The Girls of Summer

Boston Bloomers | Library of Congress
Boston Bloomers | Library of Congress

Spring is in full swing — with that said it is officially time to start soaking up some sun, enjoy a cold beer, eat some hotdogs, and partake in one of America’s favorite pastimes, baseball. 

While daydreaming about the days of summer I wondered, “Why don’t women play baseball? Have women only ever played softball professionally? Didn’t I see a movie about professional women baseball players set in the ‘40s? Was that a real thing?” The movie I was thinking of is, A League of Their Own, a story about a women’s minor league baseball team. One of the most memorable tokens I took with me from the movie, as the years passed, was the emphasis placed on the players’ looks and etiquette. It turns out that the movie does a more than decent job depicting the reality of women baseball players during the 1940s. 

Women and baseball dates back as far as the 1870s. In 1875 women competed in their first paid baseball game and they managed the affair astonishingly well considering that their garments weighed as much as 30 pounds and included long skirts, underskirts, high-necked blouses and button-up shoes. 

Irene Ruhnke, 2007 reproduction of 1946 original, photograph, 12 x 8 inches, private collection. From the exhibition, Linedrives and Lipstick: The Untold Story of Women’s Baseball, toured by ExhibitsUSA, a program of Mid-America Arts Alliance.
Irene Ruhnke, 2007 reproduction of 1946 original, photograph, 12 x 8 inches, private collection. From the exhibition, Linedrives and Lipstick: The Untold Story of Women’s Baseball, toured by ExhibitsUSA, a program of Mid-America Arts Alliance.

Later in the 1890s the term, “Bloomer Girls” was established thanks to Amelia Bloomer who created the well known bloomers which resembled Turkish style trousers or for the ‘80s kid, parachute pants. At this time there was still no league for women, but many of the bloomer girls partook in what was known as barnstorming and more often than not won. These teams often included at least one male and traveled from town to town competing with local, semi-pro, and minor league teams along the way. Bloomer girls played for around 40 years until the 1930s.

Women’s baseball saw resurgence in the 1940s because many men were being recruited to join the efforts for World War II. Philip K. Wrigley, or chewing gum enthusiast and owner of Chicago’s Wrigley Field, created the All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBBL) in 1945. Originally the league emphasized softball and later morphed in to baseball.

For the non-sports junkies the major differences in softball and baseball are: in softball the base lines are shorter, the ball is larger, the pitcher throws underhand style, and stealing bases is prohibited. The stereotype is that baseball is more lively and challenging than softball, 

One unique woman of baseball was Jackie Mitchell who at the age of seventeen was the first woman signed to a minor league baseball team. Mitchell won her reputation and spot on the team with her signature pitch an impressive dropping curve ball. This same pitch struck out such infamous major hitters as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at an exhibition game.

Jackie Mitchell the women who struck our Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

The first AAGBBL team consisted of fifteen players and also included a woman chaperone. Additionally, Wrigley hired a beauty salon to meet with players during spring training to educate them about proper etiquette, dress code, mannerisms, and hygiene.  After all, the league had deemed itself “All-American” and the women were required to uphold that image. It was necessitated to the players that they needed to be as physically attractive as possible at all times. The uniforms also changed consisting of a flared skirt with shorts, knee-high socks, and a hat. 

Women’s baseball was highly popular in the 1940s. It appealed to the masses fo many reasons one being that the traditional occupation of women as homemakers changed to encompass a more Rosie the Riveter image, this change in image made it easier for women to play a “man’s sport.” Adopting the “All-American Girl” ideal fit perfectly with the patriotic mood of the country. Last and most important was the players’ talent and exceptional skills. 

Eventually, though, as the league became decentralized (Wrigley opted out when he realized men’s baseball was safe even with the war in full swing), and new technology aka the television allowed for viewing of major league games in the convenience of one’s own home.  When the war ended women once again took up domestic roles within the home as result of these factors the league struck out in 1954. 

Since the AAGBBL, no real commitment has been made to create another women’s baseball league. High school baseball teams across the country will occasionally have a girl on the roster.  

The story of women and baseball is a relatively short one. These girls of summer, time and time again proved their ability to knock it out of the park. Jackie Mitchell was only one of the exceptional baseball players of her time. I wonder though as gender roles continue to push traditional boundaries, if some day we may see another women’s baseball league? 

by Genevieve Ackley

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