For Fun and Health -- That's Why She Played

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by Debbie Shattuck, October 2013

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Deb Shattuck’s Column, October 2013

For Health and Fun – That’s Why She Played

The study of baseball is a study of American culture. If we look carefully, we can see reflections of the tapestry of American life in our detailed studies of the game’s equipment, rules, statistics, playing venues, media coverage, finances, fans, players, etc. In the laws crafted to control the spaces in which players played and the days on which they played, we see the tensions between urban and rural, religion and state. In the enthusiasm of baseball boosters, anxious to spread baseball to the newly vanquished South, and the push-back of proud Southerners determined to withstand Northern cultural imperialism, we see the still raw wounds of a deadly Civil War. As I work to reverse the amnesia regarding women’s baseball heritage, I try to understand the context in which nineteenth-century women played our national game. One of the most obvious threads weaving its way through women’s baseball history is how the broader women’s rights movement influenced women’s involvement with baseball as fans, reporters, and players. I am convinced that, at least through the late 1860s, the vast majority of women baseball players took up the game because it was a fun, healthy diversion. They made no proclamations about invading men’s sphere on the baseball diamond because, prior to this point, baseball was still a gender-neutral sport, despite the fact that baseball boosters were increasingly employing the term “manly” to distinguish it from children’s bat-and-ball games.

The 1850s saw a renewed push in the United States for physical education and it is in this context that the majority of girls and women played. An initial surge of physical fitness activity in the 1820s and 1830s driven by German, British and Swedish immigrants had waned during the 1840s and, by the late 1850s, social commentators were prophesying that the unhealthy living conditions in American cities were threatening the survival of the Anglo-Saxon race. A new fitness craze swept through the East and Midwest; a new profession of “physical educator” emerged, and these “scientifically trained” men and women promoted healthy out-door sports like baseball. As I mentioned in my last column, by the late 1850s, men and women, boys and girls were playing baseball at sanitariums and schools. Many of the female baseball teams that sprang up at the Eastern women’s colleges after the mid-1860s were promoted by female physicians or physical educators. Male and female physical educators alike recognized the importance of promoting the physical fitness of American women to ensure they had the stamina to give birth to healthy children. In June 1859, the Kansas Herald of Freedom reprinted an article from the Philadelphia Bulletin entitled, “Genius in Women.” It argued that girls and young women must be taught to be more physically active because at present “the greater majority even of American girls in the healthiest period of life are semi-invalids, while a still greater proportion are constant sufferers when a little advanced in life. All of this is the direct consequence of neglect [of physical education].” Among the sports these educators recommended to promote physical fitness was baseball. Famed women’s rights activist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had described the female baseball team she encountered in Peterboro, New York in July 1868, wrote another letter from Peterboro the following week in which she lamented women’s sedentary lifestyle and its impact on the human race. Stanton made a strong argument for women to be engaged in more vigorous outdoor work to improve their health instead of being cooped up inside all the time sewing, doing laundry and keeping house. Her argument echoed the commonly held notion that weak, feeble women gave birth to weak, feeble offspring.

She wrote: “These feeble men we see about us may trace back their paralyzed limbs and softened brains to sickly, silly mothers, shut up in what is called woman’s sphere within four walls. As woman is naturally more nervous than man, how suicidal for the race to assign her all the employments that tax the nervous system, without giving her an opportunity for the development of muscle and bone.” Given these concerns, it is no wonder many women embraced baseball in the 1850s and 1860s. Like their brothers, uncles, fathers and cousins, they saw the wonderful potential of the national sport to provide them a fun and healthy diversion.

Note: this is Deb’s second essay for the Next Destin’d Post. The first one is found at Her email address is .