Don't Forget the Girls

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by Debbie Shattuck, June 2013

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Though we commonly associate baseball with boys and softball with girls, it hasn’t always been that way. We know that women were enthusiastic baseball fans from an early date. The Spirit of the Times reported on June 23, 1855 that there were many “ladies” in the crowd that saw the Eagle and Empire Clubs lay at Elysian Fields and that they took “great interest” in the game. Three years later, on July 24, 1858, the paper jokingly reported that the “ladies (God bless them!) turned out in large numbers” and that they “seemed to enter into the spirit of the game in a manner worthy of the most ardent devotee, betting kids and other trifles on the result.”

Women didn’t just attend baseball games; they played baseball and its forerunners too. George Thompson posted an item (#1840.38) to the Protoball site from the Polynesian in Hawaii, which reported on December 26, 1840 that “native youth of both sexes engage in the same old games which used to warm our blood not long since.” “Good old bat and ball” was one of the games. Tom Altherr located a fictional story in The Child’s Friend (Jan 1848) in which a mother recounts to her son, George, how she “liked boys’ playthings best” when she was a little girl and could “drive hoop, spin top, bat ball, run, jump, and climb” as well as her brothers could. Reports from the Hill Health Center in Dansville, New York in 1858 and 1859 indicate that the “ladies and gentlemen amuse themselves much by ball playing afternoons.”

I suspect that most girls and young women in the 1840s and 1850s got their chance to “bat ball” and play base ball on the grounds of schoolyards or in local pick-up games with boys. In 1859, feminist and abolitionist Frances Dana Barker Gage commented to a newspaper how pleased she was that the girls at the Eagleswood School at Raritan Bay Union (a Utopian community in Perth Amboy, NJ) were “encouraged to take vigorous physical exercise.” Baseball was one of the activities they enjoyed and Gage was determined to see to it that the principal at Dansville NY Seminary would allow his female students to play baseball too.