The Stop-and-Start History of Women’s Baseball

The history of women’s professional baseball isn’t as straight forward as the men’s. (via Library of Congress)

Most of us will never understand how difficult it is to be the first. Handling the pressure of trying something no one has done before, or at least in a way that’s never been done before, can be more daunting than the task itself. It can turn even a strong, independent person into goo. Every first is a miracle of talent, ingenuity, and sheer will.

Ila Borders has been the first many times. As a left-handed pitcher, she became the first woman to receive a college baseball scholarship, playing for Southern California College (now Vanguard University) from 1994-96 and Whittier College in 1997. She then became the first woman in living memory to sign a professional baseball contract with a men’s team, with the St. Paul Saints in 1997. She would pitch professionally for four independent league teams through 2000.

Before any of that, she’d already experienced some relatively challenging firsts. No one in her area had ever seen a girl try to play baseball with boys.

“There was a big, huge line for everyone signing up for Little League,” Borders told me in an interview. “This lady went up to my mom and was like, ‘This is the baseball line, and softball is over there.’ My mom said, ‘No, she wants to sign up for baseball.’ (The lady) was like, ‘Okay, come back tomorrow and then the line won’t be as big.’

“So we went back tomorrow… and we found out that the last day to sign up was the day before.”

Despite the roadblocks thrown in her path, Borders persisted. “(I) had to end up going to a tryout. I went out there and the same thing (happened). ‘Oh it’s a girl. She should be playing softball.’ Then I hit home runs, I hit doubles, and I struck out everybody. Immediately, that coach said, ‘I don’t care who you are, you’re going on my team.’

“I did have the opportunity to (play), but people were being deceitful. People were trying to push me into softball, but I was able to show them that I loved the game and I had talent, and was able to get on the team.”

Prior to Borders in the mid-1980s, no one in Southern California had seen a girl or woman play baseball. But there was a time when it wasn’t so unprecedented.

***

Before baseball had cooled and hardened into its present state, there were at least a few opportunities for women to play the game. The first two organized women’s baseball teams were formed at Vassar College in 1866. Several other colleges followed suit over the next few years, and there were as many as a few dozen collegiate women’s teams across the country. However, backlash from the public, press, and parents forced them to mostly shut down by the mid-1870s.

The natural successor to college ball is professionalism, where women also gained a foothold. On September 11, 1875, two teams competed in Springfield, Illinois. Dubbed the Blondes and Brunettes, the players became the first known women to be paid for playing baseball. One of the first African American women’s baseball teams, the Dolly Vardens, formed in Chester, Pennsylvania in 1883.

In most cases, these early women’s baseball teams were considered a novelty act. Permanent teams and leagues were rare. Whenever they attempted to present themselves more seriously, they were usually shut down. In the 1890s, though, barnstorming women’s baseball teams became more widespread. Called “Bloomer Girls” because of their “bloomer” style uniforms, these teams would travel the country, playing against local men’s or women’s teams. Bloomer Girls remained relatively prevalent through the 1930s.

Of course, wherever there is baseball, there will be star players. Lizzie Arlington began pitching professionally in 1891 at the age of 13 for the Cincinnati Reds (a women’s professional team). She excelled for various women’s teams through the 1890s. On June 5, 1898, nearly 100 years before Ila Borders signed with the St. Paul Saints, Arlington became the first woman to appear for a men’s professional team when she pitched for the Reading Coal Heavers.

Maud Nelson, a former teammate of Arlington’s, forged an impressive career in baseball. As a pitcher and third baseman, she played for several professional women’s teams starting in 1898. In 1911, she became the first known woman to own and manage a team — the Western Bloomer Girls — along with her husband John B. Olson Jr. She continued playing, managing, scouting, and coaching through the 1930s until the Great Depression made running a women’s baseball team unsustainable.

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These early iterations of women’s baseball faced several challenges, and were never taken as seriously as the men’s game. Major league baseball grew tremendously during the time of Bloomer Girls, spanning from Cy Young’s debut to Babe Ruth’s retirement. Still, they existed; there was a place in Americana for women to play the game. Somehow, we’ve moved away from that as a society, to the point where there are fewer opportunities for women to play baseball now than there were 100 years ago.

