“The players conducted themselves like regular ballplayers – as much so as females can."
- Daily State Journal, Springfield, Illinois, 1875
Open to the indices of most baseball books and you’ll see the names of many men. So many men. Billy, Wally, Rollie, Reggie, Sandy, Sparky, Juan, Mo, Rocky, Bucky, Mickey, Greasy, Yogi, Jimmy, PeeWee, Tony, Tom, Tim, Ted, Norm, Nate, Goose, Pete, Sam, Dick, Frank, Hank, Moises, Pedro, Angel, Jesus. Baseball is full of the names of men. Even Christy and Nellie are men.
The stories of my baseball heroes reside in the pages of these books, though it often seems as if there's no one out there remotely like me. Sometimes I wish to see the names of girls, and I long to hear a woman’s voice.
George Will references more than six hundred professional ballplayers in Men at Work. Tim McCarver lists well over five hundred in Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans. Inside their books you will find very few women: Marge Schott and Margaret Thatcher, to name a couple.
When I happily rediscovered baseball several years ago after a prolonged absence from the game, one book in particular helped turn me around. Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, by Barbara Gregorich, remains one of my favorite baseball narratives.
Maud, Alta, Dorothy, Sophie, Margaret, Mildred, Lizzie, Sophie, Julie. New York Bloomer Girls, Western Bloomer Girls, All Star Ranger Girls, Philadelphia Bobbies, and Rockford Peaches. The national pastime is best experienced as live action on the field, maybe on occasion as cinema, yet many of the game’s lasting truths reside on bookshelves and in the printed word. Women deserve a presence there.
Gregorich’s handsomely illustrated study of women in baseball has been out of print, regrettably, for more than a decade. However, the author recently published the first volume of her Research Notes, a fascinating collection of raw materials drawn from some 8,000 pages of documents. The result may not be a seamless narrative, but it is a compelling chronology of primary sources that satirize and celebrate young women’s achievements on the field (and their occasional antics off the field).
Not only do these pages document female performance in professional baseball during important decades in the game’s history (1875-1922); they also bring to life some curious linguistic shifts in the evolution of sports journalism. While progressing from one primary source to the next, the reader may come to realize that words hold tremendous power in judging a woman’s performance at any given moment.
However objective they may claim to be, newspaper accounts have the authority to do both harm and good, to manipulate truth in subtle ways that either advance the cause of able players or hold them back, sometimes irrevocably so. Within many descriptions of a woman’s “ability” are implicit judgments. A reporter’s eye critiques even as he describes the action of sport in the simplest of game summaries. It’s clearly evident that the intention of baseball writing at the turn of the century was not always to render an objective account. Words once had - and still have - immense power, either to make a comedy of women’s efforts or to applaud their endeavors, thus shaping the future decisively and determining what is ultimately read as history and as truth.
When I came upon Gregorich’s Research Notes, the unexpected pleasure of accessing raw material was reminiscent of another reading experience I had enjoyed long ago. I’ll never forget opening the pages of The Waste Land, facsimile edition, complete with T. S. Eliot’s early typewritten drafts and Ezra Pound’s assertive revisions. Viewing the rough copy, annotations, and raw materials that evolve into a literary masterpiece is an immense privilege and a joy. Admittedly, it may be a stretch to compare a baseball book with an epic poem crafted by a Nobel laureate, but the learning experiences are not altogether different. In one case, we open to the drafts, scribbles, and edits from which poetry was rigorously yet magically shaped; in another, we glimpse the raw material out of which an entire culture of sport and a whole new literary genre came to be. On both counts, we have an opportunity to delve into valuable primary material, without which the thing itself – a masterful epic poem or an entire culture of baseball – would not exist as we now know it.
It’s no accident that Gregorich’s first entry documents a game in which a team called the Blondes competes against their rival Brunettes. While some might take offense at the female stereotype, journalism’s superficial emphasis upon appearance and cosmetics remains a fact of history, for better or worse:
"The first game of baseball ever played in public for gate money between feminine ball-tossers took place in Springfield, Ill., Sept. 11. The party who composed this 'latest sensation' in the baseball arena include a selected troupe of girls of reputable character who have shown some degree of aptitude in ball-playing . . . . The troupe contains some pretty fair players, but as a general thing the attraction is the novelty of seeing eighteen girls prettily attired in gymnastic dress playing in a game of baseball."
