By: Leslie Heaphy
Women playing baseball is not new but our knowledge level is limited. But within the history of women’s baseball our knowledge of African American women and their participation in baseball is almost non-existent beyond a name such as Effa Manley. During the 2014 LLWS many became aware of Mone` Davis as she pitched her team to victory. Those who paid close attention got a chance to see her meet Mamie “Peanut” Johnson but how many fans knew Johnson’s story? Johnson’s baseball story is just the beginning in learning about black women and their involvement in baseball.
During the second half of the 19th century the Dolly Vardens played around the Philadelphia area. There were two such teams playing in the area but we do not know much about either of the ball clubs. News stories from the 19th century have always been limited in umber and coverage. Often the writers talk about the uniforms more than they did the players or the score. Often only first names were given or players were simply called miss. This makes it difficult for researchers to track down the players. We know the Dolly Vardens appear in the papers as early as 1867, listed as professionals. As professionals the Varden players got paid before the Cincinnati Red Stockings. When the New York Times covered the team in 1883 we are informed that Miss Ella Harris was the team captain. The opposing team missed the train and never showed up. The remainder of the article focuses mainly on their red jockey caps and different colored calico dresses they each wore. There was a team in Chester and one in Philadelphia. We learn the names of some of the other players with Sallie Johnstone and Molly Johnstone playing first and second base. Lizzie Waters is the third baseman and Ella Waters worked behind the plate. Two of the three outfielders were Agnes Hollingsworth and Rhoda Scholl. Unfortunately, that is about all we know. These young ladies got a chance to play baseball but given the way reporters covered women’s sports we are given few other details.
Our next solid lead comes in 1908 in Springfield, OH where Mrs. Sarah Brooker and C. L. Mayberry tried to start a league for colored baseball teams. Mrs. Brooker felt that playing would be good for the girls. No evidence has been found yet indicating this league ever came to fruition.
St. Louis hosted the Black Bronchos beginning in 1910 under the leadership of Conrad Kuebbler. His brother Henry played baseball while Conrad appears to have been an organizer. By May 1911 the Bronchos had a 6-5 record including a 14-7 win over a club from Independence, KS. The team played throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Louisiana. The Plain Dealer in 1911 carried an ad touting the team as the “only Female Negro Team on the road.” The same ad also called the girls “…a novelty attraction but also a strong team of well behaved girls.” The ad also let people know that the Bronchos had open dates on their schedule if anyone wanted to play them.
The Colored Havana Stars had a new attraction in 1917 with Pearl Barrett playing first base for the club. An article announcing the team’s season opening on May 27, listed Barrett as the only black female first baseman playing for a colored team in the country. Their owner, Dr. Joseph Plummer hoped to put together a solid team to barnstorm the country.
During the 1910s and 1920s we find evidence of colored girls teams playing for various YWCAs. This was not at all unusual as white female clubs were doing the same thing. In an attempt to provide good solid fun and help ladies find a place to belong baseball and other sports served this role. Most of our evidence is photos without any real identification.
Isabelle Baxter joined the Cleveland Giants of the Negro National League in 1933. She played second base and was expected to be there for the season. In the Giants first game which they won over the Canton Clowns, Baxter handled five chances at second base with only one bad throw to first. At the plate Baxter had one hit but also two long balls into the deep outfield.
Women’s baseball had their first and strongest league during World War II with the AAGPBL. No black women played in this league but seven young ladies from Cuba were invited to play starting in 1948. Mamie Johnson and a friend went to one of the tryouts but were sent away. For Johnson that led to her being signed to pitch in the Negro Leagues with the Indianapolis Clowns. Johnson joined the clowns in 1955 with outfielder Connie Morgan from Philadelphia. When Morgan and Johnson joined the Clowns they became the second and third women to play professionally in the Negro Leagues. The first woman was Marcenia (Toni) Stone. Stone first played for the Clowns in 1953 and then for the Monarchs in 1954. When she was traded to the Monarchs she was replaced by Johnson and Morgan.
Toni Stone played baseball all her life. She loved the game and wanted to learn as much as she could. Growing up she got a chance to go to a local camp to better her skills. Her mother was not happy with her playing as she did not think girls should play baseball with the boys but Stone continued to play. By 1938 Stone was playing for a Connorsville team and then she moved to play with teams in California and eventually the New Orleans Creoles. From the Creoles she got noticed and was able to join the Kansas City Monarchs. While playing in the NNL in 1953 and 1954 Stone proved she was not just a fan curiosity but could play the game. She was actually voted to play in the East-West Classic as an All Star after hitting .254. In recognition of her accomplishments a field was later dedicated in her honor in her hometown of Minneapolis and a play was written to celebrate her life.
Connie Morgan played baseball in the Philadelphia area but was better known as a basketball player. She played for a local team called the Northern Philadelphia Honeydrippers from 1949 through 1953. Mamie Johnson, better known as Peanut due to her short stature, pitched on local sandlot teams before being signed with the Clowns. She compiled a 3-1 record in her one season. Johnson turned the loss of a chance to play in the AAGPBL into an opportunity to be the first professional female pitcher in a men’s league. Johnson is the only one of the three ladies still alive and she got recognized by MLB in their recent idea of having each team draft a Negro League player. She was taken by the Washington Nationals since she lives in Washington, D. C.
After the decline of the Negro Leagues and the demise of the AAGPBL women’s baseball did not appear in any significant way until after the passage of Title IX in 1972. When the Colorado Bullets began play in the 1990s one of the players on the ball club was Tamara Holmes. Holmes played for the Bullets in 1996 and 1997 until they lost their support from Coors after the 1997 season. She resumed her baseball play with the USA National team and has been their mainstay at the plate and in the outfield since the mid- 2000s. Holmes did not join the first team in 2004, preferring to play on men’s teams where she thought the overall quality of play would be better. In 2006 she tried out and made the team, playing again in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Holmes was one of two African American players on the Silver Bullets and is one of two African Americans on the National team as well. Charlotte Wiley pitched briefly for the 1994 Bullets. A graduate from Richmond High School in 1987 Wiley also attended Cal State-Hayward while pitching for the Bullets. Malaika Underwood joined the team in 2006 and played every season through 2015. Between them Holmes and Underwood own most of the batting records for Team USA. Underwood also played volleyball for the University of North Carolina. Just as numbers of male African American ball players have declined there have also been few black female players as other sports compete with baseball today.
As one can see from reading this post the story of African American women playing baseball is a area that still needs lots of research. My next post will be about black female owners of baseball teams starting back in the 1910s with Olivia Taylor.
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.