Four remarkable women from baseball history that everyone should know about
Four unsung women who helped shape baseball history
A few weeks ago, a 16-year-old French girl shocked the baseball world by simply being added to MLB's international registration list. Since Melissa Mayeux, a shortstop, became eligible to sign with a Major League club, she's proclaimed her admiration for Derek Jeter (who else?) and impressed some former pros at European camps -- all while seeming surprised that any of this is newsworthy.
Mayeux's ongoing bid to be the first woman to make it to The Show inspired us to think about the trailblazers that came before her. The history of baseball has been shaped by a number of talented and courageous women, and there's no better time to revisit some of their stories:
Mamie "Peanut" Johnson
Growing up in South Carolina, Mamie Johnson wanted to play baseball so badly she would cover rocks with tape and use them as balls (she thought softballs felt too much like cantaloupes). And as it turned out, she could play -- after competing with the boys all through high school, she tried out for the famed All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1953 at just 18, only to discover that black players still weren't allowed to participate:
Undeterred, she started playing semi-pro ball, where she was eventually spotted by a scout for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. The Clowns liked what they saw and signed her along with two others -- infielders Toni Stone and Connie Morgan -- who together became the first women to play at any level higher than the Minor Leagues.
With some help from a curveball she learned straight from Satchel Paige, Johnson -- who, at 5-foot-3 and less than 100 lbs., fully earned the "Peanut" nickname -- went 33-8 over three years with the Clowns. She eventually went to nursing school, and worked at a hospital outside Washington, D.C., for 40 years before retiring and running a Negro Leagues memorabilia store.
In addition to mercilessly dishing out zingers (when asked about her pitching repertoire: "There were a whole lot of pitches I threw, honey"), she's been known to hang out with another female pitcher you may have heard of:
There's a good chance no one ever loved baseball more than Edith Houghton. Born in Philadelphia in 1912, she performed as the mascot of the Philadelphia Police League's team at age eight. But she was much more than just a cheerleader; Houghton played every chance she could get growing up in North Philly, so much so that, eventually, a nickname began to catch on: "The Kid."
And Houghton was good. By the time she turned 10, she was already performing fielding and hitting showcases on the field before Police League games -- where, in 1922, she was noticed by Mary O'Gara, the founder of the semi-professional Philadelphia Bobbies (who were, yes, named after their required hairstyle). O'Gara snatched her up to play shortstop. Despite playing against girls twice her age, being so small she had to pin up her jersey and more closely resembling a Little Rascal than a ballplayer ...
... more often than not, Edith Houghton was the best player on the field. From a Lancaster, Pa. newspaper report:
Houghton volunteered as a supply manager in the Navy during World War II, and she returned home to a country that had cooled on women's baseball. So she went for the next best thing: Without an appointment, she walked into the office of Bob Carpenter, the owner of the last-place Phillies, and offered her services as a scout. A few days later, Carpenter called her back with a job offer, making Houghton the first female scout (and still one of the few) in the history of the game -- and inspiring this lede from the Sandusky Register-Star News:
Barbs aside, Houghton figured she'd be a natural at the profession. After all, she said, "You look for the natural ability. The rest comes with training." She signed 16 players over five years of work, and Philly's 1950 "Whiz Kids" would surprise everyone and win the NL pennant.
Houghton would eventually retire from her post to serve in the Korean War, and eventually settled in Sarasota, Fla., until her death in 2013, just 10 days shy of her 101st birthday. The secret to her longevity? As she told a local paper on her 100th birthday, just doing what she loved: "I guess I was born with a baseball in my hand or something. I enjoyed it more than anything."
"People say, 'Don't live in the past," Effa Manley once said. "But I guess it depends on how interesting your past is." Easy for Manley to say -- she had a past that could fill a library.
Her husband, Abe, a real estate entrepreneur, established the Brooklyn Eagles of the Negro National League in 1935, and a year later purchased the semi-pro Newark Dodgers and merged the two, basing the club in Newark, N.J. But it was Effa who assumed responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the club, despite having no professional financial experience -- everything from payroll to travel arrangements to buying the team's equipment.
From the moment she assumed control of the Eagles, Manley was a force -- she not only banged the drum to bring all kinds of celebrities (including New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia) to Newark's first game, but she was so infuriated with the team's performance in a 21-7 loss that she left before the game ended.