***

“I played at a professional level. My experience was, ‘We really don’t want you here, and you’ve got to try and make the team,’” recalls Borders on playing for a pro team. “Things are getting better, but what I would like to see is a women’s professional baseball league, like the WNBA, that MLB and USA Baseball sponsor… I think that’s the way you’re going to see women’s baseball really grow.”

In the 1940s and ’50s, there was a league almost exactly as Borders described: the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States was thrust into war. Two days later, Cleveland Indians ace Bob Feller enlisted in the Navy. Over the next four years, nearly all of baseball’s brightest stars would be forced into military duty. The major leagues  league continued to operate, but the level of talent had noticeably declined.

This created a new opportunity for women. What became known as the AAGPBL (it had several other names early on) began operation prior to the 1943 season. As documented years later in the film A League of Their Own, hundreds of women tried out from all over North America, and 60 were chosen to form four teams: the Kenosha Comets, Racine Belles, Rockford Peaches, and South Bend Blue Sox.

The AAGPBL was immediately successful. Total attendance for the inaugural season was 176,612 over 108 games- an average of 1,635 per game despite playing in non-major league cities and ballparks. This led to expansion to six teams in 1944. When attendance reached over 450,000 in 1945, the league added two more teams for 1946.

Even as the men started to return from the war, women were taken seriously as athletes and baseball players. Rules were gradually changed to mirror the men’s game, such as increasing infield distances and allowing overhand pitching. The infamous Charm School lessons were discontinued in 1945. Attendance surpassed 900,000 in 1948. By then, a four-team minor league had formed, as well as junior leagues for girls as young as 14. There were recruiting and exhibition tours across the country, as well as Cuba and South America, to grow women’s baseball.

The AAGPBL mirrored major league baseball in segregation as well. Only white athletes were allowed to participate, even after Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The Negro Leagues, sensing their own demise would be brought about by integration, looked for new ways to entice fans. This included recruiting female ballplayers.

Toni Stone became the first woman to reach the highest level of the Negro Leagues, playing second base for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953 and the Kansas City Monarchs in 1954. Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and Connie Morgan succeeded Stone on the Clowns. These players experienced poor treatment from teammates and lower pay from management, despite their positive impact on attendance. All three were out of baseball by 1955, and the Negro American League shuttered in 1958.

The late 1940s proved to be the high-water mark for the AAGPBL’s success. The league began to struggle financially in the early 1950s, and attendance waned. With the spread of television, attending a game in-person was no longer the only way to watch baseball. After the 1954 season, the league disbanded.

***

Following the collapse of the AAGPBL, women’s baseball nearly disappeared entirely. Not even the Bloomer Girls, nor any other barnstorming equivalent, remained. For decades, there were very few opportunities for women to play baseball, leaving no one to set an example for young Ila Borders.

“I didn’t have any (role models). My role models had nothing to do with baseball,” Borders recounts. “My role model was Madonna… At that time she was a strong, independent woman, who did her own thing despite people putting her down or telling her that she was doing crazy things.” (Ironically, Madonna would later star as Rockford Peaches center fielder “All the Way Mae” Mordabito, in A League of Their Own.)

In 1972, 12-year-old Maria Pepe tried out for her local Little League team in Hoboken, New Jersey. While she was initially accepted by her teammates and coaches, Little League headquarters intervened, threatening to disband Hoboken’s local charter if Pepe wasn’t cut. Backed by the National Organization for Women, Pepe sued on grounds of gender discrimination. The courts ruled in her favor in 1974, by which time she was too old to play, but this ruling made it possible for girls to play baseball once again.

This would eventually reignite women’s baseball, though it would take more than a decade for the spark to catch and require several more attempts to light. In 1984, Bob Hope tried to start an all-female minor league team — the Florida Sun Sox — but was thwarted by Florida State League officials. Other attempts to form leagues and teams continued in the late 1980s and early 1990s,  including the Chicago-based American Women’s Baseball Association —  the first women’s baseball league since the AAGPBL — but without much  success.

In 1994, Hope tried again to form a women’s team, this time with the backing of Coors Brewing Company. The Colorado Silver Bullets traveled the country for the next four years, mostly playing against men’s college and minor league teams. Shortly thereafter, Ila Borders began her own string of trailblazing accomplishments.

