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Those Nimble American Girls

By Dorothy Seymour Mills, October 2, 2013
Vassar Resolutes of 1876. Courtesy of the Archives and Special Collections Library, Vassar College, Ref. # 08.187.

Throughout American history, girls and women have often been overlooked. “Remember the ladies,” Abigail Adams told her husband. But he didn’t, and they were left out of the most exciting events of their time. 

Sometimes those women had influence anyway, taking part under the radar. At schools around the country, girls played baseball with boys as early as the 1830s, before New York sporting journals began proclaiming baseball  the national game. As for young women, who played at least as early as the 1860s, those who attended the first American colleges set up for women, the Seven Sisters of New York and New England, knew how to play when they got to college. 

Before these institutions were set up for them, women had been discouraged from studying at the college level. The common belief of the time was that women were not strong enough to perform college-level work, so their health would surely break down if they were required to work at higher learning. So those who created these institutions did it not so much to train their students’ minds as to strengthen them physically.

A few people, like Matthew Vassar, disagreed with the general view women's lack of strength. Vassar, an extremely successful brewer, let his niece persuade him that young women could manage college work if their physiques were strengthened. So he established a women’s college in New York State, with the understanding that the work should be designed to build up their bodies.

At Vassar and the other institutions established for women in the mid-1800s, teachers led the young women in physical exercises. After a while, the women got tired of these and asked for sports and games instead. Like baseball. 

Their teachers, aware that females of those days were not supposed to go frolicking around playing active games like the ones males enjoyed, gave in but warned their young charges to keep it low-key and to play in some unfrequented corner of the campus. They added that if anyone got hurt, the administration probably would cut off their play.

Vassar students formed two baseball teams in 1866. These women were completely on their own. No assistance was forthcoming. Nobody taught them the game or supervised their play. And they had absolutely no equipment. Stuck out there on those isolated campuses, these young women found no Spalding store around the corner. They couldn’t order through the Internet. So they scrounged. 

One player wrote home to mother asking to have her brother send her some baseballs and gloves. Another wrote about finding a baseball on the street and picking it up gleefully, only to be chased by a gang of urchins shouting for her to drop their ball. After that scary experience, she said, she and her friends decided to get their equipment in other ways.

It’s clear that these teenagers established baseball teams like the Vassar Resolutes of 1866 completely independently. Nobody taught them the game; they already knew how to play when they entered college. If they entered at about 17, that means they were born around 1850, when New York in particular was the center of “the baseball fever.” 

During that decade, females could hardly help knowing about the many baseball teams in New York City, in the state, and in New England. Brothers of these young women were joining baseball clubs. Crowds of females were attending their games. So girls grew up seeing their neighbors and brothers play. They learned to play the way thousands of girls did later: by trying to get into the schoolyard and neighborhood games. Traditionally, boys scorned participation by girls, and not until they saw that a female had some skill did they let her join in.

This probably happened to one named Margaret Fuller, who was born in 1810. Her biographer learned that Margaret was a “strapping girl” (which generally means she was big, husky, and strong) who preferred boys’ strenuous games to the gentle ones girls usually played, so she joined them. Margaret ultimately became a famous journalist, literary critic, and feminist. 

Margaret Fuller. 
John Plumbe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While college women were forming baseball teams, so were the girls of an elite private high school for young women in Connecticut called Miss Porter’s. When the girls asked to play baseball, Miss Porter was concerned but finally gave permission, with the caveat that they must select a place to play that was not visible from the road because she didn’t want passers-by to see the girls at play. The word got around anyway. When Miss Porter’s girls received a challenge from a baseball club at a Hartford college, the parents voiced their objection to the idea of interschool competition, and Miss Porter eliminated baseball. But by the 1880s, girls there were playing again.

The 1889 baseball team at Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut, an exclusive institution for young women.
Courtesy of Miss Porter’s School.

Nobody had to teach Miss Porter’s girls to play baseball, either. When they formed their first club in 1867, they could have been about 14 at the time, which meant they might have learned how to play the national pastime in the late 1840s. That’s when boys’ baseball was in full sway. So it’s clear that girls’ baseball did not linger far behind in becoming a favorite pastime. Researcher Debbie Shattuck has found mentions in print of girls playing baseball at school, especially during recess, right along with the boys, in many towns and states as early as the 1820s and all through the thirties, forties, and fifties.

It was not until the 1860s and 1870s, when the industrial revolution swept the country and women began to enter occupations formerly monopolized by men, that males began to object to the presence of women in an activity they considered their own. Women continued playing the game, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. But we had to wait until 1892 to get a story in a big-city newspaper about college women playing baseball, and playing it well.

This happened after Smith College formed two women’s baseball clubs in 1878. In one game, a hitter drove a ball into the waist of a player and knocked her down. Other players had their glasses knocked off, so the administration banned baseball. But play revived later, and nearby Boston became aware of baseball’s popularity among the young women of Smith. 

In 1892, a reporter was sent out to check out what he had heard was happening at the college and got the surprise of his life. He wrote a story about the “great ball” being played there. He claimed that in a game where the freshman pitcher fooled many sophomore batters with her curve ball, other freshmen players made some terrific hits. And the sophomores, he said, had a pitcher with an amazing fastball. This sort of praise doesn’t sound as if the women were fumbling around trying to learn how to play the game. If Casey Stengel had been there, he would not have asked, as he famously did of his expansion New York Mets in 1962, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Beginning at least in the 1870s, some newspaper readers could find out about baseball being played by other young women who could not afford to go to college. These young women knew how to play, too, and they were not afraid to show it. They formed teams to play against each other publicly and for money. 

The Two teams, using a hired promoter, would travel together to city ball parks to play, charging admission. Scorning the long, unwieldy skirts that were part of women’s costumes then, they generally wore outfits based on the swim suits of the day: long stockings under short, knee-length skirts and short-sleeved tops. Their play was not always based on skill; they were giving what were considered exhibitions.

By that time, a few people had to admit in print that women actually played ball. Frances Willard, a feminist who astounded many critics by learning to ride a bicycle, wrote that the idea women couldn’t handle a bat (or an oar or a bicycle) was a myth that was passing away with the abundant evidence of women’s “nimbleness, abilities, and skill.”

Frances Willard learning to ride a bicycle.
From her book, A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride a Bicycle, published in 1895.


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