At the end of that disappointing first season, she immediately changed managers. (She had a reputation as an active owner: According to Negro League legend, Manley was known to cross and uncross her legs to give the bunt sign to her players.) As Negro Leagues historian Leslie Heaphy told the New York Times, in what is presumably the frontrunner for Understatement of the Century, "she learned early on not to be overlooked."
Manley would channel that brash conviction and knack for promotion into truly remarkable activism. While most Negro League players were still treated like second-class citizens, she gave the Eagles a $15,000 air-conditioned bus, and advocated for better pay and accomodations for all Negro Leagues players. And decades before the civil rights movement gained national attention, Manley was organizing "Anti-Lynching Night" at the ballpark and leading boycotts of Harlem stores that refused to hire black salesclerks -- a protest that led to literally hundreds of jobs.
But perhaps the greatest testament to Manley's legacy are the smaller moments: the loan she gave to future Hall of Famer and Eagles shortstop Monte Irvin when he needed a down payment for his first home; the team she and Abe sponsored in the Puerto Rican winter league to give players offseason employment.
Manley could be fierce, even abrasive, and that certainly ruffled feathers -- the Amsterdam New York Star-News reported that "the rough and tumble gentlemen comprising its inner sanction have complained loudly that 'baseball ain't no place for a woman.'" But in 2006, Effa Manley became the first woman inducted into the Hall of Fame, a posthumous validation of a life spent fighting for the things she cared about. In the end, the epitaph on her tombstone said it best: "She loved baseball."
Up until World War II, baseball was full of so-called barnstormers -- teams that would tour regions as a sort of carnival act, drawing crowds with bizarre attractions and entertainment. As you might imagine, this spawned innumerable odd stories, like, for example, novelty teams made up entirely of men with one arm or one leg.
But one of the strangest of them all involved Jackie Mitchell, who was just a 17-year-old girl pitching for a Chattanooga semi-pro team when she pulled off one of the most remarkable feats in the history of the game -- on April 2, 1931, Jackie Mitchell faced Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and struck them both out.
On its face, the story really does seem too good to be true: Local girl plays a boy's game, and strikes out two of the very best in the world. But rest assured, it happened, and there's even video to prove it:
Let's start at the beginning, though. Mitchell grew up in Memphis, the neighbor of Hall of Fame pitcher Dazzy Vance, who got her hooked on the sport and taught her how to throw a curveball. Her family soon moved to Chattanooga, where she developed a reputation (and a devastating sinker) while pitching for an academy associated with the local Class AA club, the Chattanooga Lookouts. The Lookouts were run by Joe Engel, an old-time showman out of central casting who once traded his shortstop for a turkey in the name of publicity. You can probably see where this is headed.
Back when "Spring Training" was more a suggestion than an organized affair, teams would head south to get ready for the new season and play some exhibitions on their way back up north. Engel had arranged for the Yankees -- just a few years removed from their Murderers' Row heyday -- to make a pit stop in Tennessee, and just a few days before the Bombers arrived, he made an announcement: Jackie Mitchell was the newest Lookout.
The press, as you might imagine, had a field day. On the morning of the game, New York's Daily News wrote that Jackie "has a swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick. Times in the South are not only tough but silly." A sellout crowd of 4,000 packed in to see the event, and they would quickly get their wish -- after the Chattanooga starter allowed the first two batters to reach base, Engel went to Mitchell to face the heart of the Yankee order.
First up was Ruth, who took the first pitch for a ball. Then a swing and a miss. Then another. And then, something amazing: Ruth took the fourth pitch, and the umpire called strike three. Ruth was irate, barking at the umpire before storming back to the dugout and slamming his bat down.
Lou Gehrig then strode to the plate, and Mitchell dispatched him even more efficiently: three pitches, three swings, three misses. Mitchell walked Tony Lazzeri next, and was promptly pulled from the game, her remarkable feat left unblemished. Unsurprisingly, word traveled fast:
Plenty of skepticism followed, with many suggesting that Ruth and Gehrig were in on the act. But neither player ever admitted to it publicly, and given Ruth's competitive streak (and propensity for strikeouts), it seems feasible that an unknown side-arming lefty they had never seen before might have fooled two of the best hitters on the planet.
Mitchell would spend a couple of years on barnstorming tours, though she eventually tired of the sideshow aspects of the lifestyle and retired to work for her father's optometry business. And, for her part, she was always adamant that the strikeouts were clean, swatting away the rumor in predictably awesome fashion: "Why, hell, they were trying, damn right," she told the Atlanta Constitution in 1986, just a year before she died. "Hell, better hitters than them couldn't hit me. Why should they've been any different?"