Those Eastside Girls: African American Women’s Baseball

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1928-Young Women of Twelfth Street “Colored Branch” of the YWCA

Early Women’s baseball has ostensibly been earmarked with the ‘beginning of league play between women’ with the founding of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. But before there was “A League Of Their Own“, there was another unheard of league that played at White Sox Field in South Central Los Angeles, whenever the opportunity was presented to them. The league itself had no name, yet the teams were grounded in very competitive league play, and that league flourished between 1926  to 1928, right before the Great Depression would take a toll on the entire American population.

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Twelfth Street “Colored Branch” of the YWCA

As reported weekly by Gladys Mathonican, for the California Eagle column called “Girletics“, the Y.W.C.A.’s Southern California Girl Reserves teams from all over Los Angeles gathered to play head-to-head, with much fan fair.

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California Eagle -December 24, 1926

Gladys was a young sports editor and the upcoming sidekick of Harry Levette, lead sports editor and entertainment reporter for the California Eagle. Levette was Southern California’s version of Northern California’s Byron “Speed” Reilly. When it came to sports and entertainment reporting, Levette, who was a very well known Associated Negro Press icon, had his hands full with covering professional and semi-professional sporting events and national entertainment highlights visiting in town, and those national items that came off the wire for the Associated Negro Press.

Gladys, who was young, intelligent and well spoken, took up the slack for Levette. She was also a well known singer in the Los Angeles area, and also a Girl Reserves athlete as well. The YWCA group that was created for reaching every race, creed, and color shortly after the end of World War I, was used to enhance societal spirituality and foster good health and moral upbringing of young American women.

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The Girl Reserves motto was as follows:

As A Girl Reserve: I will try to be…

Gracious In All Manner,
Impartial In All Judgment,
Ready For All Service,
Loyal To All Friends

Reaching Toward The Best,
Earnest In Purpose,
Seeing The Beautiful,
Eager For Knowledge,
Reverent For God,
Victorious Over Self,
Ever Dependable,
Sincere At All Times.

The study of African American women in baseball is limited in some aspects only to those women who participated in the Negro Leagues; like Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, Toni Stone, and Connie Morgan. But who proceeded them as role models? Were there roles models for them outside of men playing the sport of baseball? The facts show that women played organized baseball, in league type play, long before World War II and Philip K. Wrigley creation of the AAGPBL.

In 1913, at Eastlake Park, in the Booker T. Washington community, two teams of African American women picked up the bat and balled and played a baseball game against one another to raise money for the, African Methodist Episcopal Mission, which would eventually become the Tanner Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the city of Phoenix, Arizona.  Tanner Chapel is located directly across the street from Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

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The Arizona Republican-November,  27, 1913

The Eastside Girls neighborhood was nestled neatly between Central Avenue and Long Beach Blvd., and was the mecca of Black Los Angeles, in close proximity to the city of Vernon, which was formerly called the “Furlong Tract”. It was where black culture thrived in early Los Angeles. Central Avenue of course was the heartbeat for African American community and culture in Southern California, where black people from all over the United States migrated to, seeking opportunity and change, bringing with them a piece of their Southern roots.

The Dunbar Hotel and Lincoln Theater, would be centrally located in this burgeoning neighborhood as well as White Sox Park, which was expansive, and was Los Angeles’s predecessor in multicultural arts, entertainment, sports and cuisine, based totally on a segregated past that held people of color within a single location in Los Angeles county, during the era of Jim Crow.

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California Eagle -April 24, 1929

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California Eagle -September 30, 1927

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The Heart of Central Avenue of South Central Los Angeles – Exposition Park to the West, City of Vernon to the East.

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White Sox Park next to Snyder-Ross Park – 38th and Compton

The structure of the Girl Reserves baseball teams were initiated as intramural contests between young middle school aged girls through young women approaching college age within their own YWCA branch. Each contest was supposed last for a short period of time in order to receive the completion requirements, as one of the items listed on Honors System roll. The women of Los Angeles took the Girl Reserves baseball to a different level of competitive sports within the ranks of the YWCA organization.

