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The Dolly Vardens, Philadelphia’s 19th-century all-Black women baseball teams

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Dolly Varden was a name given to most things in Reconstruction Era America, but the most unique and profound application belongs to Philadelphia’s two all-Black women baseball teams.

St. Brainard’s Sons, Cleveland, 1872

It was shortly after a New York party in the early years of the 1880s that the world first became acquainted with Lize Taylor, one of North America’s best chewing gum salespeople. As with many origins of fame, this one was a product of both happenstance and the mechanistic gears of history.

Taylor, a former slave, escaped to the Loch Lomond region of Canada shortly after the Civil War, where she found a job selling chewing gum. One day, she was approached by a party of businessmen and their wives, on vacation from New York. One of the businessmen, so the story goes, had always detested his wife’s penchant for the Dolly Varden style of dress and took the meeting of Taylor as an opportunity to prank his wife. He dressed Taylor up in the brightest Dolly Varden dress he could procure and set her upon his wife the following day. What a shock it was to her to be asked to buy gum from a Black woman in a Dolly Varden dress! A timely photographer snapped a picture of the pair, and Lize Taylor soon became known across America as the “Black Dolly Varden,” beloved for the absurdity of it all.[1]

While the country became fascinated by this one Black Dolly Varden, a thousand miles southeast of Loch Lomond, in Pennsylvania, eighteen other Black Dolly Vardens were making names for themselves, not as gum salespeople but as baseball players.

Reconstruction-era Pennsylvania

Since the early 1800s, Pennsylvania — particularly Philadelphia — had been the center of the struggle to abolish slavery, and its significance increased during the Civil War. In the months following the war’s outbreak, free Black people in Pennsylvania joined the Union army in unmatched numbers and with unmatched eagerness. They fought side-by-side with white Americans three times to hold back encroaching Confederate armies looking to capture the state, and after four difficult years, they returned home to a state devastated by the war. A border state with the South, Pennsylvania received many Black people escaping Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas post-Civil War, replacing those who had fled or been captured by the Confederate army.

This new Black population faced as much resistance as did the old one. The state’s Democratic newspaper, the Republican Compiler, dedicated itself to creating the familiar illusion that Black people were determined to destroy the state by stealing white people’s jobs. Likewise, the state’s Democratic Party ran for several years on a platform of preventing Black people from receiving the vote.[2]

In 1866, after years of Black activists and citizens calling for it, the state House passed legislation desegregating Philadelphia streetcars, broadening the unwritten policy of allowing light-skinned “respectable looking” Black women to ride. But the bill was repealed months later following a severe loss of profit due to white boycotts. The legislative struggle in these years matched that of the 1830s, when the state granted its Black citizens suffrage for a short period of time before caving to the pressure of the white Democratic party and denying suffrage until the 1870 passing of the 15th Amendment.[3]

Though the Klu Klux Klan grew in number and boldness, lynching several dozen Black men across the state in the early 1870s, and the state underwent the same moral failings as the rest of the country, Philadelphia was at one point one of the strongest places for Black liberation in the country. Backed by Civil War veteran and civil rights activist Octavius Catto, Philadelphia was home to the robust Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League, which pushed for total equality, beginning with education. By 1869, eighteen other cities in the state had established subsidiary Equal Rights Leagues, which pushed the agenda determined by semi-annual equal rights conventions.[4] His ability to inspire Black activism made Catto a prominent target for white opposition, and he was stabbed at the polls in 1871 as part of an effort to end Black suffrage.

Lacking a charismatic leader, the Equal Rights League stalled in the 1870s, and the voting riots that killed Catto led the Republican party to back away from racial issues. By the middle of the decade, the party argued that the racial tension had exhausted both the state and the country, and the party assumed a more economic-based platform that left Black people without allies in their fight for equality.[5] It took 10 years for the state to start fining schools that refused Black entrance and three years after that for Black people to become police officers. By the late 1880s, Pennsylvania, once the mecca for Black activism, lagged behind most other Northern states on the question of racial equality.

Early Baseball in Philadelphia

Coinciding with the rise of Black activism in the 1860s was the development of professional baseball. Pennsylvania had played some form of the game since the 1830s, and it adopted in 1860 perhaps the first professional team, the Athletic Club. In 1865, the club signed one of the first professional players, second baseman Al Reach, offering him $1,000 for the season. Baseball flourished in the Reconstruction period and quickly became a game played by both white and Black people.

In 1866, Philadelphia created its first all-Black professional team and the third in the country, the Excelsior Club, which was followed in 1867 by the Pythians. The latter was led by Catto, who had always been a tremendous athlete and relied on his skills as part of his leadership abilities. Philadelphia was the only city at this point to house two Black teams, a fact that became a point of pride among the city’s Black populace. Games between the teams became meeting spaces and opportunities to celebrate Black excellence. The entire community was always involved, hosting picnics, dances, and parties that lasted for days at a time.

The Pythians quickly established themselves as the premier Black baseball team in the country. They began hosting Black teams from other cities, including Washington and Albany. After its first season, the team had a record of 9-1, and by 1869, it was routinely beating Black teams from across the country, and was finally allowed to play against white teams.

The games between other Black teams enabled Catto to meet with other Black civil rights leaders, creating a more tight-knit community that aimed to streamline equal rights efforts and provide strength in numbers. Though the Pythians lost their first game against the all-white Olympic by a score of 44-23, the team demonstrated the ability of Black players to play the sport and instilled in the crowd (which rioted against the team in the top of the ninth inning)[6] a fear of looming Black equality.

The Pythians folded after Catto’s death and did not reappear until 1887, when a new formation of the team joined the National Colored Base Ball League, but Black baseball continued to flourish in the city. New amateur teams cropped up each year and games continued to be community events, involving men, women, and children in all elements, from playing the games to organizing the parties. The Pythians demonstrated to all that baseball was as inclusive a sport as possible, and several members of the community took this message to heart.

The Dolly Vardens

The name “Dolly Varden” first appeared in Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, given to the daughter of a locksmith. She was described as quite pretty and always festooned in bright colored dresses, and though she was but a minor character, she became something of a phenomenon. In the post-Civil War period, the Dolly Varden style of dress became popularized in both England and America, the latter of which particularly latched onto the Dolly Varden name. Beginning in the 1860s, Dolly Varden became the name of everything from fish to slang terms to ships, but, for some unknown reason, it became particularly attached to baseball.

It is unclear where the name first became that given to a baseball team, but Dolly Varden teams popped up in every place from New York to Maryland. The name bounced around from white male team to white male team in Philadelphia, and in 1883, it landed on not one but two teams composed fully of black women, the first such teams in the country.

John Lang, an enterprising white barber who had founded a number of Black male teams and a Chinese male team throughout the 1870s, decided to form three all-Black women teams to capitalize on baseball’s popularity and the rise of novelty teams.[7] One of the three teams, the Captain Jinks, only played one game before being disbanded, but the two Dolly Vardens hung on for a season.

Not much is known about the teams, as newspapers largely ignored their existence or found them too amateur to bother reporting, and the accounts that do exist focus on their appearance and are abundant with racism and sexism. Reporting on one of the games, the Detroit Free Press remarks about the women’s gaudy attire: “one wore a calico scarlet dress trimmed with blue, another pink trimmed with white, another cardinal red trimmed with yellow, another blue trimmed with white, and all wore red and white peaked caps.”[8] Similar accounts begrudgingly applaud Ella Harris, captain of one of the teams, for her leadership skills, and feign surprise over the players’ toughness, asserting that “none of the women flinched” on injuries that would have “doubled up men.”[9]

One other existing newspaper report called the first game between the two teams “a failure,” despite the gathering of a large, enthusiastic crowd.[10] These crowds were not enough for Lang to continue organizing the teams, as a group of Black women in the 1880s was not a profitable as he assumed it would be — the novelty of the act could not overcome the deep racism and sexism of the time. The teams disbanded late in 1883, and though the name Dolly Varden continued to be associated with baseball teams — both men’s and women’s — into the early 1900s, it would not again be held by an all-Black team, let alone two.

In the three months of their existence as semi-professional baseball players, these women made history. At a time in Philadelphia when the Black community had few white allies and Black women were relegated to positions of domestic labor, these women bravely broke the mold, taking the first step out onto the lengthy road toward equality. Though their careers were short, their bravery was great, and we should know their names: Cora Patten, pitcher; Ella Harris, pitcher; Mollie Johnson, first base; Sallie Johnson, second base; Lizzie Waters, third base; Ronda Showell, left field; Agnes Hollingsworth, right field; Ella Johnson, center field; and Ella Thompson, catcher.

Notes:

[1] Topeka Daily Capital, May 22, 1886, pg. 6.

[2] David G. Smith, "After the Shooting: South Central Pennsylvania after the Civil War," in On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870, (New York: Fordham University, 2013), 199-212.

[3] Andrew Diemer, "Reconstructing Philadelphia: African Americans and Politics in the Post-Civil War North," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 133, no. 1 (2009): 29-58.

[4] Harry C. Silcox, "NINETEENTH CENTURY PHILADELPHIA BLACK MILITANT: OCTAVIUS V. CATTO (1839–1871)," Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 44, no. 1 (1977): 52-76.

[5] Diemer, 57-58.

[6] The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 4, 1869, pg. 2.

[7] Debra A. Shattuck, "The 1880s: Molding Manly Men and Disappearing Women," In Bloomer Girls: Women Baseball Pioneers, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 115-116.

[8] Detroit Free Press, May 22, 1883, pg. 6.

[9] Kansas Times, June 28, 1883, pg. 6.

[10] Delaware County Daily Times, May 18, 1883, pg. 3.


Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.