Final score: 42-38. (W: Blondes.) Errors committed: Blondes, 35. Brunettes, 20.
Eva, Emma, Estella, Eliza, Mary, Jane, Josie, Maud, Catherine, Nettie, Lydia, Louisa, Ella, Charlotte, Amy, Anne. However ludicrous their stats, how refreshing (I thought) to come upon a box score naming many women, all of whom had made contact in some form with a hardball.
Part of the appeal of Gregorich’s Research Notes lies in the sheer charm and authenticity of late nineteenth-century prose: “At Pastime Park to-day 16 young girls, aided by two lads, played base-ball” (New York Times, August 19, 1883). As if not knowing quite what to say about women on the field, sportswriters often focused (condescendingly perhaps) on fashion and appearance: “All had untanned belts around their little waists.”
“One side was composed of brunettes, whose costumes were of an irritating red; the other was of blondes who wore sympathetic blue.” “The hair was . . . tied up in ribbon of a color that pleased the wearer’s fancy.” It’s hard to believe that writing such as this once appeared in the sports section of a newspaper called The New York Times.
Game summaries tended toward anatomical and technical analysis instead of play by play: “All the girls handled the ball in the same way. The right arm was doubled and the hand brought near to the face, then a sudden jerk threw it 80 feet or so . . . They played base-ball in a very sad and sorrowful sort of way, as if the vagaries of the ball had been too great for their struggling intellects . . . Each one just raised her hand to the level of her ear and then sent it forward with a push from the elbow. The ball didn’t seem to mind it much” (Times, 1883). However primitive or inept a young woman’s motions on the field, baseball nonetheless was coming to life in words.
“Science” is the talent or mental skill often attributed to women in early accounts of their performance: “clever ladies put up an interesting and scientific game, full of fun and funny features.” At the turn of the century in Louisville, Kentucky, the female Bloomers were “outclassed” by a team of men: “Feminine science and pluck battled masculine brawn and muscle . . . and to the credit of the former it must be said that, while it lost, it was not disgraced” (Cincinnati Enquirer, July 2, 1900).
The early language of sport sounds utterly different from what we now know: “To-day the Jackson baseball team defeated the Bloomer Girls, a traveling female aggregation of alleged ball players, in a game of languid interest by a score of 13 to 2.” Imagine Al Leiter, for example, mentioning “a game of languid interest” on MLB Network.
Kate Becker, a “Woman Pitcher,” caught the attention of a Pennsylvania journalist in 1913: “. . . she really was a daughter of Eve [who] . . . pitched Walter Johnson ball.” The writer’s syntax shifts confusedly from pitcher to crowd to biblical allusion in this curious commentary on women at play: “A goodly portion of the onlookers failed to grasp the fact that the nimble Amazon was sending over a drop which broke as sinuously as the strike of a serpent, in the wrapt [sic] contemplation of her cap, which was somewhat awry, seeing that the batter stood three balls and two strikes, and of her barrette, which was of last year’s design.”
As the years pass, journalistic accounts of female play assume greater seriousness, with fashion statements, comedy, and satire giving way to legitimate game descriptions and more vigorous, fluid prose:
“Stella Friss . . . will show Staten Island fans how far women have really advanced in the realm of sport for she can knock the apple a mile and plays the initial bag a la Hal Chase when that once superlative player was in his prime. Toots Andres at short is probably a more finished infielder than Stella, and her delight is to grab a hot liner without the quiver of an eyelash, even using her ungloved hand if the occasion demands. Her ability to scoop ‘em up and get her man [sic] at first will delight the fans.” (Staten Island Advance, April 30, 1921)
Pieces written in the 1920s seem to convey a livelier and more advanced style of play by play, together with a tone of unapologetic enthusiasm voiced on behalf of female players who perform well: “The first batter up hit a hot grounder to short which Miss Johnson grabbed and threw the batter out several feet from the bag. The next batter met one of Miss Taylor’s outshoots on the nose and it started for centerfield. It only started – Miss Taylor took it right off the bat. She was given a rousing cheer. The third batter was thrown out at first by Miss Johnson in the same snappy manner that she had tossed out the first batter.”
