As the summer of 1952 approached in Harrisburg, Pa., it looked like it was going to be a long season for local baseball fans. The current iteration of the Harrisburg Senators, one of several teams to adopt that name over the years, were on their way to a 26-94 season, good for dead last in the Interstate League. That Class B league itself would not survive beyond the ‘52 season. The Senators were averaging just over 400 fans a game and would see their attendance drop from 90,000 in 1947 to 30,000 in 1952.
But in June, Senators president Dr. Jay Smith had an idea. He decided that the person to turn things around for his sagging team was a 26-year old Pennsylvania Utilities Commission stenographer by the name of Eleanor Engle. The Senators signed Engle to a contract on June 21. She had been a softball and basketball player in high school and team general manager Howard Gorden claimed she had tried out for the Senators. Smith commented that she could “hit the ball a lot better than some of the fellas on the club.”
She never got to demonstrate that as along came a former Ohio State University basketball coach George Trautman, who at the time was head of the governing association of minor league baseball. Engle suited up and took part in pre-game workouts before the Senators June 22 game against Lancaster, but in her words, “I guess Trautman threw me a curve and I struck out.”
An AP story on June 23 had the details: “Trautman, in a telephone conversation from San Francisco, said today that ‘such travesties’ as the signing of women players will not be tolerated, and that clubs signing, or attempting to sign, women players will be subject to severe penalties.”
Likewise, the male enclave of minor league baseball reacted in a less than egalitarian manner. The same AP story quotes Senators manager Buck Etchinson, he who guided the Senators to a last place finish and in nearly-dead league, as saying “I won’t have a girl playing for me. This is no-woman’s land and believe me, I mean it.”
Umpire Bill Angstadt said, “If I was umpiring at the plate and she walked up to bat, I’d quit umpiring. That’s all. I’d quit.”
The AP also interviewed Engle. “I’m sure I would have been able to remain as a player with the Senators,” she said. “Why, women are good for a lot of things, like golf, politics, track and all other sports. Why not baseball? After all there has to be a first time for everything, doesn’t there?”
Not all the men were so unenlightened. Oscar Fraley, author of the syndicated UP column, Sports Parade, offered a different perspective:
“Baseball is agog today over the fungo fable of ‘Beauty and the Beasts’–and Fearless Fraley has just got to say that the baseball boys seem to be a bit stuffy.
“Times, as any reinstated recluse will tell you, have changed. The ladies came out of the pantry a few years back and frozen food stock has been jumping ever since. We have women welders, curvaceous cops and lassies who tool taxicabs with all the reckless abandon which marks the male of the species.”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch interviewed fans to find out how they felt about women in baseball. They got a mixed reaction. Howard McColley of Wichita, said, “Of course women should be allowed to play. It would be good for baseball crowds and therefore good for baseball.”
Not so in the eyes of a dude from Oakland, Calif., named Dirk Schwartz. “I don’t pay to see a bunch of powder puffs,” he declared.
One might have thought Engle would get some support from Jackie Mitchell, the 17-year old Tennessee girl whose career with the Chattanooga Lookouts included a three batter appearance against the New York Yankees in 1931 (see History of the Minors: When the Mighty Babe Struck Out in Chattanooga). But alas, in an interview with UP, Mitchell lamented, ”Baseball is really too hard for a girl.”
Engle went back to her stenographer job. In 1963 she got a job with IBM and stayed there for 27 years until her retirement in 1990. She generally shied away from publicity and avoided interview seekers for decades, although she did allow Topps to make a baseball card and was usually generous with those who sought to have their’s autographed. She passed away in 2012 at age 86.
And as for the Senators, they trotted their exclusively male entourage onto the field on June 22, 1952, and, true to form, got thumped by Lancaster 9-4.
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