I was paging through the 1953 Sporting News Baseball Guide, looking for information about another post in the works, when my eye was caught by a photograph of a young woman in a baseball uniform. This was the caption:
When Harrisburg (Inter-State) announced its intention of signing Mrs. Eleanor Engle, 24-year-old stenographer, as a shortstop as a publicity stunt, June 21, 1952, feminine performers were officially barred from playing in Organized Ball.
I’m 51 years old and have read a lot of baseball history, but I’d never seen anything about this before. After doing this research I find I have no excuse, because the event has gotten some attention in recent years, both in the wake of the movie “A League of Their Own” and the formation of the all-female Colorado Silver Bullets baseball team.
The photo I saw in the 1953 Baseball Guide had also appeared in The Sporting News issue of July 2, 1952:
(This clipping, as well as a clipping of the entire article, is available on the Hall of Fame‘s website as part of their small section on “Primary Sources – Women in Baseball.”)
Here’s the story as it was told at the time. The Harrisburg (Pa.) Senators of the Class B Inter-State League, a minor league team affiliated with the Philadelphia A’s, signed Engle to a contract on June 21. (She was widely reported to be 24 years old and 132 pounds, but her height was never mentioned. It seems she engaged in the time-honored baseball tradition of shaving a couple of years off her age; stories about her in the Harrisburg Patriot-News in 2002 and 2006 referred to her as being 26 at the time.) Engle was a stenographer for the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission.
The next day she was in uniform and took part in pregame drills (“scooped up a few grounders and took a turn at bat in the practice session,” according to The Sporting News, but there were no qualitative descriptions of her performance aside from the “threw like a girl” crack in the cutline). She was in the press box in street clothes during the Senators’ 9-4 loss to Lancaster.
The decision to sign Engle was apparently made by team president Dr. Jay Smith. “She can hit the ball a lot better than some of the fellows on the club,” he said, according to The Sporting News. (That same quote was attributed to Senators general manager Howard Gordon in an Associated Press story on June 23.)
But Smith neglected to inform player-manager Buck Etchison before signing Engle, and Buck wanted nothing to do with it: “She’ll play when hell freezes over.” Etchison was also quoted as saying: “I won’t have a girl playing for me. This is a no-woman’s land and believe me, I mean it.”
The Sporting News reported Lancaster manager Whitey Kurowski, the former St. Louis Cardinals star, threatened to protest the game if Engle played, and umpire Bill Angstadt said, “If she ever comes up to bat, I quit.”
The next day, George Trautman, president of the National Association (the governing body of the minor leagues), issued the following statement:
Following press reports that the Harrisburg club had entered into a contract with a woman player, the National Association office contacted the club and has been informed that no such contract has been executed, nor has any woman player ever appeared in a game with the Harrisburg club.
So as to remove any possible doubt as to the attitude of this office toward any such contract, I am notifying all clubs that signing of women players by National Association clubs will not be tolerated and clubs signing, or attempting to sign, women players will be subject to severe penalties.
(The subhead in The Sporting News above this announcement was “Trautman’s Ukase.” Ukase? That was a new one on me. The definition according to Random House: “(in czarist Russia) an edict or order of the czar having the force of law.” Seems like an odd word to use in those cold-war times, but whatever.)
Engle’s response: “I think baseball is making a big mistake. I love the game. More women should be playing. I’m sure that I would have been able to remain as a player with the Senators. Why, women are good at a lot of things, like golf, politics, track and other sports. Why not baseball?”
Engle was also quoted as saying Trautman “threw me a curve and I struck out.” (She’s used the same metaphor in recent interviews, only now she says it was baseball commissioner Ford Frick who did the curve-throwing. Trautman had consulted Frick, and the commissioner agreed that “it just is not in the best interest of professional baseball that such travesties be tolerated,” according to Trautman.)
“Why should he [Trautman] do this to me?” Engle asked in 1952. “If I can’t play baseball I don’t want to do anything.”
Engle had some additional comments in a United Press story after her contract was rejected.
“Baseball is making a big mistake keeping me and other woman outside the sport,” she said. “Women are able to play it and officials should recognize that fact.” . . .
