WASHINGTON, June 1, 2013 — Looking around the packed Nationals Park this past Sunday, you would find it hard to imagine that once upon a time women could not attend baseball games. That policy was later modified so that women could attend, but only if accompanied by a male companion.
This prompted some women to congregate around ballpark entrances before games, seeking a respectable looking gentleman to sidle up next to and enter the ballpark with. Any woman who did that, other women declared, were not ladies.
The Nation’s capital, however, can boast of being one of the first baseball cities to try wooing women to the ballpark. Owners of the Washington ballclub sponsored the first official “Ladies Day Game,” in the summer of 1897. Posters and newspaper ads invited women to come and enjoy, for free, “a peaceful afternoon at the ballpark.”
The front office expected a few dozen or maybe as high as a hundred, curious women to turn out. In no way was management prepared for the turnout that resulted. About one thousand enthusiastic women stormed the ballpark gates.
It soon became apparent, however, that most of these women were not there to learn the finer points of the game. They had come to see a handsome, charismatic baseball star: Washington’s pitcher, George “Winnie” Mercer. And that’s where the trouble began.
Throughout the early innings, every time the pitcher struck out an opposing batter, the women vivaciously cheered and clapped. And each time he stepped into the batter’s box, tapped his bat on the plate, and twirled his trademark mustache, they swooned or jumped up and down. All was well. A good time was being had by all.
But then, in the fifth inning, the hometown heartthrob got into a vehement altercation with popular umpire Bill Carpenter. The ump had called “ball” to a pitch “Winnie” believed had painted the inside corner of the plate.
An exchange of words and soon tempers equaled the heat of the day. Carpenter threw up his right fist, vigorously ejecting the pitcher from the game.
Incensed women spectators immediately launched a vehement protest punctuated with a tirade of invective. This continued throughout the remainder of the game.
When the contest ended in a home-team defeat, a horde of women poured onto the field, chasing the umpire with parasols. Bill Carpenter managed to escape into the clubhouse (off limits to women) without suffering bodily harm, but the grandstands were left a shambles.
After this significant fiasco, it would be some years before the Washington ballpark management entertained the idea of another Ladies Day Game.
In time, however, things began to calm down. By 1912, it became fashionable in Washington for Friday afternoon ballgames to be free to women and any small children in their company.
My late friend Sidney Hais, a retired realtor and vice-president of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of the District of Columbia, fondly reminisced about those Fridays games. As a child, he attended many of them hand-in-hand with his Aunt Gertrude.
In 1924, when he was nine years old, “Gertie” and his two uncles took him to the three home games of the World Series. He recalled standing on the seat and cheering as Washington went into the bottom of the twelfth inning of the seventh game.
And to his death, at age 90, Sidney enjoyed reciting the players’ names and positions in what remains Washington’s only World Series championship.
Sadly, Winnie Mercer did not fare so well. He became embroiled in a troika of problems: gambling debts, drinking and women. (It is hard to say in what order the difficulties should be ranked.) In any case, on January 12, 1903, in a room of San Francisco’s Occidental Hotel, the 28-year-old baseball hero took his own life. Leaving suicide notes to be found after his death, he wrote: “Beware of women and a game of chance.”
Thirty years before Branch Rickey introduced Jackie Robinson into baseball in 1947, he instituted Ladies Day Games “with no strings attached” (except for the ones on their corsets) in St. Louis. The novel idea caught on and soon Sportsman’s Park hosted thousands of paying women to a single game. Before long, baseball moguls came to realize what an important part women played in the demographics of baseball attendance.
A previous column [5/22/13] extolled the virtues of one woman, Nora Bayes, who inspired baseball’s anthem, “Take Me Out To the Ball Game.” This time let’s praise all those women who continue to support baseball with their attendance at ballparks across America.
Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as the legendary Paul Harvey, White House speechwriter/columnist William Safire, and Mr. Shirley Povich, dean of American sportswriters.
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