- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 17, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Mo’Ne Davis has become the queen of Little League Baseball. The 13-year-old pitcher from Philadelphia — one of two girls in the Williamsport, Pennsylvania, series — threw a two-hit shutout in the opening game for her team.

The original “Queen of Baseball” would be proud.

Only 18 girls have ever played in the Little League World Series, and just four of them have been American. So now we celebrate the return of young girls — and maybe women — to the game of baseball with boys and perhaps men as if it is breaking new ground.

It is, though, a return. A century ago, women playing the National Pastime was not such a novelty. Their numbers were growing, and so were the occasional opportunities to play with and against men on a competitive level.

But, ironically, it was Little League Baseball that dealt the death blow to women playing with the founding of the organization in 1939 and the decision that it would be for boys only.

Softball began growing in popularity, and was emphasized by physical educators as a less strenuous way for women to participate in the competition of baseball. Women who were determined to play hardball did so among themselves, the most well-known outlet of which was the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, founded by Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley during World War II.

But just two decades earlier, the door had seemingly been open for women to possibly be more than a wartime exhibition. There was debate about whether women would be playing baseball with men. And at the center of the debate was the original “Queen of Baseball” — Lizzie Murphy.

She grew up in a man’s world — born in Warren, Rhode Island, in 1894, and working in one of the textile mills there when she was 12 years old. When she wasn’t working, she would compete against the boys in town in all sorts of sports — baseball in particular.

In an interview years later, Murphy talked about how her love for the game grew.

“I was always dreaming of the outdoors and baseball,” she said. “Even when I was too small to play, I used to beg the boys to let me carry the bats. Finally, I was allowed to join the team for only one reason — I used to steal my father’s gloves and bats and bring them along, so I was a valuable asset to them when I could furnish some of the equipment.”

Soon she became more valuable as a player, and by the age of 15, she was playing for the top amateur baseball clubs in town — the Warren Silk Hats, the perennial Inter-State League champions, and the Warren Baseball Club.

Murphy would be recruited to play for the town semi-pro baseball team, and became its star attraction. She had the talent and the toughness to survive and thrive in a man’s game.

The story goes that the team managed to bring in $85 for her first appearance in a game, but when the money was divided among the team, she received nothing. That didn’t happen again.

Warren had a big game coming up on the road in Newport, and Murphy’s presence on the Warren team was a big selling point for promoting the game. So when it came time to get on the bus for the game in Newport, Murphy told the manager she wasn’t going unless she got a cut of the gate. “No money, no Newport,” she said.

Murphy got her money.

The legend of Lizzie Murphy grew, and so did her stature in the game. She began playing pro ball full-time in 1918 for the Providence Independents, and toured around New England.

Eddie Carr noticed. The ballplayer/performer had put together a popular barnstorming pro team known as “Eddie Carr’s All Stars,” playing about 100 games throughout the summer in New York, New England and Canada. He signed Murphy to play first base for the club.

“No ball is too hard for her to scoop out of the dirt,” Carr told reporters upon signing Lizzie. “And when it comes to batting, she packs a mean Wagon Tongue” — a brand of bat manufactured by Spalding.

Murphy was the star of the All-Stars — the only player to have her name on the front and back of her uniform. She sold postcards with her picture on them to the crowds, and sold tickets for the team with her presence.

“She swells attendance, and she’s worth every cent I pay her,” Carr said. “But more important, she produces the goods. She’s a real player and a good fellow.”

Then came the moment — Aug. 14, 1922, at Fenway Park in Boston — where Murphy would step on the field against major league ballplayers.

It was an exhibition charity game featuring the All-Stars against the Boston Red Sox. Murphy was not in the starting lineup, but entered the game later at first base, where she played two innings, and got the attention of the crowd by fielding a wide throw from the third baseman to get the runner at first.

Her appearance gained national attention, and seemed, given the tenure of the times — women emerging in political and social circles — that Murphy had perhaps paved the way for women in the men’s game.

But it never came to pass.

Murphy would go on to play another less-heralded all-star game against the Boston Braves in 1928, and made an appearance with the Cleveland Colored Giants in the Negro Leagues.

She stopped playing in 1935, married two years later and worked a variety of jobs in the mills in Warren and on oyster boats. Murphy died on April, 17, 1964, at the age of 70 — a pioneer who could play a slick first base, the “Queen of Baseball.”

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com.