By Cathy Pickles, NWHM staff member
It’s finally spring! Passover and Easter are over and Americans can now begin to celebrate the season in more worldly ways. For many, this means baseball. Spring training and exhibition games are now in full swing and fans nationwide are poised to spend hours, hot dogs in hand, cheering their team at thousands of diamonds across the country. From Little League to the majors, baseball is a beloved institution. But most Americans know little about the history of women in baseball.
I became interested in this while preparing our April women’s history facts for Facebook. I came across this tidbit: In 1931, 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell, a minor leaguer, pitched in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. She struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The next day, the baseball commissioner voided her contract, saying baseball was too strenuous for women. This story is a perfect metaphor for the struggles women have gone through in their fight for equality. What I love most, however, is the photo I found of Jackie. She is clearly just a kid, but her stance, steely gaze and tight-lipped expression are those of a mature, professional player.
Yet Jackie Mitchell is just one of hundreds of female baseball players. The first team at any level to be paid to play baseball was the Dolly Vardens in 1867. They were African American women who began playing a full two years before the first male professional team and did so in corsets, long skirts, long sleeves and high button shoes. After Amelia Bloomer designed her famous Turkish-style pants, women donned them and took to the ball park as “Bloomer Girls” who traveled the country competing against male teams. They earned their living playing solid ball from the 1890s until the early 1930s. Yet, public opinion reflected an entrenched belief that baseball was far too dangerous and strenuous for the “delicate” female constitution.
Inroads were made when female softball leagues were formed. The All-American Girls Softball League was formed in 1943. It eventually became the 600-player-strong All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBL) which played for twelve seasons. These teams were immortalized in the 1992 film, A League of Their Own, and they finally dispelled the belief that women were too weak to play baseball.
After the AAGBL dissolved in 1954, few women were able to break the gender barrier of America’s Pastime. Toni Stone, Connie Morgan and Mamie “Peanuts” Johnson played alongside men in the Negro Leagues, but significant female representation in the sport has never materialized. In 1998, minor league pitcher Ila Borders became the first woman to win a professional game, but still could not break into the majors and retired two years later.
This is yet another “forgotten” chapter in women’s history which deserves to be more widely-known. If you find yourself in a ballpark this season, don’t forget the girls of summer.