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The story of the Phillies hiring the first woman baseball scout

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“I guess I was born with a baseball in my hand. I enjoyed it more than anything.

Courtesy of PhilaPlace

Edith Houghton spent one hundred years on this planet. She was not playing or watching baseball for a few at the beginning, a couple at the end, and on a few occasions in the middle, when she went to war. But for the most part, the earth rarely made a full pass around the sun without her watching or playing or knowing more than anyone about the game of baseball.

It was just before Valentine's Day when she first appeared in 1912, a time when the U.S. was still short three of its states. It was an age of things now common to us that the world was seeing for the first time: parachuting, the Republic of China, Fenway Park, airplane bombing; a precarious period to be on life's great adventure - which 1,517 people were when they embarked on the Titanic, several months after Edith was born.

Of course, some things had been around forever; like "typhoid," which was still something of a head-scratcher in the medical field. But unlike some girls, Edith didn't have her name made eponymous with a deadly disease. Born in North Philadelphia, she gazed down at the neighborhood ball fields as a six-year-old, intoxicated by baseball's at times barely detectable allure. By eight years old, she was the mascot for the Philadelphia Police League; the fertile creative ground that was this city in 1912 came up with her nickname: "The Kid."

Baseball, in that era, was not an easy game to fall in love with. The 1919 Black Sox shat enthusiastically on the integrity of the sport; Kenesaw Mountain Landis took over as the first ever commissioner and his voracious discipline of the Black Sox was deemed at times overzealous; and there was of course the visceral culture of sexism and racism that was just an accepted part of life at the time.

Despite the dominating negativity surrounding the game, Edith involved herself with vigor. When the Philadelphia Bobbies, a semi-professional women's team, materialized in the 1890s, she seemed destined to be penciled into their lineup. They were named after a hairstyle they were forced to wear, but were not forced to play in skirts - a radical innovation in women's baseball at the time. Edith was the team's starting shortstop at ten years old, putting her far outside the Bobbies' regular age allotment of 13-20. Preteen Edith strutted onto the field and such was her natural skill with the seamed ball that she instantly became the team's most watchable and natural player, despite having to pin her adult uniform together in places because it was far too big.

The Bobbies had two rules - "Play well, and bob your hair." Rule #2 was simple enough. Rule #1 seemed to be a rule only Edith was following at times.

As far as opponents went, there were plenty of barnstorming men's teams to play. Bloomer girl teams were everywhere, and in fact, the Bobbies' founder, 26-year-old entrepreneur and center fielder Mary O'Gara, discovered that this was not only a time when women were playing baseball, but there were so many women playing baseball that the Bobbies were squeezed out by other squads carving out territory up and down the eastern seaboard, until she had a brainstorm - take the team to another country. Japan seemed nice.

"The Philadelphia Bobbies Go to Japan" sounds like an ill-advised sequel to a movie franchise. But that's exactly what happened in 1925. At the moment, it seemed like a good idea, and O'Gara did it with the help of some Philadelphian backers and Japanese promoters, who offered Edith and the Bobbies $800 a week for a 15-week tour - and the Japanese would even cover the journey out there. The Bobbies were convinced that the gate takes at their ballparks would be sizable, as the country was in the middle of a love affair with the sport. Anticipating stardom, Edith (13 at this point) and the Bobbies headed to Asia, and it did not take long for pretty much everything to go wrong.

The Bobbies had planned a fundraising barnstorming tour across the country on their way to their departure in Seattle, where they met up with a few more players. O'Gara reached an agreement with two former big leaguers to channel some legitimacy to the Bobbies' cause; Earl Hamilton, a pitcher who had once thrown 16 consecutive shutout innings and played quite unskillfully for the Phillies at the tail end of his career (9 H, 7 ER in 6 IP), and Eddie Ainsmith, a catcher for the Tigers who had just ended his own 15-year career and already traveled through Japan having, according to him, established a fan following there.

With a squad of women, two undecorated former major leaguers, as well as Ainsmith's new bride who thought she was embarking on her honeymoon, a 13-year-old who was the best player on the team, and a new pitcher—Leona Kearns, a 17-year-old who was over six feet tall and about to leave on a trip from which she would never return—the Bobbies went abroad.

***

Ainsmith immediately assumed the role of villain among the players, but he and Kearns, with whom he worked on pitching, got along "just fine," according to Kearns' diary. Indeed, the voyage to Japan was mostly issue-free, and the Bobbies' arrival was something of a holiday for the locals, according to "Transpacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War:"

"To [the Bobbies'] surprise, their booking agents, some newspaper reporters, the collegians they were scheduled to play, and many curious locals were on hand to welcome them. From the Tokyo station, they were whisked to a recently renovated Western-style hotel in rickshaws."

When the games began, Edith was a hit, even successfully executing the hidden ball trick on a grown man. But some of that popularity stemmed from the mere fact that she had blonde hair, an aspect of the Bobbies' appearances that absolutely captivated the Japanese.

Eleven games were played on the trip, and the Bobbies won two of them, and some crowd- members said they came only to see Hamilton and Ainsmith play. Eventually, the novelty of the tour dwindled, money ran out, and the promoters disappeared.

