By Leslie Heaphy
Baseball is still America’s national pastime. You may not agree with me but there is much evidence to support this belief. Just look at the number of new books that came out in 2015 alone. Every day articles are written about the past, present and future of the game. Numerous sites exist to dissect each and every move made by Major League and even minor league teams. Football fills stadiums for 16 regular games a year while baseball attracts audiences for 162. Researchers and fans alike, we all devour each new story, no matter the format the information comes in. During the off-season many of us begin a countdown until pitchers and catchers report again and baseball starts all over. The love of this game is not limited to any one group, by age, gender, class or race. Yet the game has always had its limits.
Before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 African Americans were forced to play in their own leagues. When Robinson made his debut a door was opened and the color line began to break down. Many who never had a chance at the Major Leagues now had a shot. International players on ML rosters have grown in number in recent years, thanks to pioneers such as Minnie Minoso and Masanori Murakami. The one area where baseball still remains shut in the United States is for women at the ML level. At every other level and around the world women have made and continue to make their mark in baseball, whether it is in the front office, on the field or behind the plate. Women have always been a part of the game, just not a recognized part but that is gradually changing so baseball can earn its moniker of the national pastime.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame may only have one woman elected to its ranks, Newark Eagles owner Effa Manley, but the ladies of the All American League have their own wing. That exhibit now includes much more than just the names and accomplishments from the 1940s. Chelsea Baker’s jersey is on display from her perfect games. Justine Siegal’s jersey from pitching ML batting practice is there and so much more. When Mone Davis pitched in the 2014 Little League World Series she was seen as a novelty rather than just as a ball player trying to help her team win. Today we know she was not the only young lady out on the diamond.
Women have always played baseball but are just beginning to truly be recognized as part of the game and its history. Baseball in the United States has always been considered a man’s game with the traditional story being little boys learning the game from their father. Few people have ever acknowledged that fathers teach their daughters or even more challenging that mothers might teach their sons. When we trace back the origins of the game we know young ladies played rounders in England. We know they played as children until society forced boys and girls to play separately. When the Civil War helped spread baseball young ladies found their place on the diamond with the Vassar Resolutes in 1876. The Resolutes found competition on campus and then against other women’s colleges such as Smith and St. Mary’s.
After the game started to grow on the college campus newspapers began reporting on the reds and the blues, local ladies teams. These young ladies played all over during the 1880s and 1890s, often to great ridicule and scorn. These teams opened the way for African American young ladies to play for the Dolly Vardens in Philadelphia or the St. Louis Black Bronchos.
Bloomer teams began to replace the Reds and Blues before the turn of the last century with Margaret Nabel’s New York Bloomer Girls being one of the most famous. Nabel booked her team all over the country, finding competition as far away as Las Vegas and San Francisco. Many of these bloomer teams often had two men on their roster, the pitcher and the catcher. Society at the time did not believe women were able to handle these key positions. By the 1920s bloomer teams were quite common with the Philadelphia Bobbies even being invited to play in Japan. Women’s baseball flourished during the Golden Age of sports. Unfortunately the Great Depression set women’s progress back in all areas of life.
While the 1930s saw a decline in women playing baseball opportunities had also developed for women in other parts of the game. Mrs. Frankie Dixon managed a black baseball team in Paducah, Kentucky as early as 1905. Local papers carried her call for opponents, making her one of the earliest female managers/owners of a professional team.[i] She was the first of a number of African American women involved in management. For example, Olivia Taylor, Clara Jones, Henryene Green, Hilda Bolden Shorter and Minnie Forbes, to name a few, all led their respective teams. Mrs. Helene Britton guided the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1910s with some success. Mrs. Joan Payson became the majority owner of the New York Mets expansion club in 1962, becoming one of the few female owners to buy her team and not simply inherit the club from a male relative.
