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Diamond Girls: Pioneer Women of Early Baseball

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 3 2

Girls of Summer

Baseball truly is the national pastime, the game that symbolizes the spirit of America.

However, it is not solely of American origin (the famous Abner Doubleday “invention” story is a manufactured falsehood; the game evolved from the 18th century British game of “rounders” and also features elements of rudimentary cricket). It is a strange and wonderful sport whose history features many odd moments, none perhaps more unusual than during its more egalitarian era when, before they had the right to vote, some women were playing baseball – on men’s teams!

Waxing Nostalgic
America’s game carries a nostalgic, romantic charm the other two major sports (basketball and football) do not have.  Baseball evokes the fondest of childhood memories for many – the ballpark experience of that first game, the hotdogs, the sights, the smells.  All of these sensory triggers carry a nostalgia not found elsewhere. 

Baseball has its iconic song, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”.  Interestingly enough (for those who don’t know) this song is sung from the point of view of a woman.  Her plaint is to her man: “Take me out!”  But, she doesn’t want to go to any stuffy, hoity-toity place.  She wants to go to the ball park. 

Maud Nelson's "Bloomer girls" team

Neither basketball nor football has songs of merit.  Neither has the hilarious and oftentimes bizarre history that baseball does.  Embryonic baseball was a living display in anarchy writ small.  The early rules of baseball were in some cases vague, and chaos sometimes reigned both on and off the field. 

It is difficult for the modern fan to picture what an action-packed mêlée a 19th Century baseball game truly was (fights, disorder on the field and from the stands, flagrant and creative cheating).  What seems rote today, such as rounding second base in order to advance to third from first base, was not always obvious.  One early player was famous (or infamous, depending upon whether one sat on the “home” bench or the “visitors” bench) for advancing to third, from first, by using the Euclidean principal of “a straight line is the shortest distance between two points”.  He regularly made the trip to third base from first by running directly across the infield to third, never even coming close to touching second base!

In what is known as “The Dead Ball Era”, only one game ball was used throughout the duration of a game (the ball itself was more often than not made by hand by another player).  Players, playing bare handed, did many things to deface and alter the ball’s structure to throw off the opposing team’s play. The balls were cut with pen knives or greased with petroleum jelly. Pitcher’s hawked so badly on the sphere that by the end of a game a ball could be a sodden misshapen lump, with its hide torn loose, and almost useless for play.  Foul balls tipped into the stands often meant fistfights – the fan many times would not relinquish it, and the game could not continue without it.  Rule changes later prohibited defacing the ball and for allowing replacement balls for ones lost to long hits or fan exuberance.

Democracy in Action
Baseball was once an integrated sport.  During the American Civil War, both Union and Southern troops played the game, and African-Americans often joined whites on the same fields.  Much was made of Jackie Robinson’s “breaking the color barrier” in baseball in the 1940s.  Jackie Robinson didn’t break the color barrier he “re-broke” it.  Baseball, up until Reconstruction in the South ended with racist Southern Democrats taking over (yes, there was a time when Democrats were the bad guys), regularly featured black players and white together on the same field and on the same teams in both exhibition and regular game play.  The last black player on an integrated team was removed from his position in 1890.  Segregation only got worse for America, and in the wake of World War I (for reasons too complex to explore here) that segregation was institutionalized legally and culturally. 

The more fascinating element of baseball’s early history, though, is its inclusion of women as
players.  The wonderfully charming film A League of Their Own (featuring Geena Davis a

Dottie Stolze (early 1940s), AAGPBL
"Dottie Hinson", a fictionalized Dottie Stolze, a popular player of the 1940s) gives a roughly factual account of the rise of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.  This women’s league was created to keep baseball alive and profitable during a time when major league baseball attendance suffered from loss of players thanks to conscription.  The ploy worked fabulously.  Once the war ended, however, interest in women’s baseball declined dramatically, and the last AAGPBL games were played in the early 1950s.

