The Not-So-Private Lives of Baseball Wives

Among other things, Mildred Cronin helped Joe Cronin with his diet when he was a player-manager for the Red Sox. (via Library of Congress)

Mrs. Joe Cronin. Mrs. Johnny Allen. Mrs. Dizzy Dean. Mrs. Walt Genin. Mrs. Babe Ruth. Mrs. James “Ripper” Collins. In the 1930s, their husbands ranged from some of the most popular players in the game to some of the most anonymous. These women were scions of baseball royalty and farming families. Regardless of where their husbands played, they all had the same role in America’s pastime—baseball wife. 

In private, they cleaned homes, raised children, and tended to the needs of the domestic sphere. They offered emotional support through the highs and lows of their husbands’ careers. 

In public eye, however, baseball wives played a variety of roles, defined and constrained by the gender roles of the 1930s. They had no separate identities apart from their husbands. On one hand, they were supportive spouses, bolstering their husbands’ confidence, and helping them navigate life in the major leagues. On the other, they were gossiping shrews who undermined pennant-winning teams; shrews who interfered in their husbands’ finances; or dimwits who couldn’t tell the difference between a bat and a ball. 

By the 1930s, the belief that gossiping wives ruined baseball teams had become gospel among baseball players, managers, and even their wives. In 1936, Mrs. Joe (Mildred) Cronin penned an article titled “The Private Life of a Baseball Wife” for Liberty magazine. She warned that “Ball teams have been rent asunder because a baseball wife said something about another player which the player affected thinks—and reasonably so—came from the husband of the wife who made the careless statement.”  

In 1930, several anonymous major league managers claimed “jealousies and back-biting of players wives have been responsible for the breaking up of many a good baseball team.” Reportedly, wives would form “cliques” behind third base and “hurl caustic comments” at other players in earshot of their wives. The cliques and gossip on the New York Giants compelled Hall of Fame manager John McGraw to ban wives from traveling on road trips.

Al Demaree, a former New York Giants pitcher turned cartoonist, wrote that “Many a ball club that should have been a pennant contender, finds itself floundering around in the second division solely as a result of bickerings between the wives that develop into grudges and fights between the husbands themselves later.”  

In 1937, the Atlanta Constitution observed that “Baseball wives can cause a great deal of first-rate trouble. There has been more than one pennant lost because of a war in the grandstands between players’ wives.” The Vancouver Sun reported that fall that “Chicagoans claim the woman’s place is still in the home, that Cubs finished second this year because too many baseball wives were backseat driving.”  

When baseball wives weren’t sinking a thousand pennant-winning teams with their loose lips, they were at home mothering their child-like husbands—prone to mood swings and overeating like unruly children. Cronin wrote “many a player owes his success to the insistence of some woman that he retire early, eat the right food, stop smoking so many cigars, and keep away from poker in the wee hours of the morning.”  She then detailed how she helped Joe, the Red Sox player-manager, lose 15 pounds in the offseason by eliminating “potatoes, bread, all starches from his diet and concentrated on lamb chops, lean meats, vegetables, and baked apples!” By the end of the winter, Mildred never wanted to see another baked apple again. 

In 1938, the wife of ballplayer Johnny Allen told the press that the team should put her on the payroll since she was responsible for making sure her husband ate a proper diet and got a good night’s sleep. 

Baseball wives also had to nurse their ballplayer-husbands through slumps. “A slump,” Cronin wrote, “is a bogeyman that wrecks homes, causes divorces, and sends a player off into the land of inebriation.” To help their husbands, baseball wives were to “coddle, fondle, cajole, flatter, and solace a husband-ballplayer but never irritate him.” Cronin further described baseball players as “high-strung and nervous. They react quickly to criticism, particularly from fellow players.” A good baseball wife knew better than to ask for new dresses, furs, or diamonds during a slump, better to wait until her husbands regained his playing prowess and would be amenable to buying such luxuries. 

While wives could watch their husbands’ caloric intake and help them through the ups and downs of the season, baseball wives could become too involved in their husbands’ affairs. After Babe Ruth’s wife, Claire, began travelling with him on road trips, the wives and girlfriends of players “resented the fact that Ruth was no longer paying the way on so many parties.” Claire’s reputation was so poor among the other wives that they called her “Poison” upon seeing her at games. 

Patricia Dean, wife of the famed pitcher Dizzy, took an active role in her husband’s contract negotiations, drawing the ire of her husband’s employers. In 1938, Patricia “jarred the equilibrium of the Cardinals organization and somewhat shocked the entire baseball world” by announcing that Dizzy would not pitch for the $10,000 offered by the team. An annoyed Branch Rickey replied, “Well, that’s strange—we did not send the contract to Mrs. Dean.”  

Thanks to the greater involvement of wives like Claire Ruth and Patricia Dean, owners complained that they knew they had to take players’ wives into account when making contract offers. In 1936, Dizzy Dean called Patricia to discuss the team’s offer before signing his contract. A headline describing the story noted, “Mrs. Dean Is The Boss.” Baseball wives paid a price in the press for keeping a watchful eye on their husbands’ finances. 

While baseball players received much of the fame and adulation for their athletic exploits, baseball wives could also be celebrities. 

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Throughout her life, Mildred Cronin lived in the baseball spotlight. From the age of 17, when she began working as the personal secretary for her uncle, Clark Griffith, Cronin’s name began appearing in coverage of the Senators. The public interest in her life accelerated after her marriage to Joe and subsequent move to Boston. The Boston Globe reported on her seating companions, ran photographs of her in the stands, and glowingly approved of her penchant for leaving games early to prepare her husband’s dinner. In April 1937, Mildred gave birth to twins who died shortly afterwards The story spread across the country in short order. In 1938, photographs of her newborn son being visited by her uncle made the rounds in the national papers. Throughout her life, photographs of Mildred Cronin appeared at regular intervals in national papers—Opening Day, the World Series, the Winter Meetings, and while visiting her family in Washington D.C. 

During spring training, newspaper scribes, desperate to fill pages, contributed to this world of celebrity by recounting the glamorous exploits of baseball wives. One article described how, “attired in brightly colored blouses and sport skirts—or shorts—with figured handkerchiefs tied about their heads, several wives are always to be found chatting in a sunny spot of the grandstand.” When their husbands weren’t playing in exhibition games, couples could fish, golf, or go on bicycle rides together. 

All of this celebrity came with a sizable dose of sexism. At the end of October 1934, the Associated Press reported that commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis had awarded the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals players their World Series shares and “Baseball Players Wives Now Can Start Their Shopping Tours.” A few months later, another article noted that “Baseball players’ wives apparently know just as little about the national game as other wives.”  The wife in question did not know the difference between a “four-bagger” and a home run. One article claimed that baseball wives in the stands stuck to the “Dumb Dora type of script.” In 1932, a United Press article implied that women cared about the World Series only because “there’s a bit of romance and several ‘anniversaries’ wrapped up in it.” 

While some wives were fans in the right, they could claim baseball expertise only through the lens of their male relations. In her article in Liberty, Mildred Cronin established her baseball bona fides through her relationships with men. Her husband was the manager of the Boston Red Sox and before her marriage, Mildred had “served as secretary and statistician for my uncle, Clark Griffith.” In 1937, Mildred relayed to the Boston Globe that Griffith believed the Red Sox could win the pennant. Mildred’s opinion carried weight because she “was home secretary of the Washington club and knows her baseball.” In 1933, before her marriage, one article reported how after spending eight years as her uncle’s secretary, Mildred was “looked upon as ‘another ball player’ by the boys at camp and she can talk shop as fluently and as authoritatively as some of the veterans.”  

Not all women, however, wanted the life of a baseball wife. Helen Collins, whose husband, James “Ripper” Collins, played for the Cubs, tolerated his occupation. She told a reporter, “I never said I was thrilled to death to have my husband be a ball player. I never said I didn’t like it. I’ve made myself contented.” Rather than live out of suitcases with young children, Helen and her husband had bought a home in Rochester, New York. Helen sent the children to school, made friends with neighbors, and gave her family the stability that many other baseball families lacked. She, however, raised her family largely without James, who spent eight months of the year on the road. 

Despite Helen’s best efforts, the cyclical nature of the baseball season still disrupted the family’s life. In the fall, the Collins family was like many other nuclear families. But after New Year’s, Helen wrote, “there is a frightened feeling in the household, because we know when spring is here it’s separation. Eight months all over again.”  In springtime, she wrote, “My children have no daddy to play with. When he’s away they are all I have.”  

Collins acknowledged that she and her husband lived largely separate lives, writing  “Baseball is his life and home is mine.”  

Not all wives could adjust to the demands of a baseball wife. In 1937 and 1938, papers were filled with stories of Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez’s estrangement from his wife, June. Before their marriage in 1933, June had headlined Of Thee I Sing, a musical from George and Ira Gershwin. In 1936, she left her Broadway career to become a baseball wife. In 1937, she went to Mexico to seek a divorce, claiming the two were incompatible. June bitterly remarked, “I gave up the stage for Lefty two years ago—and now he’s left me.”  

Baseball wives, however, received little sympathy for their lot in life. Martha Martin, a writer, chronicling Gomez’s attempts to obtain a divorce, noted that becoming a baseball wife “wasn’t very easy for a pretty young woman who had heard the sweet music of applause for her work in more than one Broadway show.” Martin then roundly dismissed June’s complaints because “Lefty had been in the business longer than June had been on the stage—and the cheers of baseball fans swept over Lefty louder, and longer, and oftener than the polite hand-clapping of audiences ever sounded for June.”  

While newspapers, players, and wives decried the role of gossip in undermining baseball teams, gossip laid bare the insecurity at the heart of a life in baseball.  Beyond the celebrity and glamour of the game, one article noted, “baseball wives in turn are forever tormented by insecurity… It makes some of them pretty catty, and hostile to the up-and-coming players and their wives. It often emphasizes the gossiping qualities of some of them, which leads them to form cliques which in time have a subtle effect on their husbands, who unconsciously become frosty to this or that clique.” 

