Alta Weiss: The Wonder Girl

 

It was a warm summer morning, 1907. The well-to-do vacationers in the resort town of Vermilion, Ohio were just emerging from the cabins and bungalows, preparing for another lazy day of swimming, rowing and picnicking along the banks of Lake Erie. That morning, two teenage boys were whiling away the time by tossing a baseball around when they suddenly became aware of a blonde teenage girl watching their game. Accordingly, the boys began tossing the ball with a bit more English on it now that there was an audience of a pretty girl. After a while, the girl approached and asked if she could join in. Bemused, the boys agreed, and the girl jogged towards the vacation bungalows to get her glove.

Within minutes she was back, her long blonde hair pulled back with a baby blue ribbon, her fist pounding the pocket of a well-used mitt. The two boys shuffled their positions into a triangle to make room for the newcomer. Shrugging, the first boy unloaded a throw to the second boy who caught it, the ball making a sharp pop as it hit the pocket of the leather glove. The second boy now looked at the blonde girl, gauging how best to throw the ball without hurting her. Adjusting his stance, the boy lobbed the ball to the girl who casually caught it as it arched harmlessly through the air and dropped into her mitt. Clutching the ball with her right hand, the girl quickly pivoted, reared back and fired the ball at the first boy who, though surprised, caught the ball as it smashed into his mitt with a stinging pop. The two boys looked at the blonde girl who now had a deadpan expression on her face, her feet adjusted into a textbook fielder’s stance, waiting for the next throw.

The boys had met Alta Weiss.

Alta Weiss was born in Berlin, Ohio in 1890, the second of Dr. George Weiss and his wife Lucinda’s three daughters. Just after Alta’s birth, the family moved a few miles away to rural Ragersville where Dr. Weiss opened up a medical practice. As her father proudly told newspaper writers years later, he knew early on that his Alta had the makings of a real ballplayer. As the story goes, Dr. Weiss was returning to his farm when he came upon his 2 year-old daughter sitting on one side of the road, watching as the family cat chased a helpless bird on the other side. The astonished doctor looked on as the two year-old reared back and threw a corncob at the cat, narrowly missing the dodging target. Besides the uncanny accuracy of the throw, Dr. Weiss was particularly taken with his daughter’s form – instead of pushing the ball, as was the stereotypical way the fairer sex threw objects, his little girl had a fluid overhand motion and wrist snap that any boy five times her age would have been proud of.

As Alta grew older, it became apparent that she possessed the dexterity and skills of a natural athlete and skilled outdoorswoman. While Mrs. Weiss taught her daughters the skills of a turn-of-the-century housewife, Dr. Weiss allowed Alta to also pursue her interest in sports and outdoor activities. As soon as she was old enough, Alta began playing baseball with the local boys on the quiet streets of Ragersville. John Berger, one of the boys who played alongside Alta at this time remembered, “she had a man’s windup and good speed.” Dr. Weiss heartily encouraged his daughter, to the point of constructing a gymnasium adjacent the family barn and installing a wood stove so Alta could train year-round. Her father also hired the aforementioned John Berger as a stable hand, with additional duties as Alta’s catcher as she honed her fastball. Incredibly, Dr. Weiss went so far as to establish a local high school so that his daughter had an organized team to play ball with. By 1907, 17 year-old Alta was known throughout Tuscarawas County for her baseball skills. As summer wound down, Dr. Weiss sent his family north to Vermilion for a vacation.

It was there, in the shady lane of this resort town, that Alta played the game of catch that would change her life.

After throwing the ball around the horn for a good while, one of the boys left the group and took off down the lane that led to town. In a short time he reappeared with an older man, who watched intently as the reconstituted triangle fired the ball back and forth between them. That a grownup had stopped to watch wasn’t a surprise to Alta – she was used to causing a scene when she played ball. But this fellow wasn’t just a usual gawker – this man was H.P. Williams, the mayor of Vermilion, and he had just found the answer to the biggest problem facing his town.

Like virtually every town in America in 1907, Vermilion had their own baseball team that played other villages in the area. Back then, these semi-pro teams weren’t just for recreation – they represented civic pride and coveted bragging rights. Stakes were high, and washed up former pros and moonlighting college players were actively recruited to bolster the local talent. Mayor Williams knew this better than anyone; he had been elected to five straight terms based almost entirely on a “baseball ticket,” and his political career rested on the success of his town’s ball club. Unfortunately for Williams, Vermilion’s ace pitcher had just been injured and His Honor was resigned to the fact that both he and his town’s reputation was about to take a serious hit when it faced their rival, Wakeman, on Labor Day.

But now, just a few minutes of watching this teenage girl throw convinced him that Vermilion’s honor on the ball field might indeed be upheld.

While the mayor was onboard with putting a teenage girl on the mound, the idea was completely beyond the comprehension of manager Charles Heidloff. For quite a while Heidloff fended off the mayor’s insistence. The Labor Day game was a big deal in those parts, not something to be turned into some sort of sideshow attraction. The mayor set up a pair of pick-up games during which Alta convincingly displayed her talent. Still, Heidloff was on the fence about putting her on the mound for the Labor Day game. Mayor Williams pleaded, “just let her pitch one inning and if she shows signs of being easy, take her out.” In the end, Heidloff relented.

Word quickly spread through the vacation towns along Lake Erie, and Monday, September 2 found Vermilion’s Crystal Beach ballpark overflowing with 1,223 curious fans. Wearing a long blue skirt, Alta pitched her promised first inning flawlessly, and to the delight of the crowd, Heidloff sent her back to mound for the second. There was a tense moment when Wakeman’s feared slugger, Birmingham, smashed a ball back to the box, but Alta caught the missile before it did any harm. Inning after inning, Weiss mowed down the Wakeman batters, winning over the skeptics in the crowd. It wasn’t until the 5th that she relinquished a run. Despite only giving up four hits and striking out one, Heidloff took her out at the end of the inning. After the game, which Vermilion won in 11 innings, Heidloff told reporters that the only reason he took Alta out was that he feared nine innings would be too great a strain on her. The team’s skipper complimented her “great speed and a good assortment of curves,” and gave her his ultimate endorsement by stating that she would be on the mound the following Sunday.

The next Sunday the Norwalk nine came to town. As promised, Alta started for Vermilion and almost exactly replicated her previous outing – 5 innings, four hits, and one run. She also fanned five men while giving up a single walk. When Alta left the game – Heidloff was still nervous about overworking her – the score was 5-1 Vermilion. The game was eventually called in after 9 innings with the score knotted at 5-5.

By now, the story of the “girl wonder” had gotten around. Newspapers throughout the Midwest featured summaries of her two games and profiles of the 17 year-old phenom. When the Sandusky Shamrocks came to Vermilion for the final game of the season, the local businessmen pulled out all the stops to throw a celebration billed as “the greatest in the history of the town.”

By now, Charles Heidloff was fairly certain Alta possessed the stamina to pitch a full nine innings and he was correct. Alta scattered seven hits, fanning five Shamrocks and walked one for her first career win. She also scored one of the runs in the 9-3 victory. Besides her pitching that afternoon, newspaper reports noted that she “took her chances sliding the bases just as though she was a major league player and at the top of the payroll.”

Although the official season had ended, the interest in Vermilion’s girl pitcher did not. Heidloff kept his team together for some lucrative post-season action, the first being a 2-game series against an all-star team from Lorain, Ohio. A special train from Cleveland was scheduled just to bring people to the games. Unfortunately, this wasn’t Alta’s day as Lorain jumped on her for 4 runs in the first inning. She made it out of the inning, but Heidloff took her out of the game that ended in a 4-0 loss.

The next afternoon, Heidloff again gave Alta the ball. 2,364 fans crammed into Crystal Beach ballpark for the spectacle. Unlike the previous day, Alta finished the game, allowing 6 runs on 6 hits with a pair each of strikeouts and walks. Unfortunately, Vermilion’s bats came up short in the 6-5 loss.

Because of all her positive press, Alta now found herself in the unique role of baseball mercenary. Millersburg, Ohio contracted Alta for a one game appearance against Orrville. Again, Alta went the full nine, giving up six hits and two walks, but lost 8-5. Game reports attribute the loss not to Alta’s pitching but to her temporary teammates poor play.

The coming of Fall to Northern Ohio was bringing an end to baseball weather, but the demand to see Alta Weiss was still strong. Vermilion arranged for an exhibition game at League Park, home to the Cleveland Indians. First up was the Vacha All-Stars on October 3. The game attracted 3,100 curious fans that by the ninth inning had become unruly. Alta had given up 6 runs on 8 hits and was clinging to a one run lead going into the ninth. When Vacha plated two runs to take a 9-7 lead, the crown surged onto the field demanding that the game be called due to darkness. This would entail the game reverting to the last completed inning, therefore preserving Alta’s 7-6 lead for the win. Initially, the umpire refused to call the game, but finding himself alone and the stadium police detail conspicuously absent, decided to compromise and call the game a 7-7 tie.

While most of the attention Alta received was positive, the feminine phenom learned that fame also brought out individuals who looked to bring her down. One such person was Mrs. Fannie Everett, a so-called “humane agent” from Sandusky. Mrs. Everett took it upon herself to challenge Alta’s age, and if found to be under 18, vowed to make her cease playing with Vermilion. That Alta had the full permission of her parents and was accompanied by her father at all times meant nothing to the determined Mrs. Everett. Thankfully, the diligent “humane agent” was unable to assemble her case before Vermilion came to Sandusky to play on October 5. Alta pitched the game and was saddled with the loss, but the details were not reported.

The Vermilion club played their final game of the year back at Cleveland’s League Park on a bitterly cold October 20. Facing Mahon & Roth Clothing Store’s semi-pro team, Alta lasted 6 innings, giving up just 1 run on 5 hits. She fanned three and walked but one in Vermilion’s 4-2 win. Among the 700 bundled up fans who watched the game was Indians manager and future Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie. When the sportswriters corralled him after the game for his expert opinion, Lajoie said, “she looked to me to have as much as many men pitchers, but I hardly think I will release Addie Joss or Heine Berger (his two ace pitchers) to make room for her. The Indians skipper went on to say “but really, I was surprised to find that she could pitch so well.”

Though the baseball season had come to a close, interest in Alta Weiss increased. Throughout the winter Alta was the subject of numerous profiles, and through these we get a pretty clear picture of the “Girl Wonder.” A November 4th story in the Kentucky Post finds Alta expounding on the virtues of what she called “subtle muscle.” Flexing her right arm for the reporter, Alta declared, “you don’t have to be ‘knotty’ to be strong. Muscle should not obtrude itself until needed.” The reporter assured the reader “there are no ugly bumps or Rocky Mountain ranges to spoil the symmetry of the Alta Weiss arm. Slender and round, the wrist swells into fuller beauty in the forearm and measures no more than the average at the bicep.” Alta finished the story with an insight into her love of the game, “Throwing curves and sending a ball swiftly across the plate is as much a fine art to me as dabbling in paints or modeling sticky clay. I get as much enjoyment out of a game well played as a musician does out of a successful concert.”

Alta spent the winter working out in her custom gymnasium while her father went about planning an exhibition tour to showcase his daughter’s skills. First, Dr. Weiss bought a controlling share in the Vermilion Independents, retaining many of Alta’s semi-pro teammates from 1907. To give his club some professional polish, Weiss arranged to buy the uniforms worn the previous season by the Cleveland Indians. The cursive “C” was stripped off the chest and “WEISS ALL-STARS” was sewn it its place. For his daughter, Dr. Weiss had a contrasting all-red uniform made, complete with special bloomers in place of the awkward skirts she wore the previous summer. One major addition to the team was the hiring of Bill “Dad” Clarke, 43 year-old ex-big leaguer who had logged seven seasons with Chicago, New York and Louisville. The enlistment of Clarke gave the team not only a well-known name, but also an able relief pitcher for when Alta tired. In his prime, Dad Clarke was known for being both cranky and quite unattractive, allowing the press to dub the Weiss-Clarke combo “Beauty and the Beast.”

As soon as baseball weather arrived in the Midwest, the Weiss All-Stars took to the road. Alta was well known in Northeast Ohio, and a comprehensive press campaign ensured that adjoining states knew the “Girl Wonder” would soon be coming their way.

The way it typically worked was about two weeks before a scheduled game, a small story about Alta would appear in the local sports page, recapping her 1907 success and mentioning the upcoming contest. Subsequent stories seasoned the pot by adding additional attractions such as a long-distance throwing contest (Alta claimed the woman’s world record) and even a “well-known wrestler” who would take on all comers. With people’s interest piqued, the Weiss All-Stars would soon arrive in town, Alta pitching the first five frames, then relinquishing the mound to Dad Clarke (later replaced by other male hurlers) as she switched to first base.

While 1907 saw Alta facing small town teams, the grand 1908 tour pitted her against a faster class of ballplayer. Many of the teams she now faced were company or factory nines, teams more likely to feature multiple well-paid ringers. Against these mercenaries, the Weiss All-Stars met with mixed success. While Alta’s pitching was admirable, giving up a few runs while striking out a like number of batters, many games were lost due to poor fielding or lack of hitting. Despite her team’s mediocre record throughout the summer, the usually cynical male sportswriters more often than not gave Alta’s diamond skills high marks. Her fielding was especially praised, impressing the scribes with her ability to flawlessly play bunts and the smooth way she was able to throw to the appropriate base. Her hitting, on the other hand, left something to be desired, but then again, what pitcher didn’t lack prowess with a bat?