Lady ball players and owners have had a tough time convincing baseball to accept them but umpires have had it even worse. How could a girl possibly understand the rules of the game and who would listen to her if she did? Amanda Clement proved the critics wrong in the early 1900s when she began umpiring for her brother’s team. Her reputation quickly spread and she made a nice living for a number of years before going back to college. Clement’s success did not open the doors wide for other ladies to follow, especially at the professional level. Pam Postema enjoyed some success in the 1970s and 1980s, rising to the AAA level where she languished for six years, never receiving a call up. Ria Cortesio spent nine years in the minors before she was let go in 2007. Cortesio worked the Futures game and the Homerun Derby in 2006 but that did not break the barrier.[ii]
Another barrier was presented in the 1930s with the creation of Little League baseball. A number of young girls tried to play on their local teams but all of them were let go when society pushed back. Parental complaints about their sons playing girls led Little League authorities to come up with a solution, let them play softball. These teams still steer girls away from baseball with the lure of championships, Olympic play and college scholarships. This barrier made Mone Davis the novelty people celebrated in 2014. Forgotten in the discussion were the contributions of so many who tried to challenge the gender line in baseball. Kathryn Johnson got the ball rolling when she tried out for her local team in Corning, NY in 1950. In 1973 Sylvia Pressler ruled that New Jersey Little League could not keep Maria Pepe and other girls from playing. This ruling was upheld and in 1974 LL Softball came into being. Pressler said in her ruling, “The institution of Little League is as American as the hotdog and apple pie. There is no reason why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.”[iii] Despite Little League’s best efforts many young ladies have continued to play baseball with at least eighteen taking part in the LL World Series.
None of these young ladies would have been able to make their mark on the game of baseball if the doors had not been pried up during World War II. The creation of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) in 1943 showed America what was possible. Just as women were entering the work force in larger numbers Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley decided a women’s league would keep baseball going during the war. The AAGPBL lasted from 1943 through 1954 before television made small town baseball less appealing when fans could now watch ML players in their own living rooms. Hundreds of young ladies from the United States, Canada and Cuba got the chance to don a uniform and play baseball for Rockford, South Bend, Grand Rapids and other Midwestern cities. Jean Faut, Connie Wisniewski, Dottie Kamenshek and Sophie Kurys helped write the record books for women’s baseball but they were only the tip of the iceberg. These young ladies helped pave the way for others much as Jackie Robinson did in 1947. World War II proved important in breaking down a number of societal barriers but for women and baseball it did not last.
With the emphasis on a return to normalcy during the Cold War women were encouraged to stay home and take care of their families. Playing baseball certainly did not fit this returning attitude. Women did not seriously return to the game until the 1970s following the second wabe of feminism in the 1960s. Not only did Little League change its rules but Billie Jean King helped found the Women’s Sports Foundation and Title IX was passed opening new doors for women in all sports, not just baseball.
A few fledgling attempts to get women’s baseball up and running came in the 1980s and 1990s. Bob Hope organized the Sun Sox in 1984 and tried to gain entry into the Class A Florida State League but the league refused the franchise. Bob Hope returned to the women’s game in 1994 with the founding of the Colorado Silver Bullets, a team that played for four seasons. Coors Brewing supported the team but pulled its support after the 1997 season, claiming too high losses. The most successful effort during these years was the Pawtuckette Slaterettes founded in 1973. The Slaterettes have provided opportunities for 100s of lady baseball players’ right up to the present day. Many of those players have gone on to play for other teams over the years, all making a mark on the game.
The opportunities these clubs provided made it possible for a few young ladies to break into the college ranks over the years. Ila Borders (Whittier College) and Julie Croteau (St. Mary’s) played in the 1980s and then in the 2010s Ghazalah Sailors (Oz) and Marti Sementelli got the chance as well. Sailors was even named the captain of her team at Presque Isle. Their efforts have made it possible for young ladies such as Kendra Levesque and Emma March to think that one day they could play professionally.
Since 2004 the opportunities have expanded greatly. The first-ever Women’s Baseball World Cup took place in 2004 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. These tournaments have continued and many more have developed in the United States and around the world. Today young ladies are making their mark on baseball and it is being acknowledged rather than forgotten or worse yet, erased from history as if they never played. Just within the last year Justine Siegal was hired by the Oakland As to coach in the Arizona fall instructional league. Sixteen year-old French shortstop Melissa Mayeux was added to MLB’s international eligibility list. Sarah Hudek got a scholarship to pitch at a college in Louisiana. Amanda Hopkins was hired as a scout by the Seattle Mariners and Jessica Mendoza called Sunday night baseball games for ESPN. Oz Sailors became the first female pitcher for the San Rafael Pacifics, an independent Minor League squad. With each new mark made by women in baseball the game gets closer to earning its moniker America’s National Pastime.
Dr. Leslie Heaphy is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Kent State University. An admitted New York Mets fan, Dr. Heaphy has published several works on women in baseball and on the Negro leagues. She has also been the editor of the journal Black Ball since 2008 and is highly active in the Society for American Baseball Research.
[i] “Reserved and Colored Boys,” Quincy Daily Journal (IL), November 22, 1905.
[ii] Associated Press, “Baseball’s Only Female Umpire Fired,” Houston Chronicle, November 1, 2007.