Eventually, O'Gara and Ainsmith had a frank exchange of ideas - O'Gara was ready to pull the plug, but Ainsmith somehow convinced Kearns and several others to travel to Korea and keep the tour going.

Ainsmith's was a terrible plan, they all soon found out, and despite some local Americans pawning their possessions to try and buy he and the Bobbies who'd stuck with him tickets home, the group wound up stranded. Ainsmith soon had enough money wired for he and his wife to flee back to the States, which they did, arriving home just after Christmas in 1925. Eventually, Kearns and the two remaining Bobbies, Edith Ruth and Nellie Schank, were able to board a ship called Asian Empress and sail home after Kearns' father discovered her predicament in January (she'd kept it a secret out of embarrassment). As the Empress approached the U.S., an overjoyed Kearns was celebrating excitedly on the deck when a tidal wave hit the ship. She was swept overboard and never seen again.

Elsewhere, Edith, O'Gara, and the rest of the Bobbies arrived home in December as well, having been sheltered by a hotel owner in the Japanese city of Kobe before getting ticket fare from a British-Indian banker. It was Edith's last stint as a Bobbie.

Fortunately, women's baseball remained a thing in the United States, and Edith was still able to find people who would pay her money to play, even at the start of the most widespread and harrowing economic turmoil the planet had ever seen. First, she found work with the New York Bloomer Girls as an 18-year-old for $35 a week, and a year later she did the same with the Hollywood Bloomer Girls as they barnstormed through Texas and Oklahoma.

Regardless of the historical cataclysms, Edith made sure she stayed on the field - when the Great Depression hit women's baseball, Edith started at first base for the Fisher A. A.'s, a men's semipro team; when World War II started, she joined the Navy WAVES and played on her department's ball team. Eventually, she came back to the Philadelphia area, where Bob Carpenter was running the best game in town.

***

Carpenter had only seen the Phillies play two or three times before his father had been drawn in by the rich tapestry of success for which the franchise has always been known. "Ruly" Carpenter bought the usually poor (in skill and finances) team in 1943, giving them the backing they needed to become Philadelphia's sole baseball franchise after the Athletics departed for Kansas City. Bob took over day-to-day ownership operations (serving as GM and being labeled the "Executive of the Year" by The Sporting News in 1949) and put significant cash into acquiring players like Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn.

But before Ashburn, Roberts, and the rest of the 1950 Whiz Kids could write themselves into Philadelphia lore, Carpenter was approached in 1946 by a woman holding a book.

During their meeting, Edith Houghton thrust into Carpenter's hands a scrapbook of her life in baseball, taking into account the Bobbies, the A. A.'s, and the doomed trip overseas led by a delusional former catcher. Carpenter saw the work experience as enough to help guide his team into the future and brought her on board as one of his scouts, the first ever woman to fill the role (Bessie Largent of the White Sox had been doing so, but worked as a partner of her husband's - Edith worked alone). The newswires responded to this development with their trademark aplomb:

PHILLIES HIRE GIRL AS SCOUT

FORMER GAL STAR SENT OUT TO CROSSROADS TO LOOK FOR NEW TALENT

The Philadelphia Phillies, who through the recent yeas often played like a bunch of Girl Scouts, came up with something drastic today in their efforts to get out of the cellar—they hired a girl scout.

A... g-g-g... girl?!

Jaws dropped, cities burned, oceans boiled. But Edith stepped into the role anyway, saying she was after "big and fast" players who could hit ("You can't steal first base," she explained), putting natural talent ahead of sharpened skills. Skills, she believed, could be learned.

"There's no reason why a woman shouldn't be just as good a judge of a ballplayer as a man," Carpenter told the press.

Edith signed 16 players, though none of them cracked the Phillies' roster. But as anyone with more than a single brain cell will tell you, scouting is a crap shoot, and this was before the age of mock drafts, 24-hour TV analysis, and a flushing media toilet swirling with rumors and speculation. As someone who took so naturally to the game and often times was able to evaluate a male player's talent while in the midst of defeating them, she was a wise choice as an assessor.

***

This past summer, Mo'ne Davis, the 18th girl to ever play in the Little League World Series and the first to ever record a complete game shut-out and appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, became the pride of Philadelphia and charmed the entire country. Following her performance, the eloquent 13-year-old appeared on talk shows, threw out first pitches, and forgave sexist college baseball players for being horrible. She provided an example for most adults to follow, let alone teenagers.

Talk about Mo'ne led to a discussion of her predecessors, and Edith's story resurfaced to remind people that a woman donning a cap and taking the field is, in fact, far greater than a novelty.

"I guess I was born with a baseball in my hand. I enjoyed it more than anything."

--Edith Houghton, 1912-2013

Further Reading:

  • "A to Z of American Women in Sports" by Paula Edelson
  • "Can He Play? A Look at Baseball Scouts and Their Profession" by Jim Sandoval
  • "Inside the Baseball Hall of Fame" from the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum
  • "Transpacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War" by Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu
  • "Taking in a Game: A History of Baseball in Asia" by Joseph A. Reaves