Mrs. Engle bit her lip to fight back the tears when she received the sad news at Harrisburg. “I think baseball is making a big mistake,” she said. “But I still have my accordion. I’ll just keep up my entertainment work.
“I’m through with baseball.”
She added a barb for the Harrisburg players who didn’t want her on their teams [sic]. “I still feel I can bat a ball just as far as any of those fellows.”
(“I still have my accordion”? I’ve got to find out more about that.)
She was serious about being through with baseball. Reports at the time indicated Engle was offered a tryout by the Fort Wayne Daisies of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, then in its tenth season. The Daisies were managed by Hall of Fame slugger Jimmie Foxx and would go on to win the league’s regular season title that year as well as the next two before the league folded after the 1954 season. But Engle did not go through with the tryout, and her baseball career came to an end.
The Sporting News, “the Bible of baseball” which tended to take a conservative view of the sport, took a firm stand on the issue of Eleanor Engle in an editorial that appeared alongside it’s story about Trautman rejecting the attempt to sign her:
Here’s part of the unsigned piece:
Mrs. Engle is doubtless an accomplished player for a woman. But women are altogether out of place on the diamonds or in the dugouts of professional ball.
The reasons should be readily apparent. Opposing players would be reluctant to slide into a base guarded by a girl infielder, pitchers would hesitate to throw too close to a feminine batter, tagging would be a problem, baseball could not afford to take a chance of injury to a women [sic] in a game played for keeps by men. Dugout language is too sulphuric for the ears of ladylike performers, special dressing rooms would have to be provided, and there always would be the risk of insulting remarks hurled by smart-aleck fans. . . .
THE SPORTING NEWS hopes this is the last time it will ever find it necessary, as a matter of news coverage, to print the picture of a woman ball player on a men’s team. Woman’s place may not be altogether in the home, and feminine athletes have won distinction in many sports in which they can compete against others of their sex. But as far as Organized Baseball is concerned, woman’s place always will be in the grandstand.
But a (very) slightly more enlightened viewpoint came from United Press reporter Oscar Fraley (who five years later would write “The Untouchables” with Elliot Ness). From his column as published June 24, 1952 (I found it in the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard):
Fearless Fraley has just got to say that the baseball boys seem a bit stuffy. . . . Times, as any reinstated recluse will tell you, have changed. The ladies came out of the pantry a few years back and frozen food stock has been jumping ever since. We have women welders, curvaceous cops and lassies who tool taxicabs with all the reckless abandon which marks the male of the species. . . .
After years of associating with guys who chew tobacco and spit through their teeth, old Fearless favors beauty with his basehits and pulchritude with his putouts. [An aside: could the alliterative Fearless Fraley have been the inspiration for Word Smith, the “author” of Philip Roth’s baseball classic, “The Great American Novel”?]
There can be small question that the ladies are here to stay. And, it might be added, they do give the joint a certain amount of charm, an item singularly lacking in most dugouts. Let’s face it, fellows, the hoop skirt is gone for good.
This would be a good time to establish some of the changing world of 1952. Women had come into the work force in great numbers during World War II. Baseball’s unwritten ban on black players had ended with the signing of Jackie Robinson in 1946 and Robinson’s elevation to the majors in 1947; several teams were still all-white in 1952, but black players had become an accepted part of the game at the major league level (even if they still had trouble in some southern minor leagues).
A major change that was having an impact on baseball was the rise of television. There were more than 15 million TV sets in use in 1952, nearly five times the number of just two years earlier. Almost two-thirds of American homes were still without a television, but the novelty of TV was keeping more people at home nights, and there were many who blamed the decline in baseball attendance in large part on the growth of television viewing. Major league attendance dropped 8.7% from 1951 to 1952. The decrease in minor league attendance was smaller, but seven minor leagues shut down after the 1951 season because of attendance and revenue problems. An increase in home air conditioning and movement of families to the suburbs, away from where the ballparks were, have also been cited as reasons behind the drop in attendance. At any rate, 1952 was the beginning of a decade-long decline in the minor leagues.
Harrisburg and the Inter-State League served as a microcosm of this decline. The league was formed as the nation pulled out of the Depression in 1939, and it was one of the very few leagues that stayed in operation every season through World War II. League attendance peaked in 1947 and then dropped every year after that. By 1952 attendance was less than half what it was in 1947, and the league folded after the season.
Harrisburg attendance showed an even more dramatic decline during those years. From a peak of 89,197 in 1947, attendance fell to 80,896 in 1949, 51,707 in 1950 and 40,619 in 1951, bottoming out at 30,592 in 1952, barely one-third of what it had been just five years before. After the Inter-State League folded it would be 35 years before minor league baseball returned to Harrisburg.
I bring up the falling attendance figures because many baseball operators were desperately trying to find ways to bring people to the ballpark. Less than a year before Harrisburg signed Engle, St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck signed a 26-year-old dwarf, 3’7″ Eddie Gaedel, and put him in a game against the Detroit Tigers. Gaedel walked on four pitches, thanks to his impossibly-small strike zone, and was removed from the game. Just as there was not a formal ban on women in Organized Baseball before Eleanor Engle, there was no rule against dwarves or midgets before Eddie Gaedel, but, as in the Engle case, one quickly came into being. (The Gaedel case also led to a formal rule that all player contracts must be approved by the commissioner before the player can play. Veeck had taken advantage of the weekend to put Gaedel in action before the commissioner’s office was open to review the contract.)
So with the memory of the Gaedel stunt still fresh, the immediate reaction to Eleanor Engle’s signing was that it must be a publicity stunt. Senators general manager Howard Gordon begged to differ. “This was no gimmick or a gag to bolster attendance,” he was quoted as saying in an AP article. “Proof of that is the fact that we announced the signing just before we left on a road trip.” Of course, the Senators did have a home game to play before they left on the road trip. Not that Engle’s appearance in uniform helped; the paid attendance the night she was in uniform was 435, roughly what the Senators averaged for the season.
Gordon also told the Harrisburg Evening News at the time: “Actually, we were seeking to test an unwritten law for once and for all.”
It’s unclear from the materials I’ve seen just how Eleanor Engle got the chance to be barred from baseball in the first place. A 2002 article in the Harrisburg Patriot-News said general manager Gordon, team president Smith “and other members of the Senators’ board of directors knew of Engle’s background in sports, particularly in softball and basketball.” Gordon said at the time Engle was signed “because of her ability as demonstrated in workouts at the ball park.” I’m certainly not saying, 57 years later, that Engle wasn’t a talented athlete. But I’ve not seen any attempt to characterize her play before she signed with the Senators, no accounts of her hitting in softball games or any particular incident that caught the eye of anyone with the Senators management. And I would think you would see some account of her throwing ability if the Senators were promoting her as a shortstop. I’m hoping to eventually uncover something that was published in Harrisburg at the time that might shed some light on this.
I’ve only found two brief references to how the other Harrisburg players, aside from Etchison, reacted to Engle. An AP story after her appearance in uniform said, “The Senator ballplayers–the men, that is–made no comment that could be quoted.” But a 2006 article in the Patriot-News quoted Ron Esrang, who in 1952 was the Senators’ 20-year-old second baseman (and is pictured with Engle above), who makes it sound as if there was no ill will. “She was a very nice person to get along with,” he said. “There were no problems with the guys. When we went on the road and one of us booted the ball, the fans would yell, ‘Put Eleanor in there!’ But she didn’t travel with us.”
Engle wound up taking a job at IBM in 1963 and stayed there until her retirement in 1990. A 2007 article about her by Kevin Czerwinski on minorleaguebaseball.com said Engle “never once [let any of her IBM co-workers] know she was a celebrity,” adding that she was “proud of the fact that she kept her baseball past from her co-workers, many of whom didn’t learn of her exploits until a local newspaper article about her was published last year,” the 2006 Patriot-News article I’ve referenced already.
But in her 2002 interview, she tells a slightly different story. “I had such a long and successful career at IBM. I didn’t want to talk about it then, because I didn’t want to put my job in jeopardy. But the people there already knew about it.” Which makes sense, because Eleanor was very big news in Harrisburg in 1952.
After she retired, Engle consented to let Topps use a photo of her on a baseball card when the company did a reprint of its 1953 set in 1991. Of course, she did not have a card in the original set, but in the reprint Topps added several cards to the original set, including ones for Hall of Famers Hoyt Wilhelm and Hank Aaron (who didn’t reach the major leagues until 1954).