One triumphant headline from August 1922 stands out among all the rest: “Broomall Damsells Spank Boy Friends, Winning Out in Last Inning.” Many more such gems can be found within the pages of Gregorich’s Research Notes by baseball lovers looking to fill the quiet of the off season, or any season for that matter.
The author’s first volume of primary materials ends with a bittersweet editorial remark that rings prophetic: “By 1933 most Bloomer teams had disbanded: people simply couldn’t afford to attend games during the difficult years of the Great Depression.” In Women at Play, the author regrets an equally significant time of inactivity in girls’ baseball from 1954 to 1974 - a period that happens to coincide, unfortunately, with my own early childhood and youth.
Talented, able, eminently likeable, hard-working young women who are passionate about baseball in a new millenium - Julie Croteau, Eri Yoshida and Chelsea Baker, for example - face formidable odds, mind-boggling numbers, and a highly complex industry while seeking to realize their own baseball dreams.
One might wonder what this century's most gifted female ballplayers stand to experience should they earn a legitimate place among men in a popular culture that commercializes, sexualizes, and idolizes so many of its sports heroes. What is to happen should girls become property in the same ways in which their male counterparts are signed, owned, groomed, and controlled by organizations that benefit handsomely from their awe-inspiring talents? What are the implications of women becoming the focus of exhaustive analysis and close physical or technical scrutiny so essential to player evaluation, scouting reports, professional success, and network coverage in our own time? At critical points in every player’s career, baseball is a business in which anatomy matters; physical form, health, and performance are examined, evaluated, and vividly described; futures are predicted, salaries calculated, and values assigned accordingly, even as matters of character and private lives become fair game in an ongoing public conversation.
The dream come true of a professional baseball career is in reality a grueling journey in which the odds stack up against every individual, male and female. Various circumstances conspire to derail athletes at every turn, including those ostensibly destined for greatness at an early age. Many top prospects fail to achieve the dream as they may have imagined it.
The record books swell with noble accomplishments and lesser performances, as every new season brings new encyclopedias and new rosters of men, new stats, new ways of measuring ability and success (including DIPS, the sabermetrical theory that challenges traditional notions of a pitcher's control over the field of play, a measurement that may prove favorable to young women who throw strikes and knuckleballs as brilliantly as Baker and Yoshida).
Here on my desk are two fine books that speak to our present situation: Baseball Prospectus (2010 edition) and Women at Play. The first is a thick encyclopedia, one of many annuals in the long history of baseball, dense with statistics, fine print, lucid commentary, high I.Q. projections, and hundreds of young men's names spread over 652 pages. The other is a slim volume of 200 pages, amply illustrated and eloquently celebrating a modest number of individuals and more than a century of women’s contributions. The two books form a disparate and telling pair.
Baseball resides on the field and in its literature. Its many, many stories make a strong case for men. Through words the game comes to life over and over again. How is a girl’s profound love of the game to play out over a lifetime on her own fields of dreams - the girl who loves the moment of contact, the fragrance of turf, the firm touch and earthy smell of a hardball - if not for books that give voice to what women feel and do?
Let's hope that baseball fans everywhere will continually embrace stories that celebrate women’s achievements and a girl’s deep and abiding love of the game. Like Women at Play, Martha Ackmann’s recent biography of Toni Stone, for example, and Michelle Y. Green's lovely tribute to Mamie “Peanut” Johnson are there for the taking.
The world is full of stacks and stacks and stacks of books about countless men who have played baseball - more than my shelves can accommodate, more than I’ll ever read in my lifetime - and a relative handful of books by or about women. Every so often you hear a woman’s voice that celebrates what a girl feels. When she speaks, maybe it’s worth listening.
The Story of Women in Baseball
Baseball Prospectus (2011)