As thoughts of Major League Baseball’s opening day come creeping in along with spring fever, I recall that baseball was the very first sport I wanted to play as a child. I have fond memories of tossing the ball with my dad 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 made the pronouncement, “I want to be a baseball player,” my well-meaning parents told me that “girls don’t play baseball,” but I could play softball. They signed me up with a local recreation program, and I was just fine with that.
It wasn’t until many years later 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 weren’t even allowed to play Little League Baseball until 1976.
It only seems fitting that during women’s history month, we take a moment to recognize those women baseball pioneers long overlooked by history. Those of us who have seen “A League of Their Own” know about the AAGPBL (All American Girls’ Professional Baseball League) and likely recall Madonna, Geena Davis and others bringing this history to life. As the Hollywood movie reveals, these female ballplayers kept Major League Baseball alive while the men went off to fight in WWII. They were athletes — and damn good ballplayers. They played in skirts and endured “charm school” for the love of the game.
What many people don’t know is that women were playing baseball at least 80 years before the AAGPBL was formed. Many women’s colleges were early pioneers for women in sports and started varsity baseball teams. Vassar College was the first in 1866, with their baseball team, the Resolutes. They played wearing long skirts, and undergarments that could weigh as much as 30 pounds. College teams often played outside of the public eye, thus avoiding public scrutiny for breaking gender norms.
Women loved baseball as much as men, and many played outside the protected realms of women’s colleges, before the backlash of public disapproval struck. Some women made a living playing on baseball barnstorming teams, traveling the country and playing ball against men’s teams. One of the best, the Boston Bloomer Girls played local, semi-pro, and minor league teams. During one stint in 1905, they won 28 games, against men, in 26 days.
Then there is Jackie Mitchell, one of the first women to receive a minor league contract. Her debut was in a 1931 exhibition game against the New York Yankees. The first batter she faced was Babe Ruth; she struck him out! The second batter, was Lou Gehrig; she struck him out! The third batter, was Tony Lazzeri — she walked him. The manager then pulled her from the game. After much press coverage, a few days later, the baseball commissioner voided her contract stating “professional baseball was too strenuous a game to be played by women.” Sadly, she never pitched in the minor leagues again.
Women’s baseball history, like much of women’s history tends to disappear the further back in time one journeys. Baseball history about women of color, is even more scant, but there are some gems to be found. There is evidence of at least two teams of Black women called the Dolly Vardens, who played in Philadelphia in 1883. Occasionally, they even made the local paper.
In the 1950s, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson wanted to play with the AAGBPL, but was barred from trying out because she was Black. She was deemed good enough to play with men, however, when she was one of three women recruited to play for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues. She played with some of the all-time male baseball greats from 1953-55 and lived much of her life right down the road, in Washington, D.C. (She died in December 2017 at the age of 82.) How did she fare playing with and against the men? Like Jackie Mitchell, she pitched; unlike Jackie, the powers that be let her keep playing. She had a pitching record of 33-8. Who wouldn’t have wanted a pitcher of that caliper?
There is still much progress to be made, however, and as we approach Opening Day, let us remember it is Women’s History month and give a nod and a tip of the ball cap to the many women ballplayers who paved the way for those women involved in baseball today.
Melissa Falen (email@example.com) is an associate professor at Notre Dame of Maryland University, where she teaches a course on American Women in Sports History.