Shattuck, Debra A. Bloomer Girls: Women Baseball Pioneers. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2017. Pp. xiii +307. Appendices, notes, bibliography and index. Clothback $25.95.
Reviewed by Leslie Heaphy
Debra Shattuck knocks it out of the park with her first book. Bloomer Girls: Women Baseball Pioneers fills a huge void in sports literature regarding women baseball players. Shattuck focuses on the decades between the antebellum period and the end of the nineteenth century to highlight what women were doing in baseball. She examines why baseball for women did not develop in America but instead became a game for men, even though it began as a gender-neutral sport. Shattuck is not just interested in a litany of teams, names and statistics, but instead focuses on the attitudes, events and issues that affected the growth of baseball. She asks how the growth of baseball as a man’s game effectively pushed women out of the sport by the early 20th century.
Shattuck begins from the premise that baseball did not start as a gendered game; yet, by the end of the 19th century, it had become a man’s game. The real question is why? How did that happen? And who let it happen? And most importantly, she wants to know, can it be undone? Shattuck argues it is an erroneous belief that baseball has always been a man’s game. Instead she sets out to prove there was a deliberate effort put in to creating that outcome. Using her extensive research, Shattuck points out that men and women were both involved in creating the reality. But one of the biggest reasons for the exclusion of women was the deliberate downplaying of female ball players and teams. Labeling them as an exception or an oddity allowed people to believe that women playing was not normal. What then became expected was a “man’s” game that women got to play but were never taken seriously.
Attitudes toward women and physical exertion were also used to reinforce the gendered view of baseball. Beauty and athleticism did not go together. Physical exertion was also believed to be detrimental to women’s health. The press was quick to remind women who played baseball that they were sacrificing their future for a game. At the same time, reporters also portrayed female players in a negative light, hoping to discourage women of virtue and means from playing the game. Add those kinds of stories to a focus on the unscrupulous male owners such as Sylvester Wilson, who exploited their female players by promising them paychecks and not paying them, and what family would want their daughters to play baseball?
Shattuck also shows how the argument of American exceptionalism was used to push back against women playing baseball. Baseball as a masculine sport played an important function in society and women’s participation was seen as seriously damaging to American identity. Francis Richter is quoted in 1890 as saying, “Woman is nowhere on earth more out of place than on a baseball diamond” (p. 147).
Shattuck also points out the many challenges she faced in conducting her research. She begins by pointing out the lack of sources as women ball players did not leave much in the way of documentation. Newspapers became the primary record in helping to create an overall picture. Unfortunately, little information was provided on individual players beyond a few novelties such as Lizzie Arlington and Maude Nelson. News stories tended to focus more on fan reactions, owners and the novelty of seeing women play. Many women also used fake or stage names, and still others got married and became lost to history. Shattuck addresses the question of softball by pointing out the game began in 1882 as a man’s game and did not become the baseball substitute for women until the 1920s. As a result, softball is largely outside the scope of her book.
Two other strengths of Shattuck’s book include the sources and appendices. She relies heavily on a wide range of primary sources. These are laid out in her notes and bibliography for other researchers. While most are newspaper sources, there are also books and journals of the period used extensively. Many of these sources focus more on attitudes towards physical education and masculinity. In her appendices Shattuck provides extensive and detailed lists of teams by year and state. She divides the information by decade to make it easier for readers to find specific information they may be looking for. The appendices prove female players were not a novelty. Along with these strengths there is one minor weakness in the short and abrupt conclusion. With so much discussion of method, philosophy and context with major questions being explored, her conclusion barely revisits any of these ideas and does not address the question of whether any of these actions can be undone. Nevertheless, Shattuck’s book is definitely a must read for all baseball researchers, serious fans, those interested in the history of the game and gender historians.
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.