For the lucky (or unlucky, depending on how one looks at it) women who played on men’s teams, such as Lizzie Arlington or Jackie Mitchell; baseball used these two women as a publicity stunt. Since they did not sell enough seats, management voided their contracts. Though these women were the real deal, baseball treated them as a sideshow attraction.
Baseball not taking women seriously is only one of the reasons for the lack of women in baseball. Throughout baseball history, there has been a lack of opportunities for women. Besides the two short-lived women’s leagues and the short-lived Silver Bullets, there have not been many places for women to play baseball past Little League. Girls even had to fight for the right to play Little League. After Little League, girls likely only have one option: softball.
Softball is considered “separate but equal” to baseball. As the history of “separate but equal” suggests, it is not equal. One game is not better than the other, but they are different games; different pitching styles, different balls, different distances between pitcher and batter, different bats, and the bases are closer together. Schools do not have to let girls play on boys’ baseball teams if the school offers softball.62 However, some schools do permit girls play on boys’ baseball teams often leaving one girl on a team full of boys. Many young women are intimidated out of boys’ baseball teams; after which, they switch to softball. On women’s baseball teams such as the Silver Bullets or the Women’s National Team, few of the women solely played baseball. Softball players whose true love is baseball fill the team.
Lack of baseball opportunities often cause women baseball players to feel pressured to join softball instead. When they get to play baseball again, they have to get used to playing a different style of ball all over again. All-women baseball teams have trouble winning games because of the difficulties of switching between the two sports. In order for women’s professional baseball to catch on, there needs to be constant opportunities for girls and young women to play baseball.
Women’s baseball history is buried under the idea that baseball is inherently masculine. The relationship between women and baseball has been the same throughout history. Today, people still view female baseball players as unique and mystical. It is almost a surprise when a girl is a star pitcher on her Little League team, or when a girl plays for a high school or college boys’ team. Women playing baseball should not be a surprise; women played baseball since the beginning and they continue to play it today. More women do not play baseball professionally because the opportunity is not there. If there were larger opportunities for women’s baseball, they would play. Female baseball fans await their opportunities to play; but for now, buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks.
“Bloomer Girls on the Diamond.” San Francisco Call. October 25, 1897.
Norworth, Jack. Take Me Out to the Ball Game. York Music Company. Published 1908.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681 – 1688. 1972.
Ardell, Jean Hastings. Breaking into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.
Gregorich, Barbara. Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993.
Kenow, Laura J. “The All-American Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL): A Review of Literature and Its Reflection of Gender Issues.” Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal 19.1 (2010): 58-69.
Ring, Jennifer. “Invisible Women in America’s National Pastime . . . or, ‘She’s Good. It’s History, Man.’.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues (2013): 57-77.
Shattuck, Debra. “Women’s Baseball in the 1860s: Reestablishing a Historical Memory.” NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 19.2 (2011): 1-26.
“Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Baseball Almanac. accessed April 24, 2015. http://www.baseball-almanac.com/poetry/po_stmo.shtml.
Vecsey, George. Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game. New York: Modern Library, 2006.