AJHS is the proud steward of a fantastic sports memorabilia collection, which is particularly strong in baseball realia; as an avid baseball fan myself, holding Hank Greenberg’s bat or Sandy Koufax’s rookie jersey is nothing short of magical. But AJHS also collects materials related to Jewish women’s excellence in sports, including baseball; one of my favorite (and truly magical) items is a baseball signed by Thelma “Tiby” Eisen, who was a star player in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), an association popularized by the first the movie and later the TV show, A League of Their Own.
Although women had played softball and baseball since the 19th century on a collegiate and semi-professional level, the AAGPBL would break the gender barrier to create additional baseball opportunities for women, setting the stage for women’s professional athletics in the decades to come. The league was created in 1944 by baseball executives, led by Phillip K. Wrigley, who were concerned about the effect of WWII on the game when so many men (including Hank Greenberg and a great many other professional baseball players) were serving in the armed forces. One of the other key players in the creation of the AAGPBL was Branch Rickey, who as manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to the major leagues, shattering the color barrier in Major League baseball at long last.
Eisen was born in Los Angeles in 1922 and was active in sports as a child and teen, especially softball, which she excelled at. She was selected to try out for the fledgling baseball league, one of six candidates chosen from the greater Los Angeles area. After the tryout, she was offered a contract to play for the Milwaukee Chicks, and her professional baseball career was born. Eisen played nine seasons in the AAGPBL for multiple teams; she excelled in multiple outfield positions and was also a terrific base stealer, clocking 674 stolen bases over her time in the league. She was eventually traded to the Fort Wayne Daisies, where she finished out her AAGPBL career in 1952. The AAGPBL eventually folded in 1954, but many of the players, like Tiby, continued to play softball and other sports, and many chose to advocate for women’s participation across athletics as a whole.
Eisen was one of the few Jewish women in the AAGPBL; at least two other Jewish American women, Anita Foss and Blanche Schacter, also played in the league, but did not play as many seasons as Eisen. Thelma was elected to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2022, the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2004, and the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2006; she was also active in the AAGPBL Players Association, which was formed in the 1980’s. The Players Association was instrumental in establishing the permanent exhibition about the AAGPBL and women in the sport at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY; however, none of the women who played for the AAGBPL, including Thelma, are individually honored. Thelma Eisen died on May 11, 2014, which was her 92nd birthday; she left a legacy of athletic prowess and barrier-breaking achievement that still inspires in the present day.