But before women had a league of their own they played individually on women’s exhibition teams and in a few cases on men’s minor league teams as memorable Girls of Summer

A League Not Their Own

Amanda Clement (1888-1971); umpire
Perhaps the earliest woman in baseball, playing with men on a men’s team, was a most arresting young woman named Amanda Clement. The native South Dakotan is unique in the

Amanda Clement
pantheon of baseball for being the first paid female umpire in baseball history. As in much of baseball’s quirky early history Amanda’s start in the game was serendipitous. 

In 1904 the 16-year-old Amanda and her family traveled from South Dakota to Iowa to watch Hank Clement, Amanda’s brother, pitch a semi-pro game. The first game of the day was an amateur contest, and the scheduled umpire was a “no show”.  Hank said his sister was a pretty good ball player, and suggested that she take the missing umpire’s spot.  She umpped the amateur game and the semi-pros were sufficiently impressed to hire her on the spot as a regular official. 

Again, as in all things baseball, calling a game then wasn’t what it is today.  The umpire actually stood in the infield, slightly behind the pitcher, and had to make calls for all the bases, plus home plate, from that post. Amanda tucked her long hair under her cap, and stuffed a few extra game balls into the waistband of her ankle-length blue skirt (she wore a skirt during her career; anything less would have been construed as undignified).  She was the game starter with a shout of “Play ball!”, and she hustled.  She had to work calls from the infield, in her long skirt, making all the judgments at the plate, on all three bases, and for the outfield as well. 

Amanda officiated semi-pro games for the next six years.  She worked 50 games each summer, for which she was paid $15 to $25 per game (a serious chunk of change in 1904-1910). Her professionalism made her highly sought as an official, and almost anywhere in the Midwest she was the first-line umpire contacted for any game.  The money she made umpping baseball put her through college (post-secondary education being another rare occurrence for women in the early 1900s).  She first attended Yankton College, and then transferred to the University of Nebraska. While in school she umpired games, and she also played tennis and basketball. 

After she graduated, she taught high school physical education.  She later taught at the University of Wyoming, and still later became a social worker. Her brother Hank married and

Umpire in a Skirt (book cover)
had six children, all of whom played baseball with their Aunt Amanda as they grew.  Reportedly, even in her mid 40s, Amanda’s throwing arm was still good enough to sting; the nephews stuffed their gloves with sponges when playing against her.  She was inducted into the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964.

What is clear in Amanda Clement’s case is not only did she play with the men, but she was apparently treated as well as they, too.  Her rulings and opinions were respected enough that she managed to make a niche for herself in that male-dominated world.  She is worth remembering for that fact if nothing more.

A children’s format storybook was written about her in 2011, sponsored by the South Dakota Historical Society Press.  It is Umpire in a Skirt: The Amanda Clement Story, by Marilyn Katz, with wonderful watercolor illustrations of period Americana by Hector Curriel.  The book is inexpensive and can be ordered on-line from the SD Historical Society Press. 

Dr. Alta Weiss (1890-1964); pitcher
Like Amanda Clement, once given a chance, Alta Weiss was an overachiever.  Born in Berlin (Holmes County), Ohio, Weiss and her family moved to

Alta Weiss(61709)
Ragersville, Ohio, when she was five years old.  She started pitching for boys’ baseball teams when she was fourteen. At 17, in 1907, she joined a men’s semi-pro outfit, the Vermilion [Ohio] Independents. The uniqueness of a female playing on a men’s team was enough to draw 1200 spectators for her début.  In her first game she gave up only four hits and a single run in five innings.

The press and word of mouth soon spread.  Special trains were scheduled to run from nearby Cleveland, Ohio, to Vermilion on game days when Alta pitched.  When she played in the Cleveland Naps’ League Park, over 3,000 people bought tickets to watch her.

The dress code for women in that time was restrictive.  She told reporters, “I found that you can’t play ball in skirts, I tried. I wore a skirt over my bloomers – and nearly broke my neck. Finally I was forced to discard it, and now I always wear bloomers, but made so wide that the fullness gives a skirt-like effect.”

Just like Amanda Clement Alta Weiss earned enough money from her baseball career that she was able to put herself through medical school (and, also like Amanda Clement, this was rare

Alta Weiss
for the time).  She graduated from Starling Medical College (later named Ohio State University Medical College), and she was the only female to graduate in the Class of 1914.  During her college career she formed her own baseball team called the Weiss All Stars of Cleveland.  This team continued to play until 1922, and even after Dr. Alta Weiss hung out her shingle as a physician, she played off and on with her team. 

