6 Things You Didn’t Know about the History of Women’s Baseball

Girl’s Baseball is highly underrated and often ignored, even in the United States, where it’s historically known to be America’s favorite pastime.

Young girls can get college scholarships playing soccer, basketball, lacrosse and a variety of other sports, but not in baseball. In fact, the National Federation of State High School Associations says there’s not a college sponsored girls baseball team anywhere in the country at the moment.

But that doesn’t stop the enthusiasm for the sport among girls, and women’s leagues are still in vogue throughout the world.

Countries as diverse as Cuba, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong and Canada have the most organized women’s baseball leagues, with the longest-running in the U.S. They also have female leagues in Colombia, Pakistan, the Netherlands, France, Argentina and Vietnam!

Here are a few fascinating facts you may not know about women’s baseball:

1. Girls Baseball Expanding in Schools, Finally

Despite being far behind the boy’s baseball teams in number, the amount of high schools in the country offering girl’s baseball teams have expanded to 1,012 now. California has the most, (385 schools), and Connecticut has one school.

But, the interest is picking up. More than 100,000 girls play youth baseball, and interest seems to be picking up.

Palisade, Colorado women’s baseball team, about 1910. (Courtesy All-American Girls Professional Baseball League )

2. A Long History in Female Sports

Women’s baseball became a professional sport even before women got the chance to vote in the United States.

In 1860, Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, formed the first baseball team of all women, and it wasn’t until 80 years later that the first women’s professional baseball league was created.

The first game where women players were paid, and fans were charged to attend, was between the Blondes and the Brunettes in a small field in Springfield, Illinois on Sept. 11, 1875. Fans loved it.

When the women’s leagues were in their hey-dey in the mid-1940s, a single game could draw 2,000 to 3,000 fans. An Indiana double-header on Independence Day in 1946 attracted 10,000 people, and attendance peaked in 1948 when 10 teams attracted 910,000 paying fans.

All-American Girls Professional Baseball League 

3. WWII Created Women’s Baseball

Just as baseball was becoming America’s #1 sport, World War II took a lot of men, and eligible players, off to war. Many minor leagues disbanded and by 1942, the major league ball park owners worried that the sport was in danger of collapse.

Philip Wrigley, creator of the chewing gum, came up with the idea of creating a girls’ softball league to fill up the empty major league parks. By the end of 1943, the first league formed and lasted through to 1954.

After the war, it seemed “unbecoming” by some in society that women be outside playing sports, and they were to go back to the kitchen, and unfortunately only six women’s teams existed by 1952. In its history, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League created more than 600 professional women athletes.

Joe Sindelar running through first base, which is being covered by Renae Youngberg. BL-4367.49 (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

4. Some Rules Changed for the Ladies

Although the rules stayed pretty much the same, there were some minor differences for Women’s Baseball.

The length of the diamond, and distance between bases was shortened by a few feet, and so were the pitching distances. There were nine players instead of 10 with the men. 

The diameter of the baseball was a bit smaller so women could get a better grip on the ball. At first, fast-pitch wasn’t allowed, and women could only serve underhanded, but that was quickly changed. And, runners could lead off, slide and steal bases.

5. Female Athletes Were Paid Well, and Took Charm School

The first salaries for female baseball players were comparable to men, and certainly averaged more than the basic wage that people were getting at the time.

The salaries ranged from $45 to $85 a week, which is about $650 to $1,250 a week in today’s dollars). The highest salaries ended up being close to $125 a week, or more than $1,800 a week.

The women had a strict code of conduct, which included wearing skirts not to be shorter than a certain length (but they ended up cutting that because women need more room to run in). They couldn’t drink or smoke in public, or cut their hair short, and were required to wear lipstick at all times.

The contracts were much more strict than the men’s and the women also were assigned chaperones by the league.

All female athletes at the time were required during Spring Training to attend the Helena Rubinstein Evening Charm School classes that taught proper etiquette, mannerisms and personal hygiene.

Above all, they were to be ladies first. The Hall of Famer Max Carey, who was one of the presidents of the women’s league, insisted: “Feminity is the keynote of our league; no pants-wearing, tough-talking female softballer will play on any of our teams.”

Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell in “A League of their Own”

6. Movie starring Madonna, Geena Davis and Rosie O’Donnell Popularized Girls’ Baseball Again

A surge of interest sparked girls’ baseball again after the 1992 film “A League of Their Own” came out and was a smash hit. Director Penny Marshall (who died recently) was taken by a documentary about the female league and wanted to do a fictional account of their story, with many of the characters based on real people. Tom Hanks portrayed an actual coach of the female league, and Madonna, Lori Petty, Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell and others played actual women players who attended the world premiere of the Hollywood film.

It was the fourth directorial film for Marshall, who acted as Laverne in the TV series “Laverne & Shirley” prior to her directing career. She found it tough to get studio people to support her “girl’s movie” even at that time, and women were rarely shown as sports stars. 

“I hadn’t worked with so many women before,” Marshall said in an interview with the New York Times when the movie came out. “I wasn’t doing it as just a women’s picture. The problems as they’re presented in the movie apply to both men and women. It’s about, ‘Don’t be ashamed of your talents.’ It’s a universal thing.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *