Stella Friss: Babe Ruth in Bloomers

 

Over the years many women ballplayers were given the title of “the female Babe Ruth”, but Stella Friss may be the only one that came close to living up to it.

Beginning just before 1900, all-girl traveling baseball teams were a popular draw in both the cities and small towns of America. The first woman to gain nation recognition was Alta Weiss. A pitcher with exceptional talent, Weiss’s appearance at Cleveland’s League Park in 1907 drew over 3,000 fans. She earned enough money in outsider baseball to put herself through medical school.

Capitalizing on the success of Alta Weiss, several different all-girl outfits sprung up, most of them using the name ‘Bloomer Girls’ for the baggy pantaloons worn by the women on the field. The best Bloomer Girls outfits usually fielded seven women augmented by two men who did the pitching and catching. Some of the lower-budget Bloomer Girl clubs consisted of all men dressed in drag, which, when discovered sometimes led to fans demanding their money back. In the smaller towns, the Bloomer Girls usually arrived on their own, taking on local town or industrial league teams. In the larger cities they often played in big league ballparks and matched against other barnstorming outsider baseball teams like the bearded House of David. In the Bloomer Girls teams’ heyday of the early 1920’s, games held in Washington’s Griffith Stadium in Washington, New York’s Polo Grounds and Philadelphia’s Shibe Park often drew crowds of 2,000 or more.

The Bloomers team Stella Friss joined was the New York Bloomer Girls who were founded in 1910 by Miss Margaret Nabel and managed by former minor leaguer Dan Whelan. The Bloomers operated up and down the East Coast playing mostly on weekends; in 1920 the team traveled 3,500 miles throughout six states and Canada. According to Leslie Heaphy’s book the Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball, the players on Friss’s team traveled in two cars and were paid meal money each game and given a bonus at the end of the season if a profit was turned. Promotional photos from the time show the women wearing brightly colored outfits with the baggy trousers that gave them their nickname and oversized caps under which they gathered their hair pinned up in a bun. Newspapers never failed to mention that although an all-girl team was a novelty, the New York Bloomers were all-business and were formidable adversaries for the semi-pro male teams they faced.

A native New Yorker, Estelle Friss started her professional career just a few years before Ruth did, and like the The Babe, Stella began as a pitcher. hurling for the New York Bloomer Girls, Friss had a nice repertoire of curves, one that broke out, another with a swift inshoot and fastball with a good drop to it. She was also rumored to throw a spitter and newspapers likened her speed to a good 16 or 17 year-old boy. The first record of Stella Friss as a Bloomer comes from the summer of 1912 when she began appearing in the headlines of north eastern sports pages. In one contest that summer against the Newark Stars, an independent Negro league team, Stella fanned 14 batters. While all-girl teams were by no means a rarity at the time, it appears that Stella Friss gave the New York Bloomer Girls an edge in the credibility department. Along with her arsenal of pitches, Stella was unique because unlike most women pitchers who would throw an inning or two before retiring, she was able to pitch all nine innings on a consistent basis. Before games Stella would occasionally give a demonstration of her curveball skills to prove to the crowd that she was indeed the real deal. Stella’s older brother Chester played shortstop and catcher and was often singled out for both his fielding and work with his bat.

By 1915 Stella had moved up to the number 3 spot in the Bloomers lineup and was playing more and more first base. In the infield, Stella was teamed up with third basewoman ‘Toots’ Andres to form a tight defense that drew many compliments from sportswriters who covered the Bloomers games. By the time World War I ended Stella had been made the team captain.

In 1920 the Bloomer Girls played 32 games in which Stella hit .382 and was heralded as the team’s best player. Newspaper stories from this time call the New York Bloomers the champions of girl’s baseball, but on what this title was based was not recorded.

In 1921, just as Babe Ruth was launching home runs out of major league parks at a rate never seen before, Stella Friss was doing the same in the world of outsider baseball. In her first 28 games she belted 11 home runs. After she was reported to have swatted four home runs in a game in 1922, newspapers dubbed her the “female Babe Ruth,” and she proudly wore that nickname for the rest of her career.

By now Stella Friss was acknowledged as the best woman ballplayer on the scene, and her fame such that the time was ripe for her to break out on her own. For unknown reasons, Stella Friss changed her name to “Maggie Riley” when she left the Bloomers in 1923. Perhaps this was because the team “owned” the rights to her name, or perhaps she just wanted something that sounded a bit more  ‘sportier.’ She signed on with a Chicago-based semi-pro promoter and agreed to a $1,750 contract for ten games, later extended to $3,300 a month for three months of games. Now able to play ball on her own terms, the newly re-christened Maggie broke out of the all-girl novelty racket and formed her own team of male college stars and former minor leaguers called the Devil Dogs. To further distance herself from the old Bloomer Girls, Maggie had a special men’s style base uniform made for her with her new name “MAGGIE RILEY” in large letters across the front.

In July Maggie’s Devil Dogs played a one-game series against the bearded House of David team in a self-proclaimed independent league championship. Held in the Polo Grounds, the beards were leading the Devil Dogs 6-5 when Maggie hit a run-scoring double in the top of the ninth to tie the game. Unfortunately the House of David managed to score a run in their half of the ninth and edged past Maggie’s team,  7 to 6 to claim the “Independent Championship” title. With the national spotlight focused on her, Maggie occasionally showed flashes of the hype built up around her. But now with national promotion management behind her, Maggie was pitted against faster competition than the teams she faced as a Bloomer Girl. Against these advanced teams, Maggie often disappointed at the plate, though even negative newspaper recaps acknowledged that she fielded her position flawlessly and with professional finesse. 

By the end of 1924 the novelty had worn off Maggie Riley and her team. Outsider baseball fans were found to be more interested in watching a team of mostly women rather than a single one backed by mercenary semi-pros. Maggie went back to the old New York Bloomer Girls where she continued to be a fixture on the outsider baseball circuit until she, like The Babe, retired in the mid 1930’s.

How good was Stella Friss/Maggie Riley? There’s really no way of gauging that. Sifting through contemporary newspaper coverage we can see that she was likely the most talented of the women ballplayers of the late teens through mid twenties. Though no one suggested she was close to being big league material, she was none-the-less was taken seriously in the semi-pro community. Famed Negro league team owner and semi-pro promoter Nat Strong was quoted in 1924 as saying Maggie was the equal of any player in semi-pro baseball at that time. Of course Strong was first and foremost a promoter, so he may have been trying to stir up some buzz for an upcoming exhibition. Still, if anyone was in a position to judge talent found outside organized baseball, it was Nat Strong.

In the stack of box scores and game summaries I found over the years, I have been unable to locate the famous four home run game that gave birth to Maggie’s nickname of “The Female Babe Ruth” – in fact I couldn’t find any of her home runs. The closest I came was mentions of how many she had hit to date or her previous year’s totals. I’m suspecting that they were supplied in press releases issued from Bloomer Girls’ HQ back in New York.

Looking back from today, it’s hard to judge just what was hype and what was cold statistics when it comes to Maggie’s career. What can be gleaned is that she had enough talent to compete with and against men of a semi-professional talent level. It is just too bad that she did not come of age a few decades later when the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed in 1943. Then, pitted against the best women from across the country we could have really seen just how talented Stella Friss, aka Maggie Riley, really was.


One thought on “Stella Friss: Babe Ruth in Bloomers

  1. Fantastic story about a part of baseball history that demands more scrutiny: the contributions made by women to our National Pastime.

    Thank you, Gary, for highlighting these obscure but magnificent tales of how women have been championing each other while struggling for respect in the baseball arena for a century and a half. With your support and gift for fleshing out these stories and animating the fabulous females on whose shoulders women like me now stand, the next century and a half may not be quite so barren or bereft of the talent and focus women bring to the baseball diamond. GREAT JOB!!!!

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