Mary Elizabeth Murphy was born in Warren, Rhode Island in 1894, the daughter of an avid baseball player. She excelled as an athlete from an early age, playing everything from ice hockey to soccer. But baseball interested her most, and she earned a reputation on the local sandlots as one of the best players in town, boy or girl.
As was common in those days for children in working-class families, Lizzie left school at age 12 and took a job in a woolens mill. But she played baseball whenever she could, after work and on weekends, and by her fifteenth birthday she played for a number of area amateur teams.
“Warren Girl An Expert Player,” proclaimed a headline in the Providence Sunday Journal in 1913. Soon she was offered a chance to play first base for a semi-pro team for $5 per game, plus a share of the ticket sales. She later recounted that after the manager failed to pay her for her first game, she refused to board the bus for a game the following week. The manager realized he’d underestimated her toughness and paid her on the spot and every week thereafter.
A few years later Lizzie signed on with the Providence Independents, a prominent semi-pro team that helped spread her name up and down the east coast. In 1918, now aged 24 and a seasoned player, she joined Ed Carr’s All-Stars of Boston.
“No ball is too hard for her to scoop out of the dirt,” Carr told a group of reporters, “and when it comes to batting, she packs a mean wagon tongue.”
The All-Stars typically played 100 or more games a summer, most of them on the road in a barnstorming tour that took them all across New England, upstate New York, and into Canada. Lizzie proved a big draw wherever they played.
By the standards of the day, Murphy’s ascendancy into the all-male world of semi-professional baseball was extraordinary. Turn-of-the-century American women never wore pants and were confined to sports that were deemed less strenuous than baseball such as tennis. If women did play baseball, field hockey, or basketball, they did so exclusively against other women, often in dresses and under special rules designed to accommodate their alleged weak constitutions. Lizzie shocked her contemporaries by playing in an all-male environment and wearing the same uniform as the men. They doubtless read with alarm her breezy dismissal of a reporter’s question about the bad language the male players used. “Of course they cursed and swore, but I didn’t mind. I knew all the words myself.”
By all accounts, Murphy was a talented player both in the field and at the plate (semi-pro teams kept no records of batting averages or fielding percentages), but there’s no denying that part of her value to the team was her novelty status. This was clear to all who came to see her play, as her name appeared on both the front and back of her jersey to make it easier for the crowd to pick her out. Murphy also sold postcards featuring her picture in the stands between innings to make extra money — occasionally as much as $50.
“She swells attendance,” boasted owner Ed Carr, “and she’s worth every cent I pay her. But more important, she produces the goods. She’s a real player and a good fellow.”
Murphy’s chance to make history came in 1922. The Boston Red Sox, at that point still major league baseball’s reigning dynasty, decided to stage an all-star exhibition game. In those days, these types of unofficial all-star games were quite common, though the first official Major League Baseball All-Star game would not be held until 1933. The inspiration behind this event was the death of one of the great Irish Americans to ever play the game. Tommy “Little Mac” McCarthy played and managed in the 1880s and 1890s for several Boston teams and later opened a saloon with fellow Irish American standout Hugh Duffy (both are in the Hall of Fame).
When McCarthy died on August 5, 1922, the Red Sox decided to stage an all-star game to raise money for the McCarthy family.
The game was held at Fenway Park in Boston on August 14. It featured the Red Sox versus a combined team of American League all stars and select players from Carr’s All-Stars, including Murphy. Halfway through the game she took the field to play first base. She’d received a cold reception from the American League all stars, but the crowd greeted her appearance with cheers. Her big test came when the third baseman fielded a grounder and (intentionally, Murphy always said later) threw late and wide. Unfazed, Murphy fielded the ball cleanly to record the out. When she was lifted after two innings (before she could bat), Murphy walked off the field as the first woman to play in a game against major league players.
Murphy kept playing semi-pro ball for another thirteen years, retiring in 1935 at the age of 41. Her other moment of glory came in 1928 when she played in a similar all star game, this time on a team that opposed the Boston Braves. She also played first base for the Cleveland Colored Giants of the Negro Leagues when the team passed through Rhode Island.
Two years after retiring she married, but her husband died only a few years later. Lizzie Murphy spent the rest of her life in quiet anonymity, working a variety of jobs to support herself. She died in 1964 at the age of 70.
Sources: Gai Ingham Berlage, Women in Baseball: The Forgotten History Praeger, 1994) and Barbara Gregorich, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball (Harcourt, 1993). Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
August 15, 1649: Oliver Cromwell, Lord Lieutenant General of the Parliament of England, lands in Ireland and begins campaign of subjugation.
August 15, 1879: Bishop John Hughes presides over cornerstone laying ceremonies at site of future St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
August 12, 1856: Railroad king Diamond Jim Brady is born in New York City
August 13, 1912: Golf champion, Ben Hogan is born in Dublin, Texas
August 16, 1930: Pro football legend Frank Gifford is born in Santa Monica, CA.