Mention women’s baseball and what most of us think of is the movie A League of Their Own. Geena Davis behind the plate and Madonna is center field. The movie was based on a real women’s professional baseball league. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed in 1943, at a time when men’s teams were losing players to the war effort.
The AAGPBL was the only professional women’s baseball league of any significance. It lasted until 1954. But women’s baseball goes back to at least the mid-19th century. Vassar College fielded the first women’s collegiate baseball team in 1866. Beginning in the late 1800’s and continuing until the 1930’s there was a professional baseball option for women in the form of barnstorming teams. Traveling from city to city, sometimes lugging their own grandstands with them, these barnstorming baseball women took on mostly men’s teams, minor leaguers, semi-professionals and local club outfits.
These players would become known as Bloomer Girls. The name came from the style of uniform, featuring loose blousy pants. Bloomers were a regular part of the women’s suffrage movement of the 19th century. They drew their name from Amelia Jenks Bloom, a women’s rights advocate who campaigned for less restrictive clothing for women.
We can get an idea of what some of the Bloomer Girls games were like as they were regularly covered by the local newspapers where they played. It doesn’t appear as those the Bloomer Girls won most of these games, although they generally impressed. At least that’s how the no-doubt all male reporters presented it, usually in the most patronizing of ways.
Aug. 24, 1910
Western Bloomer Girls 4, Balliets 4
The Western Bloomer Girls actually came from the middle of the country, Watervliet, Mich., a rural farming community which in 1910 had a population of just over 700. How a town that size might field a barnstorming troop of professional women baseballers is a question I could find no answer for. But it seems as though far more than that showed up to watch the Bloomers in Allentown.
The next morning the Allentown Morning Call reported: “The desire to see how girls play baseball proved a strong enough magnet to draw several thousand people to Fourteenth and Liberty streets. The Bloomer Girls brought their own canvas, which was erected around the ball field, but it had no roof and this proved to be the salvation of an army of small boys and of a big crowd of grown-ups, who either did not have the price or did not care to give it up. Every roof and tree for a radius of two blocks was packed with humanity, all anxious to see the Bloomer Girls in action.”
No early 20th century newspaper account of a Bloomer Girls game was complete without some reference to the players’ appearance. In Allentown, the Bloomer Girls pitcher was identified simply as Miss Krowl, who, according to the Morning Call, was “unusually tall and brawny.”
But she also had “control of all the curves and shoots known to the game.” Kroll went the distance (seven innings) giving up four runs on eight hits, striking out seven and walking six. She also batted leadoff, got one hit and scored a run.
The Western Bloomer Girls featured a lineup of five women and four men. The locals scored two runs in the first inning and added single runs in the fourth and fifth. Trailing 4-0, the Bloomer Girls rallied for four runs in the seventh to tie the game. For those who suspected something fishy, the Morning Call assured: “although the Balliet players are noted for their chivalry, they did not thrown (sic) the game to the ladies and they deserved all they got.”
Aug. 9, 1925
Baltimore White Sox 15, Philadelphia Bobbies 6
Baltimore White Sox 12, Philadelphia Bobbies 4
One of the main attractions of the team that the Baltimore Sun referred to as “Philadelphia’s flapper baseball team” was 13-year-old shortstop Edith Houghton. A native of North Philadelphia, Houghton had tried out for the team at age 10 and was immediately signed up.
In this doubleheader in Baltimore, Houghton was the leadoff hitter in the opening game. She went 0-3 but scored a run and had four assists in the field.
The Bobbies visit was the lead story on the Sun sports page the following day. A couple of subheads pretty well summarize what this non-bylined reporter thought of the game. “Quaker Lassies Play Cleverly” read one, followed by “Local Sandlot Nine Too Good for Philadelphians in Exhibition.” One suspects a double meaning in the last subhead “Edith Ruth, On Mound for Visitors, Displays Real Assortment of Curves.”
This reporter was not beyond commenting on the players body types, referring to Jennie Phillips, the hitting star of the game with four hits, as the Bobbies “rotund catcher.” Some 2,000-2,500 fans came out to see the Philadelphia Bobbies and the Sun reported that they “applauded the efforts of the girls, who, for their sex, displayed unusual ability at the national pastime.”
About six weeks after their appearance in Baltimore, Houghton, along with the rest of the team set out on a tour of Japan. They reportedly drew large crowds and impressed playing all-male Japanese teams. They also ran out of money and ended up staying longer than expected until they found a donor to provide the funds to get them home.
Houghton continued her career with other teams, including the Hollywood Girls and the New York Bloomer Girls and also played softball which had already begun in the 1930’s to replace women’s baseball. She enlisted in the Navy WAVES program for women during World War II. She later went on to become Major League Baseball’s first female scout, having been hired to that role by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1946.
Aug. 20, 1928
Johnson City Soldiers 8, New York Bloomer Girls 5
Government Park, Johnson City, Tenn.
The New York Bloomer Girls came to Tennessee with the title of women’s baseball champion. This was achieved this by beating the Quaker City Girls 49-5, slipping by the Fleisher Yard Girls by a mere 27-8 score, then topping that off with a 51-2 victory over the Baltimore Black Sox Girls. Runs were apparently a little tougher to come by against the Johnson City Soldiers.
In the lead up to the game, the Johnson City Chronicle said: “Women are making rapid strides in athletics, as will be shown when the well-known and popular New York Bloomer Girls make their bow on Sunday against the local favorites.”
The Bloomer team that came to Tennessee included three male players, which was common for the barnstorming women’s teams of the time. One of the stars of the team was Babe McCutton. She started at third base and moved to the mound in the sixth inning. The box score, which the Chronicle describes “as near accurate as possible” shows McCutton went 2 for 5, scored a run, had five assists and made one error.
The Chronicle’s account of the game had this to say: “Miss McCutton is one of the best athletes on the team. She not only made several good plays at third base during the first five innings of the game but she looked good in the hurling role.”
The paper didn’t carry any attendance numbers but the crowd was described as the largest of the season and this despite a persistent drizzle throughout.