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This undated photograph shows the members of the Boston Bloomer Girls baseball team, one of many female teams that criss-crossed the nation from the 1890s into the 1930s playing baseball against men's teams.
Not Always a Man's Game
Although the sport of baseball in the 21st century is largely an all-male preserve, it wasn't always that way. As baseball evolved into the sport we know today during the antebellum and Civil War years, girls and boys alike played the game. From the first intercollegiate game between Williams and Amherst in 1859, it was just seven years until the first women's collegiate baseball clubs were established at Vassar and other women's colleges. Although somewhat hobbled by their clothing—long skirts, high necks, and long sleeves—women played the same game as men, albeit far from the prying eyes of spectators. A baseball club at the exclusive Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut, was approved only if they played on a field well out of sight of the public. Social, rather than competitive, aspects of the game were emphasized in these early women's contests as women were deemed too delicate for competitive sports.
Craving "Baseball in any Form"
By the 1880s, the American public had gone mad for the game and promoters—always quick to see how a profit could be made—sought ever more novel ways to feed the frenzy: baseball on ice, in the water, and played by attractive girls and women. The 1875 match between the "Blondes" and "Brunettes" was the first women's game to receive widespread publicity, but at this particular moment, the attraction of seeing "eighteen girls prettily attired in gymnastic dress" playing baseball was far more compelling than their actual baseball skills. The novelty eventually wore off and crowds became more interested in seeing good baseball. The stage was set for the arrival of the "Bloomer Girls."
Beginning in the 1890s, teams of women players known as Bloomer Girls began to travel the country taking on all comers—semi-pro, club, and collegiate teams made up of men. They had no "home field" and often travelled by train, lugging along their own canvas "stadiums" and grandstands to small towns across the Midwest and western states. Bloomer Girls teams had actual baseball talent and were the cause of much excitement in the towns they visited. An article in the Devil's Lake, North Dakota, Inter-Ocean on 11 May 1900 breathlessly announced
Bloomer Girls coming … The team was one of the sensations during the ball season in the Red River Valley last summer and wiped the earth with every team they met … The girls are claimed to be refined and moral in every particular, and their games have been patronized by the best people everywhere. They carry with them a grandstand covered with canvas, also their own fence.
The teams were not met with a warm welcome everywhere they travelled, however: an October 1895 game in Duluth, Minnesota, was called off by the mayor who did not "approve of women appearing in trousers of any style." They also undoubtedly met with ample amounts of the sexism displayed by the cattlemen of Centerview, Colorado, who attended the game, feeling that it was "their duty to examine every bunch of stray calves that drifted onto their ranges," as reported in the 30 August 1898 edition of the Denver Evening Post.
Eventually though, Bloomer teams became known for their baseball talent and provided some measure of fame, travel, and money for women in a world which otherwise provided limited opportunities. Oddly these teams also offered opportunities for men. Bloomer teams usually fielded at least a couple of men—often pitchers and catchers--known as "toppers" who donned curly wigs and dresses to match their teammates. Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby and Smoky Joe Wood were among the men who got their major league start on Bloomer Girls teams.
All American Girls
After a forty year run, the last of the Bloomer Girls teams disbanded in 1934, but these were not the last women to play baseball. During World War II, facing a shortage of male players due to major leaguers enlisting in the war effort, Cubs owner Phillip Wrigley formed the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Like Rosie the Riveter, women ball players were given an opportunity to show off their skills in a male sphere. Teams like the Rockford Peaches, Racine Belles, and Kenosha Comets kept the game of baseball alive during the war years, proving that women could play the sport at a very high level. The days of opportunity for women in baseball soon ended, however, as the league passed a rule in 1952 barring women from becoming professional players. A lawsuit in 1974 opened up Little League baseball to girls, but as yet, no professional-level baseball leagues for women have survived more than a few seasons.
The All-American Girls: Women in Professional Baseball: Panel Discussion
Explore the role of women in America's pastime as Kat Williams, Maybelle Blair, Shirley Burkovich, Donna Mills, and Marti Sementelli join in a panel discussion moderated by Red Sox historian Gordon Edes on Saturday June 23, 2018. There is a $20 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders). For more information or to register, visit our website.
For further reading
Berlage, Gai Ingham. Women in Baseball: The Forgotten History. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994.
Gregorich, Barbara. Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1993.
Heaphy, Leslie A. and Mel Anthony May, eds. Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2006.
Shattuck, Debra A. Bloomer Girls: Women Baseball Pioneers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017.
The San Francisco Exploratorium's "Science of Baseball" website contains information on the Bloomer Girls and other baseball-related topics.
The Library of Congress's Chronicling America: American Historic Newspapers digital collection provides access to newspapers from around the country.
This 1908 photograph of the Boston Bloomer Girls team shows the team standing outside their private train car and wearing uniforms similar to those worn in our photograph.