Bloomer Girls tells the story of women playing baseball in the 19th century. Thanks to the gendered narrative that baseball is a man’s game and always has been, we have largely forgotten about all the women and girls who enjoyed the game and even got paid to play in the 19th century. This book seeks to place women back in the narrative. Sadly, due to women often using stage names or changing their names after marriage, it’s hard to tell the stories of the individuals. The book instead tells about the teams. There’s lots of statistics present in this text. The only figure to get a biographical treatment in the book is Sylvester Wilson who ran a few dozen professional women’s baseball teams over the span of decades. Since he was a con artist, a sexual predator (who often preyed on the girls on his teams), and a huckster, he was in and out of prison this entire time. His professional teams were not what you would think of as professional, really. They were burlesque shows on a baseball diamond. Occasionally, he’d have a player who could actually play, but that was rare. Given the nature of these teams, it’s no surprise that sports writers tended to brush them off, declaim them as a threat to society and morality, and suggest that women could not and should not ever play baseball. It wasn’t all so grim: Lizzie Arlington was the first woman to get paid to play pro baseball, pitching for various men’s teams. Women had civic teams and teams at their colleges and high schools. The number of such teams only rose throughout the 19th century.
While, I’m not much a baseball fan, I am interested in women’s history, which is why I picked this up. I had been under the impression that the book would talk more about the lives of women baseball players than it actually did. That’s on me though, for reading what I wanted into the book’s description. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book and the stories it told. There was an anecdote about one of Wilson’s teams being arrested in my hometown for playing on a Sunday. Given my town’s conservative bent today, this wasn’t particularly surprising. The titular Bloomer Girls don’t make an appearance until the final chapter of the book, as those teams weren’t formed until the mid-1890s. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of baseball or women’s history, as this is an important work in both fields.
Review by Jessica A.