Karl Lindholm: Women in baseball II: Bianca, Toni, and Ila!

TONI STONE PLAYED second base in 1953 for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League, replacing Henry Aaron who left for the Milwaukee Braves. She is the subject of an excellent biography, “Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone” by Martha Ackmann. Painting by Graig Kreindler from the archives of NegroLeaguesHistory.com

'A YOUNG LADIES' base ball club, said to be from Cincinnati, played an exhibition game with the village nine on the college grounds yesterday afternoon. There was quite a crowd of spectators.” — from the Middlebury Register, Aug. 15, 1890. Photo courtesy of Sheldon Museum Archives

Second in a series

Just a few weeks after Kim Ng was hired by the Miami Marlins to run their team as the general manager, the Red Sox hired Bianca Smith to be the first Black woman to coach in the major leagues and the second woman overall:

Yes, those Red Sox, who for generations have had to live down the ignominy of being the last team to put a Black player on the field.

Like Ng, Smith is eminently qualified for this position despite her youth (she’s 30). A graduate of Dartmouth, she played on both the softball team and the club baseball team there. She earned a dual M.A. degree in business and law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and interned with both the Cincinnati Reds and the Texas Rangers, as well as serving as an assistant coach at two colleges.

As Juliet Macur wrote in The New York Times last month, “Her internship with the Reds was a turning point … she’d be a manager in the dugout, not a general manager at a desk.”

It will be interesting to see how Bianca Smith and Kim Ng fare in these challenging roles: Are they blazing a trail for more to follow, or are they anomalies, with baseball remaining nearly exclusively a male enterprise?

And will there ever be a woman on the field as a player, not as an exhibition to generate ticket sales, but there to actually help the team win?

Bill Veeck was the maverick baseball owner who integrated the American League in 1947 with Cleveland, and signed the great Negro League pitcher, the ageless Satchel Paige, the next year.

In 1951, when Veeck (as in “Wreck”) was president of the woeful St. Louis Browns, he hired actor Eddie Gaedel, all 3-foot-7, 65 pounds of him, gave him number “1/8,” told him to crouch low (he had a one-and-a-half-inch strike zone), and not to swing under any circumstances. He walked.

In his memoirs, Veeck claimed he left baseball in 1980 with an unfulfilled ambition: putting the first woman in a major league uniform. When he departed, he said he was conducting a search for the best female players. “It was not a stunt,” he insisted, claiming that a woman could play second base in the majors, or pitch.

Forty years on, we are no closer, it would seem, to seeing a woman in a major league line-up.

Women and girls have been playing baseball since the very beginning of the game in the 19th century.  Vassar College had a team in 1866 and several other schools followed. The first African American women’s team, the Dolly Vardens, was formed in Pennsylvania in 1883.  In the 1890s, barnstorming women’s teams called “Bloomer Girls” toured the country.

I was doing research for a talk at the Sheldon Museum on baseball in Addison County in the 1890s, and discovered in the Sheldon’s remarkable “vault” of broadsides a poster that read: “Coming! The Great and Only Young Ladies’ Base Ball Club: The Champion Lady Ball Players of the World!”

The Middlebury Register, the town newspaper, on Aug. 15, 1890, reported: “A young ladies base ball club, said to be from Cincinnati, played an exhibition game with the village nine on the college grounds yesterday afternoon. There was quite a crowd of spectators.”

While there was no infrastructure for organized women’s play throughout the early 1900s, remarkable women players found their way on to traveling men’s teams. In 1931, 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game in her hometown, Chattanooga, Tenn., and went on to play for the traveling House of David team. 

Many of you no doubt have seen the movie “A League of their Own,” a docu-comedy about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. It holds up as both entertainment and history. The AAGPBL was created to fill the void when the best of the major league players went off to war in the 1940s.

Begun in 1943 and based largely in the Midwest, the league was an immediate success. By 1945, attendance was 450,000 and the league had expanded to eight teams, and by 1948, attendance reached 900,000. That, however, was the high-water mark, and the league could not ultimately survive the boys’ return home.

Annabelle Lee pitched for four teams from 1944-50 and threw a no-hitter in 1945 for the Fort Wayne Daisies. Her nephew, Craftsbury, Vt.’s Bill Lee, won 119 games in the majors with the Red Sox and Expos. He credits Aunt Annabelle with teaching him how to throw the curveball, his best pitch.

About the same time, late 1940s, racial integration in the game was signaling the end of the Negro Leagues. The stronger of the two leagues, the Negro National League, folded in 1948, but the Negro American League hung on for another decade.

Three women played in the early 1950s in the NAL. The first and best was Toni Stone, who played second base for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1953 and for the Kansas City Monarchs in ’54. She was 32 when she signed with Indianapolis and had been playing on men’s teams her whole life.

Stone played in 50 games in ’53 for the Clowns and batted a respectable .243. The player she replaced at second had left to sign a contract with the Milwaukee Braves: His name was Henry Aaron. In 1954, the Clowns signed Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, a pitcher, and Connie Morgan, a second baseman.

The Colorado Silver Bullets were a barnstorming women’s team, sponsored by a beer company, Coors, and inspired by “A League of their Own.” The Silver Bullets played a variety of men’s teams, minor league, semi-professional, amateur, and college, from 1994-97, before Coors pulled the plug. 

In 1998, two women baseball players visited the baseball class I was teaching at Middlebury College: Mary Pratt, who played with the Rockford Peaches and Kinosha Comets from 1943-47 in the AAGPBL, and Elizabeth Burnham, of Newbury, Vt., who was a catcher with the Silver Bullets in ’94 and ’95.

Mary described the struggle of her life’s work as a gym teacher in Quincy, Mass., trying to interest girls in sports amid so many contrary social forces. For her part, Elizabeth simply allowed that she “loved baseball” and wanted to play at the highest level she could.  

Perhaps the most notable, and best, woman to play the game is contemporary. A lefty pitcher, Ila Borders was the first woman to earn a college baseball scholarship, pitching for Southern California College (now Vanguard University) in 1996. She went to pitch also at Whittier College — and then turned pro.

She was signed by the St. Paul Saints of the Northern (Independent) League and pitched in her first game on May 31, 1997. She pitched in 52 games in the Northern League from 1997-2000. She is the subject of compelling biography, “Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey,” written with Jean Hastings Ardell. 

That’s enough for now, but it leaves the question of what the status is of baseball for women on the field today, right now:

Is there movement toward greater opportunity for girls and women to play baseball, or has the organized infrastructure of softball, so widely played in scholastic settings, overwhelmed the possibilities in baseball for what Bill Veeck called “the one source of talent that has never been tapped (in major league baseball): the female of the species?”

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