As a true hometown heroine (like Amanda Clement) Alta Weiss was inducted into the Ragersville Hall of Fame on October 20, 2004.  Her uniform was sent to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York for display in a women’s baseball exhibit that opened in 2005.

So, too, as with Amanda Clement, an author has chosen to render Alta’s story in picture book format.  Girl Wonder: A Baseball Story in Nine Innings, by Deborah Hopkinson, with illustrations by Terry Widener, was published in 2003.

Maud Nelson (née Clementina Brida; 1881-1944); third base
For longevity as a woman in baseball it is likely third base “man” Maud Nelson holds the record. 

Her career in America’s pastime covered over forty years, and she was active in every facet of women’s baseball.  Maud pitched, handled third base, scouted, and owned or managed some

Maud Nelson
of the best women’s teams of early baseball.  In 1908, one reporter gushed, “Maud Nelson is the greatest all-around female ball player in existence.”

Maud was the starting pitcher for the barnstorming (exhibition players) Boston Bloomer Girls in 1897.  Her team racked up an amazing 28 wins in 26 days; a Eugene, Oregon, paper raved, “The girls from Beantown put up a clean game and play like professionals, asking for no favors, but playing a hard, snappy game on its merits.”  That is indeed high praise for the late 1800s.  Maud was the star of that team.  She pitched every game; fans expected to see her in action and she did not want to disappoint them by sitting out.  To give herself a break, however, she would routinely strike out the opposing team for two or three innings and then turn the ball over to the bullpen.  She would return to finish the game at third base, fielding grounders and blasting balls over to first base for another six innings.

When she was 30, Maud and her husband John Olson took over as co-owners and co-managers of the Western Bloomer Girls. Maud spent much time scouting both male and female players.  She handled cantankerous booking agents with aplomb, negotiated contracts, and managed the day-to-day operations of the team. Her husband died in 1917; Maud remarried six years later, and with her new man in tow, she formed the All-Star Ranger Girls. The Ranger Girls played until 1934.

Maud did her best to recruit only the finest players for her teams. Many of the best players in the early years of the 20th century either played with her on a team or for her on one she owned or managed.   Because of her durability in baseball she managed to give an astounding three generations of women a chance to play professional ball. 

Lizzie Murphy (1894-1964); first base
In a barnstorming game Lizzie once got a hit off legendary pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige.  Afterward, a reporter asked Negro League catcher Josh Gibson if Satchel had really thrown his

Lizzie Murphy
best pitch at her, or was he just playing to the crowd, letting her get one.  Gibson said Paige had given that pitch everything he had: “No way had he wanted to be charged with a hit by a woman.”

Lizzie Murphy (nicknamed “Spike” and billed as “The Queen of Baseball”) in her prime playing days was the best female player in the country.  She started playing ball at age 15 for amateur teams around her hometown of Warren, Rhode Island, before she signed on with the Providence Independents. She then moved up to the nationally known semi-pro team, Ed Carr's All-Stars of Boston (often called the Boston All-Stars).  This team played more than 100 games each summer, barnstorming all over New England and Canada.

Lizzie wore the regulation men’s uniform of her day: a peaked cap, a wool shirt, baggy pants, and thick stockings with stirrups. As a nod to publicity, however, Lizzie's had her name – “LIZZIE MURPHY” – stitched across both the front and the back.  This was so the crowds could easily pick her out, and they were assured the player at first base was the woman they’d paid to see.

Publicity for her playing never stopped.  The team’s letterhead on its official stationery featured a picture of Lizzie.  Some press members thought this was exploiting the young woman. The team’s owner, Ed Carr, however, stopped such talk.  “She swells attendance, and she’s worth every cent I pay her. But most important, she produces the goods. She’s a real player and a good fellow.”  This is a clear indicator that Lizzie Murphy could more than stand up to her male teammates and was respected for her fielding.  Lizzie herself took advantage of her novelty status as a female on an otherwise all-male team.  She supplemented her income selling postcards of herself between innings, sometimes making as much as $50 per game on merchandising her image!

In 1922, the Boston Red Sox sponsored a charity game against a combination of New England and American League All-Stars. Lizzie Murphy made the cut to play first base, a phenomenal achievement.  It made her the first woman to play for a major league team in an exhibition game.  During this game, though, one of her teammates, the third base player, made the poor decision to test her mettle on the field. A batter hit a hard grounder to this third baseman who caught it handily enough.  But then instead of firing the ball to Lizzie (covering first base) for the easy out, he held onto it!  He blasted it as hard as he could at the last second when the runner was but a few feet from the first base bag.  Lizzie caught it, and the runner was out.  This smart-guy had to eat crow; he shamefacedly walked over to their shortstop and said, “She’ll do.”

Lizzie played in the National League All-Star game in 1928.  She had a couple of “firsts” in this game as well.  She was the first person (of any gender) to play for All-Star teams in each league.  Lizzie also broke another social taboo of her times.  She once played a game in the Negro League, a white woman covering first base for the Cleveland Colored Giants. [Give this latter accomplishment a lot of thought.  It is truly an amazingly bold act both on her part, her Negro League teammates, and for the accepting crowd who did not make issue of it.  She could perhaps just as easily been beaten or lynched for this – as could her African-American teammates – given the Klan’s racist pervasive popularity and political power at the time.  Had the social climate that day been just a bit different violence would have resulted].  After seventeen years of playing professional baseball, the extraordinarily gifted Lizzie Murphy retired in 1935.

Edith Houghton (born 1912); catcher
As an early-blooming “Bloomer” Edith Houghton had achieved her first whole decade of life when she joined the Philadelphia Bobbies, a factory team made up of women.  The women, in the Flapper

Edith Houghton
fashion of the early 1920s, all had their hair bobbed, hence the name.  At one time or another the ten-year-old Edith played every position on the field.

Edith Houghton, known as “The Kid” to her teammates, was so slight she had to tighten her ball cap with a safety-pin, and she used a pen knife to punch new holes in the belt of her uniform pants. Local Philadelphia sports reporters ignored her size and age, though, and consistently praised both her hitting and fielding. 

The novelty of women’s baseball meant opportunities elsewhere, and in 1925, the Bobbies toured Japan.  They played against men’s Japanese college teams for $800 per game.  They did not fare that well in the “win-loss” category, but the Japanese press loved them, and had only good things to report about Edith in particular.

After the team returned to the States, Edith left the Bobbies to play for a number of other women’s teams, including Margaret Nabel’s New York Bloomer Girls. She played one season in 1931 for the Hollywood Girls, and she also made $35 a week playing on men’s minor league teams.  By the mid 1930s, baseball opportunities for women vanished with the demise of the Bloomer Girls teams.  Edith settled, reluctantly, for playing softball as a fall-back job.  She played for the Roverettes in Madison Square Garden. When America became involved in World War II, she enlisted in the Navy's women's auxiliary (the WAVES) and played on their baseball team as well.

After the war, Edith contacted Philadelphia Phillies owner Bob Carpenter.  She wanted a job as a scout. Carpenter perused her scrapbook and gave her a chance.  She became the first female scout in the major leagues. She worked on behalf of the Phillies in that capacity for six years.  Her baseball career ended when she was recalled to active duty by the Navy during the Korean War.  Edith Houghton eventually retired to Florida, where she spent time watching Phillies and White Sox spring training, seemingly unable to get the ballpark and the glove out of her blood.

Jackie Mitchell (ca 1912-1987); pitcher
Jackie Mitchell is perhaps the best known of the early female baseball players for the stupendous achievement of striking out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in a 1931 exhibition game against the New York Yankees.  She pitched for the Chattanooga Lookouts Class AA minor league baseball team. Her career with that team, however, only lasted long enough for this exhibition game, leading to speculation the whole “striking out” of the Babe and the Iron Horse was engineered as a publicity stunt. 

She was born prematurely (weighing in at about three pounds) on August 29 in Fall River, Massachusetts.  Her year of birth is in contention, and is variously reported as 1912, 1913, or 1914.  Her given name was Virne Beatrice Mitchell.  Her father took her to the local sandlot and taught her baseball basics as soon as she learned to walk. Her next door neighbor, Dazzy Vance (Vance would later become a major league pitcher and eventually was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame) taught her to throw and showed her his “drop ball” (a variant of a “breaking” ball) when she was eight years old.

Mitchell was 17 when she began playing for a women’s team in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  She went to a special training school for baseball in Atlanta, Georgia. While in Atlanta she drew the attention of Joe Engel, who was president and owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts.  He offered Jackie a contract to play for the 1931 season. She signed on March 28, 1931, and was listed on the team’s roster as an official member. The Chattanooga papers ran stories about her being the first woman in the minor leagues. (Patently untrue as has been seen; however she was the second woman in baseball history to sign a minor-league contract; the first was Lizzie Arlington who pitched one game in 1898 for the Reading, Pennsylvania, team against  Allentown).

This is where her story takes that left-turn so common in baseball lore.  The New York Yankees and the Chattanooga Lookouts were slated to play an exhibition game in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 1, 1931 (only 4 days after Jackie Mitchell signed her contract with the Lookouts).  Rain caused a game-delay until the next day, April 2.  A crowd of 4,000 came to watch, including scores of reporters, wire services, and even a newsreel camera crew. 

The Lookouts’ manager started the game with Clyde Barfoot.  Barfoot gave up a double and a single immediately, so the manager signaled for Jackie. The rookie southpaw took the mound wearing a baggy white uniform that had been custom-made for her by the Spalding Company. In the Yankees’ line-up were the two greatest living ball players of her day, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig

Jackie Mitchell (w/ Ruth & Gehrig, Apr 2, 1931)

The first batter the 17-year-old faced was Babe Ruth. Jackie’s pitching repertoire was very limited, and the intimidation factor of facing “The Sultan of Swat” had to be tremendous for her.  She had one trick pitch, a sly, dropping curve ball. Ruth let her first pitch go by as a “ball”. He then swung at, and missed, Jackie’s next two pitches.  Her fourth toss just caught the corner of the plate; the umpire called it a “strike”.  Ruth, according to reporters, “kicked the dirt, called the umpire a few dirty names, gave his bat a wild heave, and stomped out to the Yanks’ dugout.”

Lou Gehrig was next up to the plate after Ruth.  He stepped up and swung at Jackie’s first sinker: strike one.  He swung twice more, whiffing both times.  Jackie Mitchell had fanned the “Sultan of Swat” and the “Iron Horse” in back-to-back passes.  The crowd was on its feet and roared – the ovation lasted several minutes.  She pitched to one more player after Gehrig, Tony Lazzari, who walked. She was pulled from the game and Barfoot put back in.  The Yankees went on to win it, 14-4.

Babe Ruth was quoted afterward in a Chattanooga newspaper: “I don't know what's going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball. Of course, they will never make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.”

Oddly, a few days after Jackie struck out Ruth and Gehrig, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided her contract.  He declared women unfit to play baseball as the game was “too strenuous.” 

There is something a bit off about this whole event.  To begin with, the game’s intended play date, April 1, 1931 (April Fool’s Day) is telling.  The only reason the game wasn’t played on that date (and perhaps lost some of its “punch” as a prank) was due to rain. 

Babe Ruth was a gluttonous slob who cared little for training or disciplinary regimens such as eating well or getting enough sleep before a game.  It isn’t known what he did the night before, but his crushing out-of-the-park home runs did not require much exertion on his part. He was used to cracking fly balls all over the place, taking a leisurely trot around the bags, and then sitting down.  Also, Ruth’s ego would not have let him take the Chattanooga game seriously at all – he was The Mighty Bambino going up against a bunch of rubes, with a woman (a teenaged girl, really) as their star pitcher (for all of 5 days at the time of the game). It is almost assured Ruth approached Jackie Mitchell’s pitching with a nonchalance that would be his undoing.

Ruth whiffing in these circumstances is really no surprise.  Lou Gehrig’s poor showing, however, does come as a shock.  Nicknamed “The Iron Horse”, Gehrig was a baseball playing machine.  He was fit, disciplined, and loved his game.  He played through injuries, never missing work.  It is almost inconceivable that Gehrig would not at least have tipped against just one of Jackie Mitchell’s pitches.

The best conclusion (and the only sane one) to draw is this game was set up as a huge publicity stunt.  It does seem unusual that Ruth (third in the batting order with Gehrig as “clean-up”) wouldn’t be put in the “clean-up” position.  Not knowing historically what the Yankees’ batting line-ups were in other 1931 games leading up to this one it seems highly unusual that Ruth and Gehrig, two heavy-duty sluggers, would be back-to-back in batting order.  It would seem they’d be spaced apart, allowing each key hitter to “clean up” where needed.

Jackie Mitchell (w/ Ruth & Gehrig, Apr 2, 1931)(61714)

Perhaps the truth will never be known.  But almost assuredly if the fix was in (meaning Ruth and Gehrig were instructed to intentionally strike out) it seems Jackie Mitchell was not in on the joke.  The third batter, Tony Lazzari, drew his walk from Jackie.  So, this means she pitched well enough she could have played the rest of the game. Perhaps the only reason she was allowed to pitch to Lazzari after striking out Ruth and Gehrig was to allay suspicions about the game being rigged

Finally Commissioner Landis’ voiding her contract had nothing to do with his alleged intimidation of women in baseball. Rather, she had fulfilled her intended purpose and was discarded.  And his flimsy argument of baseball being too strenuous for women?  Tell it to Maud Nelson or Amanda Clement!  Although Jackie’s time with the Lookouts was probably nothing more than a publicity stunt (and lasted less than two weeks), she loved the game enough to go on and play elsewhere.

As in all things in early baseball the weirdness did not stop at the individual players.  Whole teams could be eccentric as well, and Jackie ended up with one of the strangest bunch in baseball’s very colorful history.  During her barnstorming days that followed her stint with the Lookouts she played with a group of professional barnstorming men well-known for very long hair and long beards.  They were named “The House of David”! To play along with the visual solidarity Jackie Mitchell occasionally donned a fake beard for publicity while traveling with the House of David team.  Jackie Mitchell’s novelty reached absurd proportions, however, and at age 23 (in 1937) she retired from the game after being asked to pitch while astride a donkey! She went to work at her father’s optometry office and played baseball only occasionally.

Still stinging from her inability to be taken serious as a player she even refused to come out of retirement when the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League formed in 1943.  She was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Chattanooga Lookouts on their season opening day in 1982, and she did it graciously.  She died in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, on January 7, 1987, and was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Chattanooga.

End Game
Major League Baseball formally banned the signing of women to contracts on June 21, 1952.  This prohibition lasted until 1992 when Carey Schueler was selected by the Chicago White Sox for its 1993 season.  Although certainly many women perhaps celebrated this “breakthrough”, the breakthrough had really been made decades before and, like blacks in major league baseball, it was more of a “re-breaking” than a “breaking”.

Most of these early women in baseball have been forgotten, and for every Jackie Mitchell who is remembered there is a Lizzie Arlington who is not.  This particular group of women in baseball is but a handful of female players who enjoyed varying degrees of success, thanks to America’s Game.  They deserve to be remembered and appreciated for their groundbreaking contributions.

***

Short film about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League

A League of Their Own (20th Anniversary Edition) [Blu-ray]
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Women in Baseball
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not about baseball

Trucker Man
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Comments

Sep 11, 2011 2:04am
JudyE
Great- and comprehensive - article.
Sep 11, 2011 3:03am
vicdillinger
Thanks.

As always, I got a little carried away. This was supposed to be about Jackie Mitchell and my "rat smelling" with the Ruth/Gehrig stunt, but then I found all those other women and I just couldn't leave them alone, so it turned into this. And they actually represent a fraction of what was going on in the game at the time as far as co-ed baseball went.
Sep 11, 2011 3:03am
vicdillinger
This comment has been deleted.
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Bibliography

  1. Tony Horwitz "League of Her Own." Smithsonian. 44:4 1/07/2013.

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