A Game for All

Women have been establishing a foothold in professional baseball since 1898

January 28, 2011
Chico Outlaws Eri Yoshida during a practice at Butte's Cowan Field on Wednesday, May 12, 2010 in Butte Valley, Calif. (Jason Halley/Chico Enterprise-Record)

In the 2010 movie Remember Me, actress Emilie de Ravin's character Ally is at a fancy restaurant meeting her boyfriend's father for the first time.

After telling him of her plans to get a job in social work with a concentration in criminal justice, he explains that she has chosen a difficult path.

"Well, when I was little I wanted to be the next shortstop for the New York Mets. It can't get much harder than that," she responds.

Three million children play youth baseball in America today. Only 1,500 high school and college players are drafted each June. Ten percent of those drafted will ever play for a big league team. So that three million is now reduced to 150.

Making the big leagues is a dream held by millions of young boys on baseball diamonds all over the world. But lesser-known perhaps, it is also held by little girls.

The latest example is knuckleball pitcher Eri Yoshida, the Japanese pitching sensation playing for the Golden Baseball League's Chico Outlaws. The first female to pitch professionally in two countries, Yoshida donated her game-worn uniform and game-used bat from her May 29 debut to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"I like the idea of more women playing baseball," Yoshida said before the game.

Yoshida idolized Boston Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield growing up and dreamed of being the first woman to pitch in the big leagues. But she wasn't the first with this dream, and Yoshida follows a long line of women playing a man's game.

The first example dates back to 1898, when a woman named Elizabeth Stroud played under the name Lizzie Arlington pitched in a game in the Class A Atlantic League. She was discovered taking the mound in an unorganized professional game for the Philadelphia Reserves against Richmond. Arlington caught the attention of Atlantic League President Ed Barrow.

"For four or five innings, she had plenty of stuff and control," said Barrow. "She knew all the fundamentals of the game, having been taught by fellow townsman, old Jake Stivetts, who pitched many years in the National League in the 1890s."

Not only did Arlington pitch four innings, but she played second base for the rest of the game. She gave up six hits and three earned runs in an 18-5 win and collected two hits at the plate.

On July 5, she was set to play for Reading against Allentown in a regulation game and was dubbed by the Reading Eagle as the "most famous lady pitcher in the world." She pitched only one inning, but had success and secured a win. Following the game, the paper believed more in her ability to attract fans than in her talents.

"She, of course, hasn't the strength to get much speed on and has poor control. But, for a woman, she is a success."

Following this contest, other games did not materialize and Arlington's name dropped out of the spotlight, but the door had been opened and women began pushing through it.

Alta Weiss (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)During the summer of 1907, a 17-year-old Alta Weiss was on vacation with her family and asked a group of boys to play catch. Pretty soon she had created a spectacle, and the mayor of the town of Vermilion, Ohio, arranged a game among local sandlot teams to see her pitch.

From watching men play, Weiss had developed a fastball, curve, knuckleball and a sinker, along with a trick pitch.

"It's a little indelicate to say it, but I had also learned to throw a spitball," she said. "I chewed gum during a game, to make sure I had an abundance of saliva."

She was signed to play with a local semi-pro team and drew large crowds from all over.

"As a rule, women cannot throw straight. But of course there must be an exception to prove the rule. And Miss Alta Weiss, the phenomenal girl pitcher of the Vermilion baseball team, is the exception," a Cleveland newspaper article said. "Miss Weiss, notwithstanding her athletic prowess, is rather frail, and of medium height. There is nothing masculine in her appearance, and when she steps into the pitcher's box the spectators wonder how such a slim, delicate looking girl can perform the hard task of pitching against grown men."

Following her high school graduation, Weiss's father purchased interest in a semi-pro team, changed the name to the Weiss All-Stars and booked his daughter on a team of all men to barnstorm around northern Ohio.

Weiss pitched her way through college at Wooster Academy with the money she earned each summer, and even through the Starling College of Medicine, where she was the secretary of her graduating class and the only girl in her class to receive a Doctor of Medicine degree.

Weiss pitched in a floor-length wool dress, one of which is on display in the Diamond Dreams exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Following a sportswriter's suggestions, Weiss switched to bloomers, a trend for women ballplayers of the time.

The team stayed together for 17 years, but somewhere down the line, Weiss lost confidence in the women's movement she helped create.

"I don't believe that there will ever be any distinguished women base ball players." she was quoted in her later years. "Women haven't the nerve...They may get up some wishy-washy girl's nines, but they'll never have any real players."

That didn't stop others from trying. Lizzie Murphy proved the first woman to play with big leaguers on Aug. 22, 1922 when she played first base for the American League All-Stars in a charity game against the Boston Red Sox.

Ten years earlier, Murphy, who'd grown up playing baseball with the boys, turned 18 and faced the familiar crossroad reached by most athletically gifted young ladies of her time. Should she continue to play ball with the boys, or become a proper girl?

"I about decided that baseball wasn't a game for a girl and that I'd quit," she said. "But then I went to look at one of the games. It just made me crazy to take a turn at the bat and line out."

Murphy joined a semi-pro team and always attracted a crowd. She was probably the first woman holdout after her first manager didn't give her a cut of the take after a game. Murphy won the argument earning a salary for each game as well as a share of the collection earned to get her back on the field for she was the one fans paid to see.

Women continued to take on the game, largely as pitchers, and make headlines in the process. Virnie Beatrice "Jackie" Mitchell was signed in 1931 at age 17 to the Chattanooga Lookouts. She struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game in 1931 in front of a crowd of 4,000.

Julie Croteau (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)Another all-around female athlete, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, pitched in Spring Training for the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals in 1934. In 1936, Frances "Sonny" Dunlap became the first woman to play an entire minor league game.

Three women appeared in Negro League baseball in 1953, and women won a court battle to play Little League in 1974. That same year, Little League formed a separate softball program for the first time.

"Both sports are great options," said Julie Croteau, who filed and lost a sex discrimination lawsuit against her high school in 1988 for not allowing her to play on the baseball team.

"What matters most is that girls and women have the opportunity to participate in the sport of their choice," she said. "Baseball and softball are as different as they appear similar. For this reason, they will appeal to different athletes."

Croteau didn't let the lawsuit stop her from playing the game. She went on to be the first female to play men's Division III college baseball at St. Mary's College in Maryland, played the inaugural season of the Colorado Silver Bullets women's professional baseball team that existed for four seasons in the 1990s and was the first of two women to play in the professional Hawaiian Winter League in 1994. She was even a member of the first all-women broadcast team for baseball on Liberty Sports and the first female assistant baseball coach for a men's Division I college team at UMass-Amherst in Massachusetts.

She has promoted the game in other countries with Major League Baseball and even served as a stunt double in the hit movie A League of Their Own. Croteau believes that women can and will compete in the major leagues someday.

"Yes, with every cell in my body."

And she thinks Eri Yoshida is a step in the right direction.

"I think she is remarkable," said Croteau. "She is an example of what an athlete can do when given an opportunity and I think we are going to see a lot of good things from Eri."

As the US Women's National Team manager in 2006, Croteau scouted a number of young players who haven't made it on the national scene yet.

"I can say the best is yet to come for women's baseball."

Samantha Carr is the manager of web and digital media for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum