This article originally appeared in August 2014.
It was a promotion that would make even Bill Veeck blush. The Reading Coal Heavers, of the Class B Atlantic League, announced their July 5, 1898 contest against Allentown would mark the debut of Lizzie Arlington, "the most famous lady pitcher in the world." Arlington entered the Reading baseball grounds that day, according to the Reading Eagle (via SABR), "in a stylish carriage drawn by two white horses."
Elizabeth Stroud, Arlington's real name, was discovered by Atlantic League president Ed Barrow in an unaffiliated professional game with a Philadelphia club known as the Reserves. According to Barrow, "For four or five innings, she had plenty of stuff and control. She knew all the fundamentals of the game, having been taught by townsman, old Jake Stivetts, who pitched many years in the National League in the 1890s." Baseball-Reference suggests Barrow was referring to Jack Stivetts, who posted a 3.74 ERA in nearly 3,000 innings for St. Louis, Boston and Cleveland from 1889 through 1899. "Old" Jack Stivetts was 30 in 1898.
Stroud warmed up and took grounders at second base with the Coal Heavers, but did not play in the field. With Reading up 5-0 in the ninth, the call was made to the bullpen, and Arlington officially became the first woman to appear in an organized baseball game. Arlington worked her way into a jam as she allowed a pair of hits and a walk, but she managed to escape the inning unscathed and preserved the shutout.
The appearance of a woman on a professional baseball diamond was not a spontaneous event. Baseball historian John Thorn, in his 2012 work Baseball in the Garden of Eden, traces women's teams back to at least 1866, when Vassar College student Annie Glidden wrote in a letter, "They are getting up various clubs now for out-of-door exercise.... They have a floral society, boat clubs and base-ball clubs. I belong to one of the latter, and enjoy it highly, I can assure you." Women's teams popped up across the Northeast, including in Peterboro, New York, the home of the women's suffrage movement. Women's exhibition matches, albeit typically under the promotional stylings of "Blondes versus Brunettes," became popular in many areas.
By 1890, as men's professional leagues were expanding, an entrepreneur named Sylvester F. Wilson (an alias he used among many others, including his given name Christian Wilson and W.S. Franklin, during his time as a criminal swindler and "bully" who also allegedly abducted young girls), started his own Ladies' League. Wilson, a slick huckster, put out an advertisement seeking "50 girls to play baseball; $5 to 15 per week and all expenses; long engagement to travel to experienced players; ladies' league of 4 to 9 clubs now organized for 1891; must be young, over 20, good looking and good figure." (Baseball in the Garden of Eden)
Stroud never pitched in an affiliated game again, but she did continue to play baseball. Most of her playing days came in a women's league called the Bloomer Girls league, chapters of which popped up across the country in the late 19th century and lasted through the 1930s. Bloomer Girls teams had organized spring training and barnstorming trips and were fully professional. However, these teams would occasionally have difficulty filling their rosters, particularly with pitchers, and as such young men were occasionally enlisted to complete the team. According to The National Pastime Museum, Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby and Smoky Joe Wood made their first professional baseball dollars playing for a Bloomer Girls team.
Photo via The National Pastime Museum.
Despite the relatively common appearances of women on the diamond in the late 1800s, not everybody was having it. A St. Louis reader of The Sporting News, a woman identified only by the initials "M.S.", discovered Wilson's Ladies League advertisement and sent a scathing letter to the newspaper's editor. "What are our American girls coming to? The next thing I suppose we shall be having 'lady' jockeys on our race tracks," she rants. She concludes:
"It is hardly to be expected that ladies, or men who have any self-respect will turn out to see these creatures make themselves ridiculous. Yet professional ball players who are not in favor of women's rights are you going to stand idly by and see your province thus invaded? Are you going to say nothing while the "ladies" take your places on the diamond, in the sporting world, etc.? ... Very truly yours, M.S." (Baseball in the Garden of Eden)
There were no official rules barring women from professional baseball, affiliated or otherwise, but attitudes like that seen from M.S. were not uncommon, and baseball remained very much a men's space. The next woman to even approach an affiliated baseball appearance didn't come for over three decades, when Jackie Mitchell, a 17-year-old left-hander, was signed by the Chattanooga Lookouts to pitch in an exhibition game against the Yankees in April 1931. The Lookouts' owner, Joe Engel, was a publicity hound much in the Veeck mold—SABR refers to him as "the recognized P.T. Barnum of baseball". In the first inning, when Babe Ruth stepped up to the plate for the Yankees, Mitchell stepped on the mound, struck out Ruth and Lou Gehrig on three pitches each and walked Tony Lazzeri before being removed. According to reports, Ruth threw his bat "in mock disgust," whereas Gehrig moped back to the dugout, bat dragging on the ground behind him.
Despite the fact that Mitchell struck out two of baseball's greatest hitters on six combined pitches, nobody took her performance particularly seriously. The Sporting News suggested the major league sluggers were too gentlemanly to hit the ball against a girl. Within a few days, baseball's first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, voided Mitchell's contract with the Lookouts, claiming baseball was "too strenuous" for a woman.
Although Landis's ruling only applied to Mitchell's case, it was effectively a ban on women in baseball. An official rule banning women from MLB and its affiliated leagues appeared shortly after, in 1952, when the Harrisburg Senators attempted to sign 24-year-old Eleanor Engle to become their new shortstop. She never appeared in a game, thanks to the protests of Harrisburg's manager, Buck Etchison, who was not consulted on the signing. This time, the National Association of Baseball Clubs moved quickly. President George Trautman ruled both major and minor league clubs could not sign women, a ruling backed up by Commissioner Ford Frick. Even Veeck, then the owner of the St. Louis Browns and not even a year removed from sending 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel to the plate in a major league game, stated the idea of women in baseball was "going too far."
Throughout Baseball in the Garden of Eden, Thorn makes a critical point about rules. Speaking of a rule against professionalism in the game's earliest organized days, Thorn states, "There was no reason to institute a formal prohibition against an offense as yet unseen." The same applies to the National Association's rule banning women from the professional game. It was never about the game being "too strenuous" for women, an absurd statement for a game which is 90 percent standing around and waiting. It was never, as Landis would have had you believe, about protecting or shielding women. Nor was it just a matter of tradition.
Rather, the rule banning women from the National Pastime was a response to the Lizzie Arlingtons and Jackie Mitchells of the baseball world, the women who threatened to show that women could perform on the baseball field. These women threatened the sensibilities of those like "M.S." and the masculinity of the mighty Babe Ruth.
The question, then, isn't when women will earn a spot on the diamond next to men. They have been earning those spots for over 100 years. The question is when the men barring the gates will finally stand aside and let them in.
Jack Moore is a freelance sportswriter based in Minneapolis with a focus on sports history and mythology. Follow him on Twitter.