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Under the Honors List, section 1, subsection (C), number 45, listed of the “Outdoor Activities”, a Girl Reserves was to “Know the different positions on a baseball diamond and how to keep score.“. And (46), “Play on an organized team for four weeks.“. Daily exercises options included in, “EXERCISES FOR GIRL RESERVES AND OTHER TEENAGE GIRLS”, were batting and stretching movements to be performed twice daily, morning and night,  for ten minutes.

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The Girl Reserve Movement A Manual For Advisers – 1918

The Los Angeles area Girl Reserves movement was not indoor baseball. The home field for the Eastside Girls was Ross-Synder Park, which was located right next to White Sox Park, home of the California Winter League, which at that time existed in the same block of 38th Street and Compton Avenue. A lot of these young women more than likely witnessed the Philadelphia Royal Giants three years in a row, and were inspired by their awesome skills on the diamond.

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California Eagle -May 6, 1927

As for the integration of baseball aspects of the Girl Reserve league, they challenged and accepted all comers, very much like many games that took place at White Sox Park. The league was prominent enough to draw the attention of fight promoter Carlo Curtis, who owned and operated Main Street Athletic Club, and also promoted such fighters as Fidel LaBarba and Rocky Marciano.

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Carlo Curtis with Fidel LaBarba and Rocky Marciano at the Main Street Athletic Club

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California Eagle – April 8. 1927

Their notoriety was mentioned in newspapers as far away as Pennsylvania.

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Pittsburgh PA Courier – Jan. 27, 1927

In the years that preceded the Great Depression, the Girl Reserves of Los Angeles county were a big draw in every community, but very little is known about their exploits so far as statistics go. Eastside Girls, Westside Girls, Carlos Curtis’s Girls, the Dodecagenians, the Golden Poppy Girls, the Pasadena Girls, the 12th Street Girls, the Japanese Girls, and Jessie Rayford’s Red Sox made up this league play, that held series that were often played in White Sox Park, in front of sell out crowds.

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California Eagle – August 10, 1928

Genevieve Hawkins (Eastside Girls), Otis “Babe” Wiggins (Eastside Girls), Jessie Rayford (Westside Girls), Quincella Nickerson (Dodecagenians), Jessie Mae Nickerson (Dodecagenians), were a few of the well noted players in the league, and were outstanding athletes in their own right, although most were known for other accomplishments or societal gossip. Otis “Babe” Wiggins was a prominent Southern California tennis star years before Althea Gibson would take African American women to international tennis fame, and Jessie Rayford was a world class track star of Olympic caliber before Wilma Rudolph. Most of these women played basketball as well, but baseball was what they were noted for excelling at.

The Nickerson sisters, Quincella and Jessie Mae, were the daughters of  William Nickerson Jr., founder an President of Golden State Mutual Insurance Company; the” largest black-owned insurance company in the West”.

Quincella is better known for her short lived, supposed ‘tryst’ with Jesse Owens. The story itself made no sense, other than the fact than Jesse was a national track star, staying in the dorms with some members of Sigma Chi frat house at U.S.C., which was about two miles from the heart of Central Avenue. Quincella introduced Jesse to the unfamiliar territory of Los Angeles, as one of Central Avenue’s famous and elite daughters. She was his escort when he was being introduced to Hollywood’s rich and famous, and their arranged companionship was more than likely at the request of her father.

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Jesse Owens and Quincella Nickerson – Los Angeles, July 2, 1935

When we talk about segregation and baseball, the tendency is to exclude the African American woman from this scenario, thereby excluding her importance as an athlete of historical representation, never quite certain of where her entry point into the world of sports began. The African American female was not merely a spectator of baseball, and other sports as well in those early years; she was also a vital participant that helped grow the sport to what it is today.  Those Eastside Girls remind us of how things that followed them, evolved into some of the greatest baseball ever played.