When the thought of Major League Baseball opening day creeps in with spring fever, I remember that baseball was the very first sport I wanted to play as a child. I have fond memories of throwing the ball with my father in the backyard of our home in Menlo Park, California. The San Francisco Giants were my “first team,” and Willie Mays, my first favorite player. When I said, “I want to be a baseball player,” my well-meaning parents told me that “girls do not play baseball,” but I could play softball. They signed me up with a local recreation program, and I was fine.
It was not until many years later that I learned that women had been playing baseball since at least the 1860s, not long after the first recorded men’s baseball game took place in 1846. Who knew? It was the early 1960s; girls were not even allowed to play Little League Baseball until 1976.
It just seems appropriate that during the month of women’s history, we take a moment to recognize the female baseball pioneers who have long been overlooked by history. Those of us who have seen “A League of Their Own” know about AAGPBL (All American Girls’ Professional Baseball League) and probably remember Madonna, Geena Davis and others who brought this story to life. As the Hollywood movie reveals, these female ball players kept Major League Baseball alive while the men went to fight in World War II. They were athletes – and damn good ball players. They played in skirts and held out “charm school” for the love of the game.
What many do not know is that women played baseball at least 80 years before the AAGPBL was formed. Many colleges for women were early pioneers for women in sports and started baseball teams on varsity. Vassar College was the first in 1866, with their baseball team, Resolutes. They played wearing long skirts and underwear that could weigh as much as 30 pounds. College teams often played outside the public eye, thus avoiding public scrutiny to violate gender norms.
Women loved baseball as much as men, and many played outside the protected areas of women’s schools, before the setback of public disapproval hit. Some women earned their living on baseball-child-storming teams, traveled the country and played ball against men’s teams. One of the best, the Boston Bloomer Girls, played local, semi-pro and minor league teams. During a period in 1905, they won 28 matches against men in 26 days.
Then there is Jackie Mitchell, one of the first women to get a minor league contract. Her debut was in a 1931 showdown against the New York Yankees.
The first batter she met was Babe Ruth; she knocked him out!
The other batter was Lou Gehrig; she knocked him out!
The third batter was Tony Lazzeri – she walked him.
The leader then pulled her from the game. After much press coverage, the baseball commissioner canceled the contract a few days later that “professional baseball was too strenuous a game that could be played by women.” Unfortunately, she never played again in smaller leagues.
Women’s baseball history, like much of women’s history, tends to disappear the further back in time one travels. Baseball history of women of color is even narrower, but there are some gems to be found. There is evidence of at least two teams of black women named Dolly Vardens, who played in Philadelphia in 1883. Sometimes they even made the local newspaper.
In the 1950s, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson wanted to play with AAGBPL, but was not allowed to try because she was black. She was considered good enough to play with men, but when she was one of three women recruited to play for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro League. She played with some of all the male baseball greats from 1953-55 and lived much of her life down the road, in Washington, DC (She died in December 2017 82.) men? Like Jackie Mitchell, she struck; Unlike Jackie, her powers allow her to continue playing. She had a pitching record of 33-8. Who would not want a jug of that caliber?
There is still a lot of progress to be made, and as we approach the opening day, let’s remember that it’s women’s history month and give a nod and a tip to the ball cap of the many female ball players who paved the way for the women involved in baseball today. .
Melissa Falen is an associate professor at Notre Dame at Maryland University, where she teaches a course on American women in sports history. She wrote this column for the Baltimore Sun. Her email address us firstname.lastname@example.org.