The Philadelphia Bobbies
Young Women Stranded Abroad, Hungary and Destitute, Abandoned by Escorts
The Philadelphia Bobbies were one of the leading female clubs of the 1920s and early 1930s. They derived their name from the gimmick of wearing their hair in a bob cut. The era proved to be the end of the Bloomer Girl heyday. Thereafter, the interest in female baseball languished until the All-American League was formed during the Second World War.
Philadelphia had an array of factory clubs for women, and even leagues. The Bobbies, hailed as champions of 1925, included nonworking young women of various ages. The Bobbies also fielded a popular basketball club during the winters.
To capitalize on their recent success, a traveling baseball tour of the country was organized after the 1925 season, a prelude to a jaunt to Japan to showcase their skills. There, they would play against male clubs, mainly college nines. By this time in history, American ballplayers had been traveling to Japan for decades. Likewise, Japanese clubs made the trip across the Pacific Ocean. By the mid 1910s, a Japanese ballplayer was even playing professionally in the States.
To lead the Bobbies to the Orient, Walter Johnson’s former catcher Eddie Ainsmith was chosen to help market the troupe. Besides being the battery mate of one of the top pitchers of all-time, Ainsmith is known as the first man to test the draft status of ballplayers during World War I. He first joined the majors in 1910 and stuck through 1924, mainly in a part-time role. In 1925, the Russian-born Ainsmith worked in the American Association for Minneapolis.
Ainsmith’s first experience in Japan took place after the 1920 season with a group of American and National Leaguers. The tour proved successful, initially organized by Buck Weaver and Gene Doyle in conjunction with Yumito Kushibiki, “the biggest sport promoter in Nippon.” The success of the trip – the men reportedly earned $830 each above costs – and other forays to the Orient suggested to Ainsmith that the Bobbies’ tour had potential.
Herb Hunter, a member of the 1920-1921 tour, headed back to Tokyo after the 1921 season to coach university clubs. The following year, he took another group of Americans on a barnstorming trip in Japan. Another was scheduled after the 1923 season but it was cancelled in wake of a massive earthquake in September in Tokyo. Instead, Hunter’s troupe, which included Ainsmith, traipsed through Eastern Canada. Ainsmith, who was nearing the end of his playing days, saw Hunter’s inventiveness and wanted to carve out a niche for himself.
Ainsmith invited Minneapolis teammate Earl Hamilton, a pitcher who had performed in the majors from age 19 to 32, leaving in May 1924. A lefthander, Hamilton won 115 games over 14 years split between the American and National Leagues. He would actually have his finest pro season in 1926, going 24-8 for Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League.
The Bobbies, ranging in age from 13 to 25, were administered by 27-year-old Mary O’Gara who acted as the girls’ manager and chaperone (she may have also played). The team itself included:
- Edith Houghton, 13, shortstop
Ferba Garnett, 14
- Jennie Phillips, 15
- Loretta Jester (Jaszezak), 17
- Leona Kearns, 17, 6’ lefthanded pitcher
- Annie Gans, 18
- Alma Nolan, 19
- Florence Eakin, 20
- Sara Conlin, 20
- Nellie Shanks, 20
- Edith Ruth, 21
- Agnes Curran, 25
In total, the party included 17 members including Ainsmith and Hamilton’s wives, Loretta and Edna, respectively. The group left Philadelphia on September 23, playing their way to Seattle from whose port they would depart for Japan. Along the way, games were set in Fargo North Dakota, Glasgow, Great Falls and White Fish, Montana, Spokane, Wenatchee, Everett, Tacoma and Seattle, Washington.
The Bobbies left Seattle aboard the American-Oriental mail liner President Jefferson on October 6. The first class fares were provided by a consortium of three Japanese sports promoters. Gate receipts in Japan were expected to pay for the lodgings, meals, return fare and, hopefully, a profit to be split among the party. The girls had been lured with the promise of a potential payday, $500 was mentioned. The tour was expected to last three weeks.
The Bobbies landed in Yokohama harbor to a warm reception. Present were a slew of reporters and representatives of the various university clubs they were set to compete against. The promoters met the party at the Tokyo train station, passing out flowers amid a welcome banner. They were then transported via rickshaw to the newly-erected Marunouchi Hotel, a western-style facility. One report suggests they met the 24-year-old Hirohito who in a year would become Emperor of Japan.
The first contest was a grand affair with the promoters showing their enthusiasm for the endeavor. Over 20,000 eyed the festivities. Ten games were played with reasonable success. However, enthusiasm soon waned amid cold weather. By early November, the girls performed in Kyoto and then Kobe but they didn’t fare well, racking up the losses. Even with Hamilton and Ainsmith acting as the battery fortunes did not changed. Soon thereafter, two of the promoters dropped out, nowhere to be found. The third declared himself to be bankrupt. Bills started to pile up.
This is not totally without precedent in baseball history. Ballplayers had been stranded without cash since the earliest days of the game, even major leaguers. At times during the 19th century, owners cut men loose on the road without finances. Whole teams have even had to fend for themselves more often than one might suspect. It happened in the minors; it happened more often in black baseball. It also happened at various times, in various places in Latin America. The Global League is but one example.
The Ainsmith party naturally became very concerned. It now became an issue of survival – lodging and sustenance – and perhaps more frightening the need for return fare back to the States. On November 13, O’Gara and the girls made a stand, confronting Ainsmith and refusing to take the field again without securing some funds for passage back home.