There was nothing unusual about gossip among baseball wives–somehow the ballplayers’ gossip among themselves avoided such condemnation in the press. Wives naturally sorted themselves into groups based on their age, experience, or backgrounds. And since they spent so much time together, opportunities for inopportune remarks abounded. While baseball may have exacerbated tensions on teams, they likely snuffed out as many internecine conflicts that never made the papers. 

Gossip also helped baseball wives deal with baseball as a workplace. As any baseball wife knew, players (and their wives) came and went on a regular basis. Their husbands’ success often came at the expense of some other player and his wife. The risk of injury was rampant, a broken leg from a collision at second base could end a career in a heartbeat. Too many poorly placed pitches could jeopardize a pitcher’s livelihood. Too many errors could mean demotion, trade, or outright release from the majors. No ballplayer could play forever. Time and the erosion of skill caught up with everyone. 

The volatility of baseball as an occupation led players to become “high-strung” and “nervous,” as Mildred Cronin noted. Ballplayers had spent their lives playing a competitive sport in a hyper-masculine environment. They performed a set of athletic movements—pitching, hitting, fielding—again and again until they became the ballplayer’s raison d’etre. In the context of baseball’s ceaseless competition and the knowledge that their careers could not last forever, these words were apt descriptors of men who knew no other vocation.  

As a result, baseball wives had to navigate the emotional highs and lows of their husbands’ careers. As one author wrote, the emotional demands of ballplayers made their wives “a breed apart.  They have to be. They are dealing for the most part, with small boys grown in stature—with aging youngsters who are paid to play.” Baseball wives had to have “a specialized knowledge, an overwhelming loyalty, patience past belief, and ability to dish it out as well as take it.” 

For some men, this meant that their wives, like Claire Ruth and Patricia Dean, took an active role in their husbands’ finances. Since wives generally did not have careers of their own, ballplayers’ salaries were the family’s sole source of income. Naturally, wives took an interest in their husbands’ earnings so they could pay the bills, feed and clothe children, and plan for the future. Many ballplayers would never earn this much money again in their lives and if they saved enough money, they could provide for themselves and their families long into the future. As Mrs. Walt Genin felt that since her husband was a baseball player it was her “business to be interested in his business.” 

Ultimately, the actions, words, and families of women like Mildred Cronin, Helen Collins, and Patricia Dean were fodder for the stories of seasons, teams, and baseball itself as the game blurred the boundary between their public and private lives. 

References & Resources

Al Demaree, “Al’s Anecdotes” Nashville Banner, March 16, 1931. 

Associated Press, “Landis Slices Series Melon” Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 30, 1934. 

Associated Press, “Mrs. Allen Says Clubs Should Pay Baseball Wives” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 31, 1938. 

Associated Press, “Spring Training is Fun for Women’s Auxiliary” Wilkes-Barre Record, April 1, 1938. 

“Baseball Players’ Wives Think Its a Grand Game” Burlington Hawk-Eye (Burlington, Iowa), July 19, 1931. 

“Baseball Wives Can Break Team” Lincoln Journal Star, April 16, 1930. 

Bob Considine, “Baseball Wives Have Their Mighty Problems” The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), April 2, 1939. 

Don Watson, “Accident Forces Ruth to Take Rest” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 8, 1934. 

Don Watson, “Wives Playing an Important Part” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, April 7, 1936. 

Gerry Moore, “‘Uncle Griff’ Sees Flag From Simmons Deal” Boston Globe, April 6, 1937. 

“Griff’s Secretary Proves Diplomat” Evening Star (Washington D.C.), February 28, 1933 

“Griffith Scouts New Star” Iowa City Press Citizen, May 16, 1938. 

Hal Straight, “Sport Rays” Vancouver Sun, October 23, 1937. 

Jack James, “Mrs. Dean Credited with Dizzy’s Signing” Miami Herald, March 25, 1936.

Julia Davidson, “Mrs. Roy Henshaw Tells Secrets on Herself” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 15, 1937. 

Martha Martin, “Sport Stardom—The Athletes’ Skill Often Fails to Win Marital Happiness” Daily News, January 9, 1938. 

Mrs. Joe Cronin, “The Private Lives of Baseball Wives” Liberty Magazine, May 2, 1936, 49-50. 

“Mrs. Joe Cronin Seriously Ill” Miami Herald, April 8, 1937. 

“Overheard Conversation” Central New Jersey Home News, April 17, 1934. 

Ralph McGill, “Break O’Day” Atlanta Constitution, March 16, 1937. 

Sid Keener, “Sid Keener’s Column” St. Louis Star and Times, January 18, 1938. 

United Press “Today’s Diamond Glitters With Romance As Baseball Heroes’ Wives Await Score” Austin American-Statesmen, September 29, 1932. 

Victor O. Jones, “What About it?” Boston Globe, May 4, 1935. 

Chris Bouton is a historian turned jury research analyst.

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