Belles of the Ballgame
During World War II, when the U.S. shipped its men overseas, women filled in on the baseball field as well as in factories. Rosie the Riveter, meet Sally the Slugger. But unlike Rosie, Sally wasn’t mere propaganda: Women’s baseball had been played since the 1860s, and the suffragist movement had championed the sport as a symbol of women’s independence. This map takes a look back—through a Cracker Jack spyglass—at these belles of the ballgame.
Bubblegum magnate and Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley (fictionalized in A League of Their Own as candy-bar tycoon Walter Harvey) founded the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II, when the deployment of male ballplayers threatened to hobble America’s pastime. Wrigley’s league required players to wear skimpy uniforms (essentially flapper dresses sashed at the waist, inspiring the phrase “dirt in the skirt”) and take mandatory charm classes. In League, when the uniform makes its debut, Doris Murphy (Rosie O’Donnell) gives the chocolate bureaucracy some New York lip: “Whaddaya think we are, ballplayas or ballerinas?”
The Bloomer Girls—a group of women’s baseball teams that toured the U.S. from the 1890s to the 1930s—took their name from the boyish, ankle-cuffed bloomer pants they wore. Unlike AAGPBL attire, bloomers afforded base-sliding utility, comparable to modern-day baseball pants. Gender-bending was prominent among the Bloomers: Each squad fielded at least two men in wigs and rouge, “passing” as girls. One such Bloomer included future Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. Ironically, in League, the cross-dressing Hornsby is the model of athletic machismo for coach Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), who rants against the effeminate blasphemy of “crying in baseball.”
The first recognized professional women’s baseball club was the Philadelphia Dolly Vardens, an African American team formed in 1867. The name comes from the popular “Dolly Varden” costume (a short-sleeved dress gathered over an underskirt), itself named after a flirtatious character in Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge (1841). The team dressed not in the outfit of its namesake, but in short red-and-white calico dresses and high-button shoes. Whether on the stage or the baseball diamond, black women wearing flashy outfits were often treated as circus acts during the Reconstruction era. An 1883 guidebook ignored the team’s athletics and instead chose to advertise the Dolly Vardens as “artistically dressed.”
In the 1890s women formed baseball teams that toured rural U.S. towns and challenged local men’s teams. Though each club was independent, they became known collectively as the Bloomer Girls, after the pants they wore. Baggy around the leg and cinched at the waist and ankle, bloomers became popular in the 1860s as women began to play outdoor sports. Among the Bloomers were the Black Bronchos, which the Indianapolis Freeman called the “only Colored Female Baseball Club in the world today.” During Reconstruction, no Bloomer team was racially integrated.
African American baseball arose after the Civil War, when men’s and women’s teams, including the Philadelphia Dolly Vardens, sprouted up throughout the North. But the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943–1954) unofficially prohibited black women, even after the color barrier in the majors was broken by Jackie Robinson, who debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. To Philip Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs and founder of the AAGPBL, All-American meant all white.
Director Penny Marshall whitewashes the AAGPBL’s ban of African Americans in A League of Their Own, which chronicles the league’s first year. The film implies the existence of the ban only once: A female spectator steps beyond the black section of the bleachers to retrieve a passed ball. She fires right past the astonished star catcher, Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis), all the way to the pitcher. Hinson and the woman exchange a meaningful nod, then the game resumes.
The Baseball Hall of Fame finally gave women—and in particular African American women—their due in 2006 when it inducted its first female member, Effa Manley (a multiracial woman) for her role as an executive in the Negro Leagues and as a civil rights activist.
Scouts for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (such as the one Jon Lovitz portrays with brilliant irreverence in A League of Their Own) sought their femme-phenoms among rural Midwestern softball leagues. With shorter base paths, underhand pitching and a larger (though not actually softer) ball, the sport was devised in Chicago in 1887 as an indoor form of baseball for men. But today it is mainly women who play competitive softball worldwide, at the high school, college and professional levels. Softball became an Olympic sport in 1996, though it and men’s baseball were dropped from the 2012 Games.
AAGPBL founder and savvy businessman Philip Wrigley (fictionalized as Walter Harvey and played by Garry Marshall in League) knew he wouldn’t sell tickets if his girls groaned, grunted, spat or displayed other coarse tendencies instinctive to the male baseball player. He ordered his teams to project an irreproachably feminine image. On the field, they were required to wear ironed short skirts for uniforms; off the field, high heels and makeup, with a mandate to attend charm school. According to AAGPBL president Max Carey, “No pants-wearing, tough-talking female softballer will play on any of our teams.”
Jack Norworth, writer of the ballpark anthem “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” didn’t actually attend one until 32 years after he penned the song (supposedly completed in a subway sitting). The “me” of the chorus—and the home team–rooter and Cracker Jack–gobbler of the verses—is not Norworth but his paramour, Trixie Friganza, an actor, suffragette and baseball enthusiast. Trixie is the fictional Katie Casey of the largely forgotten first and second verses, in which an admirer invites Katie to the theater. Because she is “baseball mad / Had the fever and had it bad,” she declines, singing “I’ll tell you what you can do… / Take me out to the ball game!”
In an era of women’s activism, Norworth believed baseball was as much for belles as beaus. So did spectators, who came out in droves to watch the Bloomer Girls, a group of unaffiliated women’s baseball teams that toured the country. In 1915 New Jersey suffragettes staged an exhibition game featuring the Bloomer Girls to draw attention to the state’s referendum on women’s rights. Bloomers, the baggy pants the teams wore, were named after Amelia Bloomer, a 19th-century women’s rights advocate.
“Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” about a woman named Katie Casey (based on songwriter Jack Norworth’s extramarital indulgence, Trixie Friganza) eager to join the ballpark crowd and eat peanuts and Cracker Jack, is honored by organists and beer-chugging fans during every major-league baseball game. Had Casey’s fanaticism for the home team gotten out of hand, she might have become a Baseball Annie—a term for a female fan with groupie-like mania for her team. Susan Sarandon’s character (Annie, not coincidentally) in Bull Durham (1988) is one Baseball Annie who believes that any ballplayer who has sex with her over the course of a season will accrue the best stats of his career.
Such idol worship is not all fun, games and groupie sex. Nineteen-year-old Ruth Ann Steinhagen nearly murdered her crush, Chicago Cubs first basemen Eddie Waitkus, when in 1949 she shot him in the chest after luring him to her hotel room. (Steinhagen felt betrayed when she learned Waitkus had been traded to another team.) The story inspired Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel The Natural, the basis for the 1984 film starring Robert Redford as the naive, thrill-seeking ballplayer and Barbara Hershey as the murderous Baseball Annie.
When 17-year-old minor-league pitcher Jackie Mitchell faced the New York Yankees in a 1931 exhibition game, New York’s Daily News wrote that the girl “swings a mean lipstick. In the next town the Yankees enter they will find a squad that has,” the paper surmised, “a sword swallower at short and a trained seal behind the plate.” Penny Marshall’s League of Their Own chronicles the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League’s inaugural 1943 season and features gimmicky newsreels based on actual footage: staged scenes of women ballplayers powdering their noses after legging out a triple, knitting garments in the dugout and pouring coffee for umpires between innings.
But media condescension only fueled Mitchell—at least initially. She whiffed both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, two of history’s greatest hitters, with two consecutive strikeouts. “I don’t know what’s going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball,” Ruth said afterward, “they are too delicate.” Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis agreed and voided Mitchell’s contract days after her feat, declaring baseball “too strenuous” for the fairer sex. In 1943 the AAGPBL invited the “girl who struck out Ruth” to try out, but weary of hoopla, Mitchell declined.