New Baseball History Includes Bloomer Girls, Semi-Pros From the 1890s

Women playing pro baseball — in the 1890s? Check it out, in this NPR report on a new book about baseball, Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress, by Susan Reyburn and Phil Michel:

Michel’s favorites from the printed archive include giant panoramic shots and vintage baseball cards from the early 1900s, as well as early photos of female ballplayers, also known as “bloomer girls.”

Teams of women — with a couple of men as ringers — barnstormed the country beginning in the 1890s and into the 1930s, says Reyburn.

Myrtle Rowe, pictured here in 1910, signed to play first base for the Antler Athletic Club at 18.

Enlarge Courtesy of Library of CongressMyrtle Rowe, shown in 1910, signed to play first base for the semiprofessional Antler Athletic Club in New Kensington, Pa., at the age of 18.

Myrtle Rowe, pictured here in 1910, signed to play first base for the Antler Athletic Club at 18.

Courtesy of Library of CongressMyrtle Rowe, shown in 1910, signed to play first base for the semiprofessional Antler Athletic Club in New Kensington, Pa., at the age of 18.

“You can pick out some of the less attractive women, [who] are actually men. And in some cases, they would appear on field in wigs,” she says. “And the idea was to try to pass themselves off. Some very famous players, including Smoky Joe Wood, [Rogers Hornsby] — who went on to great Major League success — got their start as bloomer girls.”

Some of the games tended to have a sideshow-like character, Reyburn says, but as time went on, they developed into more of a “white-knuckle game that was being played, as opposed to a circus-like performance. And it was a huge success across the country.”

In addition, there were women who played on men’s teams — like Myrtle Rowe, an 18-year-old who signed to play first base for the semiprofessional Antler Athletic Club in New Kensington, Pa.

A glass-plate negative from 1910 shows Rowe holding a bat. She played in a blouse and a skirt down to her ankles.

The Library of Congress also has images of Jackie Mitchell, who at 17 years old struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game in the 1930s.

“After this happened, the commissioner of baseball was not pleased, found this to be a very embarrassing thing. [He] banned her and women from the game,” says Reyburn. “That was the end of women in Major League Baseball.”