Eleanor and her husband George (described in the 1952 Sporting News article as a 27-year-old carpenter whose opinion of his wife’s baseball career was, “it’s okay with me”) are still alive and live in Camp Hill, across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg. (UPDATE: Alas, Eleanor passed away Sept. 27 (correct), 2012, age 86.) George has not been mentioned in any of the recent articles about Eleanor but I’m assuming he’s still alive because he’s still listed in the phone book, at the same address as Eleanor. I’ve seen no reference to their children but I have seen a reference to a grandson. (UPDATE: According to her obituary, George, her husband of 66 years, is indeed still alive; they have a daughter, age unknown, and a grandson.) (FURTHER UPDATE: George Engle passed away March 15, 2013, age 89.)
Eleanor Engle is, by all accounts, a delightful woman who agreeably fulfills the autograph requests she receives in the mail but really, really, really doesn’t want to talk about her baseball career. I’ve found only three occasions where she has: the 2002 and 2006 articles by Andrew Linker in the hometown Patriot-News and the 2007 online story by Czerwinski. She told Linker in 2002 (on the 50th anniversary of her appearance in uniform) she had received many calls from reporters through the years but had refused to talk about baseball. She refused to talk about it with Linker as well. “Oh, I don’t want to talk about it. The past is the past.”
One baseball-related topic she did discuss, though, was her picture that appeared in The Sporting News and on her baseball card. “Look at that, I’m like a skunk at a picnic,” she told Linker in 2006. “I just went in and sat down, and somebody took the picture. Just the way they captured it was comical.”
The occasion of her 2006 interview (under the headline “Baseball’s Garbo”) was her part in an expanded Hall of Fame exhibit about women in baseball. She was invited by the Hall to attend the opening but chose not to because she didn’t want to deal with reporters and photographers. Her comments then in the article led a reader to believe the publicity she received in 1952 made her not want to seek any more.
That publicity to me then was horrible. I used to have reporters waiting for me outside of church. I felt like I was being tailed all the time. I would get on the bus to go to town and they’d say, “Why, she doesn’t have baseball player legs!” I thought, “How cruel.”
Engle expanded on the topic when she talked to Czerwinski a year later.
I suffered in 1952. It was a nightmare everywhere I went. . . . I would come out of church and photographers would be there. The publicity and everything was unbelievable. I can’t begin to tell you. The day the story broke, the photographers were in the hallway of my office building. It was awful. I thought I was going to lose my job.
I’ll say this: she looks like a willing participant in the wire photos shown above. But I can imagine she could have changed her mind about how enjoyable it was pretty quickly. She also told Czerwinski:
I guess if I had been accepted, I would have enjoyed it more. I never dreamed it would be like it was, with all the reporters trying to get me. I didn’t think it would be any different than if a man had signed.
Eleanor says she has both the contract she signed and the uniform she wore (number 11, if you’re curious), but has not shown them to reporters.
(By the way, if you look at the Czerwinski article, take the time to look through the “Cracked Bats archive” in the pulldown menu near the top. Kevin did a bunch of great pieces, many of them expansions of little items about minor league oddities that would appear in the annual Baseball Guides. Great stuff.)
I hope I’ll find a few things to add to this post. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some of the terms used to describe Eleanor Engle in print in 1952. I can assure you similar terms were not used to describe men.
…an attractive 24-year-old stenographer…willowy Eleanor Engle…the beautiful 24-year-old brunette…the shapely stenographer…Eleanor, slick, sweet and different in her man’s uniform…lovely Eleanor…Vivacious Eleanor Engle…pretty Eleanor…the 24-year-old shapely brunette…
“Well, I was a willowy brunette,” Engle told Czerwinski.
(Sources for the images above, from top down: The Sporting News, July 2, 1952 (hereafter referred to as TSN)…Eugene Register-Guard, June 24, 1952…TSN…Los Angeles Times, June 23, 1952…TSN…New York Times, June 24, 1952…the Czerwinski piece…Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1952…card from an eBay auction…artwork that accompanied Mrs. Engle’s obituary in the Vineland (N.J.) Daily Journal.)