Running the Bases: Baseball Girls

Gertrude "Tilby" Eisen

Running the Bases: Baseball Girls

Baseball was invented in 1846, and has become an American institution, so deeply embedded in and synonymous with our culture that few can think of life in the United States without picturing a baseball game. Though the game was played professionally by men, children would congregate in backyards, fields and sandlots to play as well. Many girls were fascinated by the sport and would often join in--Babe Didrikson’s brothers often encouraged her to play, calling her one of their best teammates.

Still, few people took the idea of girls in sports seriously, and while there were plenty of professional men’s teams, the only women’s teams that were existence played as sideshow attractions, not legitimate leagues. The Dolly Vardens, the first African American female baseball team formed in 1875 were one of these teams. Many women’s colleges such as Vasser and Smith had their own all-girl baseball teams, but in the case of Smith, the girls’ mothers complained that playing baseball was unladylike so the team was shut down.

By the 1930s, girls sports teams were given a little more legitimacy with companies sponsoring teams like House of David (Babe Didrikson’s team), but the companies really only promoted the girls’ teams to gain attention for themselves (imagine a big name company like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s sponsoring a weird sport like human fusball—that sort of thing.) Female players were presented not to admire their skill, but to enjoy as a way to entertain people. Even so, many people were impressed by the women’s talents; in 1931, female baseball pitcher Jackie Mitchell attended an exhibition game and struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

When the United States entered the Second World War in 1941, many professional male baseball players were drafted to fight, sending baseball fans into a panic; with so many players gone, the fans feared that the league would be shut down, and it could be years before they could enjoy America’s favorite pastime again. Seeing the potential, Phil Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate and major league baseball executive, proposed that women’s baseball teams take over playing the games. There was some skepticism and even some resistance at first, but in 1944, the All American Girl’s Professional Baseball League (or the A.A.G.P.B.L. for short) was formed. In the beginning there only four teams, but the league lasted for eleven years and swelled to a total of ten professional women’s baseball teams with more than 600 women playing in the big leagues. Once the public realized that these “girls” played as well as the “men,” (Sophie Kurys of the Racine Belles stole 201 bases in her career, a record that is still unbroken by any baseball player, female or male) the games drew in more than one million fans by 1948.

The games might have been popular, but that didn’t stop the sexism. The women’s teams operated under names like the Milwaukee Chicks, Racine Belles, Muskegon Lassies and Rockford Peaches, and (male) team managers were obsessed with their players’ appearances. The last thing they wanted was for the female players to appear as anything but feminine, so the players were given makeovers, sent to charm school (after two seasons the league’s owners realized that it was a waste of time so they ended the charm school requirement), forbidden from wearing pants in public and were forced to wear makeup and short skirts while playing. Wearing skirts meant there was no protecting for their legs, and many women were badly scratched and cut diving for balls or sliding to base.

Due to the end of the war and disagreements over things such as how the women should pitch (many adopted the overhand technique, and those that insisted on throwing underhand eventually quit) and the difficulty of women finding jobs to support themselves and their families in the off-season post-war, league disbanded in 1954. In 1992, interest in women’s baseball was renewed with the movie, A League of Their Own, based on the lives of actual players. Though women’s softball tends to dominate the minds of those who think of women in sports, women’s baseball continues to exist. In 1994 the Women's National Adult Baseball Association (WNABA) was formed, and in 1997 the Ladies League Baseball was formed but shut down in 1998 due to “lack of interest.” In 2001 the first Women’s World Series was played in Toronto, Ontario, with the American team taking home the win. In 2015, women’s baseball was added to the Pan American Games.

Baseball Girls work cited:

Cool Women, by Dawn Chipman et al

“Women in Baseball,” baseballhalloffame.org

American Women’s Baseball League womenplayingbaseball.com

Ladies League Baseball ladiesleaguebaseball.com

“Women in Baseball,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_baseball

All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Players Association http://www.aagpbl.org/

“The History of Women’s Baseball,” http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/world-war-ii/essays/history-women%E2%80%99s-baseball

“Women’s Baseball During WW2,” http://www.lib.niu.edu/1995/ihy950452.html

Betty Jochum

Bronze sculpture at the Baseball Hall of Fame

Doris Jones of the Blue Sox

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