USA Baseball established the first U.S. Women’s National Team in 2004, and it has played tournaments nearly every year since then. Tamara Holmes, a former Colorado Silver Bullet, excelled for Team USA through 2015. She retired as the all-time women’s baseball home run leader. From 1954-2004, such a title would have been impossible.

***

Women’s baseball continues to grow, with rapid expansion in the past few years. “I’ve been involved with Major League Baseball and USA Baseball about two years now.” says Borders, who formerly served as pitching coach for Team USA. “That’s when they started the Trailblazer Series. Then they had the Breakthrough Series, and GRIT…That’s the first time MLB has signed up with USA Baseball to develop women.” She’s referring to three invitational tournaments for girls ages 11-13, 14-17, and 13-18. The tournaments are sponsored by USA Baseball and MLB.

“(Women and girls playing baseball) are definitely going to have to put in hard work. You’re going to be scrutinized, so you’ve got to be strong mentally and physically. Keep going. Things are starting to change. You have people that are on board. Even the guys are more open to things. They’re calling me now, saying, ‘Who can we invest in? We want to find a college scholarship. Do you think there are women out there who can play professionally?’ They’re actively looking for people to sign, whereas when I was playing, that was NOT the case.”

More than 150 years after Vassar College first organized women’s baseball teams, the sport may finally achieve a permanent foothold in the American sporting landscape. And Borders, for one, is optimistic: “The shift happened about two years ago. You could just see everybody that’s onboard really trying to promote women’s baseball. The talent is there. We just need to develop it… We’re going in the correct direction.”

References & Resources

All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. 

“About USA Baseball.” USA Baseball. 

“Bloomer Girls: All-girls novelty act sweeps country playing baseball.” Chronicling America: American Historic Newspapers, Library of Congress, March 18, 2017.

Craig, Mary. “The Negro League’s Last Hope: Three Brave Women.” The Hardball Times Annual 2018.

Craig, Mary. “Vassar and beyond: Women and baseball in the 1880s.”  Beyond the Box Score, September 19, 2017.

de la Cretaz, Britni. “Maria Pepe: the New Jersey girl who sued to play baseball with the boys.” The Guardian, September 23, 2018.

McClean, Tony. “The Ladies of the Negro Leagues (Part 1).” Black Athlete Sports Network, November 19, 2007.

“Nelson, Maud (1881–1944).” Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia.com, August 12, 2019.

Stilgenbauer, Amy. “Women in Baseball History: Lizzie Arlington.” Daughter of Rock (in the City of Soul), March 1, 2012.

Thorn, John. “Strangest of All Baseball Attractions!” Our Game, MLB, May 2, 2016.

Weeks, Linton. “Baseball In Skirts, 19th-Century Style.” NPR, July 12, 2015.

 

 


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. He is a writer and editor for Beyond the Box Score. Tweets @depstein1983.

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ckruschkeJetsy ExtranoMark Recent comment authors
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Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

Lots of history I didn’t know! Seems odd that Maria Pepe’s story isn’t better known, for one thing. Follow the link to Britni de la Cretaz’s article, everyone! I’ll read more of the links later…

Mark
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Mark

Having coached girls’ rec-league softball for ten years, and observed my two daughters on their high-school varsity teams, I have no doubt that every good travel softball team has at least a couple of girls who could be competitive playing baseball with boys their age, and I am sure most girls who play softball would be just fine playing in a girls’ baseball league. I’ll never forget the day my 18U players, most of whom also played high school ball, brought a baseball to practice. They were throwing lasers and hitting line drives. However, I’m pessimistic that there will ever… Read more »

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

I don’t know how to Google this — is “girls play softball” a U.S. thing, or what other countries have that habit and which don’t?

ckruschke
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ckruschke

Women’s softball is a major sport in only a few countries with Australia, Canada, China, Japan, and the US dominating world play. The World Championships only has 16 participating countries (not finalists – participating). It has also been an on and off again medal sport in the Olympics and will be returning in 2020.

ckruschke
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ckruschke

A generally good article. Although a very important step for women (and a true classic movie), it would have been nice to exclude some of the hyperbole on the AAGPBL. The truth was that it was not a money-maker or heavily watched even at its zenith when the league was marketing the heck out of it. Although you site the 1945 and 1948 attendance figures as references points for the league’s “growing popularity”, in truth the numbers increased because the number of teams increased (basic math) and the inaugural season’s average game attendance of 1,635 was the high water mark… Read more »