Ainsmith’s plan was to dig himself even deeper into Asia. He wanted to head to Korea where, hopefully, fortunes would change. O’Gara wanted nothing to do with it; she was deeply concerned and desperately wanted to go home. Kobe hotelkeeper Henry Sanborn took pity on the girls and provided lodging for them at his Pleasanton Hotel. He also petitioned the United States consul in Kobe for assistance with little to show for it. At this point, a British-Indian banker named Mody, a guest at the Pleasanton, stepped in and provided the girls with return fare all the way to Philadelphia gratis. The cost was in the neighborhood of $6000.
Mody was a godsend. He saved the girls from a potentially disastrous ending. Yet, there still was one. Ainsmith convinced three girls – Leona Kearns, Edith Ruth and Nellie Shanks – to head to Seoul with him. Off the three girls and the Ainsmiths and Hamiltons went with four Japanese ballplayers in tow to complete the nine. O’Gara’s group hopped on the next vessel out of Hong Kong and landed soundly in Vancouver on December 1, and then in Philadelphia on the 6th. Why O’Gara permitted the three girls to go on without the group is hard to comprehend. Her onus would seem to be with the parents of the ballplayers. Shanks and Ruth were in their 20s but Kearns was only 17 years old.
Unsuccessful in Seoul, Ainsmith and crew headed back to Kobe in early December. They sought police help in securing funds from the promoters but failed. Sanborn stepped in yet again and housed the ballplayers. The Hamilton called it quits and left Kobe on December 13, arriving in San Francisco on the 30th. Unable to secure enough cash for the girls, the Ainsmiths decided to just ditch the girls, leaving them to fend for themselves. They departed from Kobe harbor on December 27, arriving in San Francisco on January 13.
Sanborn continued to raise money for the girls, including organizing a benefit dance. Meanwhile, the Kearns family sent $300 for a second-class ticket home. The funds proved sufficient and the girls board the Empress Of Asia. Outside Shanghai on January 11, the ship collided with another. The other vessel, the Tungshing, sank and ten people died. The Empress returned to the harbor for brief repairs and then setoff once again. The three Bobbies boarded it sometime around the 17th of the month.
It soon “encountered a violent and massive storm that … battered the ship from Yokohama to Vancouver Island.” The heavy winds relegated the passengers to the lower decks for days at a time. After being penned up, Leona Kearns, unsupervised, entered the top deck on the 21st and began running around jubilantly, despite being warned against the recklessness. Nellie Shank, feeling seasick, also went on deck to get some air. Edith Ruth sat indoors in the tea parlor. A massive wave rose, Kearns saw it and screamed for Shank to take cover. The wave cracked on deck and both girls were sent flying. Shank, bruised and battered, was discovered safe clinging to a rail. Kearns was nowhere to be found.
The ship circled the area for an hour but the 17-year-old wasn’t found. Her father met the ship in Vancouver when it arrived on January 29. From the manifest:
One newspaper declared, “Ainsmith is not being criticized for his conduct in Japan, but for his lack of business foresight in bringing the Bobbies so far home without adequate financial guarantees.” That was the synopsis before he ditched Kearns and her two friends. No further contemporary criticism was found. It’s hard to imagine that not one of the Hamiltons, Ainsmiths or Mary O’Gara was brought to account for the debacle which led to the neglect of the teenager Kearns. Ainsmith later oversaw another female club, the Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Baseball League.
Edith Houghton was 10 years old when she joined the Bobbies in 1922. After the disastrous trip abroad, Houghton left the Bobbies and joined the New York Bloomer Girls, perhaps the top team of the era, run by Margaret Nabel. She played with them through 1931 and also in that year toiled for the Hollywood Girls. With interest in Bloomer Girl teams diminished, Houghton “reluctantly” turned to softball.
During WWII, she joined the Navy Women’s Auxiliary Unit, the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), playing for their baseball team. She returned home after the war and on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1946, Philadelphia Phillies owner Bob Carpenter announced the signing of Houghton to scout for the club. She scouted for the Phillies until being called up by the Navy during the Korean War.
New Orleans Times-Picayune 2/15/1946
At the time she was hailed by some as the first female major league baseball scout but that honor goes to Bessie Largent, who had been doing so with her husband, Roy, for years.
- Bradford Era, Pennsylvania, 7 December 1925
- Bridgeport Telegram, Connecticut, 13 March 1926
- Dallas Morning News, 30 December, 1920
- Gregorich, Barbara, “Stranded,” The North American Review, May/August 1998, page 4
- Helena Independent, Montana, 23 January 1926
- Indiana Evening Gazette, Pennsylvania, 23 December 1925
- Kokomo Tribune, Indiana, 25 December 1925
- Lethbridge Herald, Albert, Canada, 1 December 1925
- New Orleans Times-Picayune, 15 February 1946
- Oakland Tribune, 28 January 1926
- Nowlin, Bill, “Herb Hunter,” SABR Biography Project
- Portland Oregonian, 1 August 1920
- Reaves, Joseph A. Taking in a Game: A History of Baseball in Asia. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
- Seattle Daily Times, 4 October 1925, 7 October 1925, 23 January 1926
- Trenton Evening Times, New Jersey, 13 August 1925
- Washington Post, 9 September 1925, 24 September 1925
- Waterloo Evening Courier, Iowa, 2 January 1926