One thing the Weiss All-Stars tour did was inspire other young women and girls to take up the game. In June, the Cleveland Press published a story about Carita Masteller, a 14 year-old Clevelander who believed she was every bit as talented as Alta. In a 1908 version of trash-talking, Carita claimed that with a team as good as the Weiss All-Stars behind her, the teen could “keep her (Alta’s) team busy.” The story also took jabs at Alta’s supposedly poor fielding, though the validity of this claim is easily refuted by reading contemporary game recaps. Unfortunately, a Weiss-Masteller game was not to be.

Another challenge to Alta’s “Girl Wonder” title came from Midvale, Ohio native Irma Grable. Irma had been the ace of the Tuscarawas County All-Stars throughout the summer of ‘08 before the Ehrets baseball club poached her in August. The two were scheduled to face off on August 25th when the Weiss All-Stars came to Massillon, Ohio to play the Ehrets. In a pre-game story, it was reported that those who have witnessed both women play claimed that Miss Grable’s mound talents surpassed Alta’s. When the pair finally met, Irma gave a good showing, giving up just one hit in four innings, but her team lost to the Weiss All-Stars, 6-2.

After a summer of touring Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, Alta entered Wooster Preparatory School. Syndicated newspaper stories trumped the fact that Alta’s college education was fully funded by the proceeds of her baseball tour. The significance of this cannot be overstated; in 1908 a college education was only a dream for most women. Combine that with the fact that her education was being paid for with her own hard-earned money, and it is easy to see why Alta Weiss became an inspiration to many American women at the time.

Alta toured with the Weiss All-Stars again in 1909, but in June she split a finger, sidelining her for a few weeks. At this point the attraction of the Weiss All-Stars began to wear off. Several other women had begun touring just as Alta had done, and soon teams of all (or mostly all) women were formed, often dubbed “Bloomer Girls” due to the baggy pants they played in.

The “Girl Wonder” willingly retreated from the limelight, eager to further her education. Alta wanted to pursue a degree in physical education, but her father persuaded his daughter to study medicine instead. She matriculated to Starling Medical College (today known as The Ohio State University College of Medicine), the only woman in the Class of 1914 to earn a medical degree. Dr. Alta Weiss opened a practice in Norwalk, Ohio, and continued to play ball occasionally into the 1920’s. She married John E. Hisrich in 1926, but the couple separated in 1944. When her father passed away two years later, Alta moved back to Ragersville and took over his practice. Known as Dr. Hisrich, Alta was well known throughout town for her eccentricities such as sharing her home with ten cats, her proficiency in playing the guitar, violin, ukulele, banjo, and piano, reading three newspapers each day and driving her big 1940 Buick and 1942 Pontiac up until she passed away in 1964, three days after celebrating her 74th birthday.

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Three decades after Alta Weiss proved that women could compete equally on the same field as men, the former “Girl Wonder” inspired someone who became part of the second wave of female baseball players. Ragersville native Lois Youngen grew up playing catch with her father, a pitcher at Kent State back in the 1920’s. The pair often played in the street out front of her grandmother’s house. Across the street, watching from the shade of her porch, often sat the now-retired Dr. Alta Weiss. One afternoon, Alta invited the 13 year-old Lois over for cookies and lemonade. Alta asked after Lois’ uncles who had once been her teammates on the Ragersville sandlots decades earlier, and inquired about her own interest in playing ball. At the conclusion of the visit, Alta produced a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. The “Girl Wonder” took out a fountain pen and added her own signature to the ball and gave it to Lois. Carefully wrapped in her father’s handkerchief, the ball remained with Lois until she donated it to the Ragersville Historical Society in 2009, where it can be seen today.

Lois Youngen continued to play baseball, eventually playing professionally in the All-American Girl’s Professional Baseball League. From 1951 to 1954 Lois was a catcher/outfielder for Ft. Wayne, Kenosha and South Bend. Two of Lois’ managers, Max Carey and Jimmie Foxx, are Hall of Famers, and she herself made history as the catcher who called the pitches during Jean Faut’s perfect game against Kalamazoo in 1953. Lois graduated college and embarked on a 30-year career as a physical education instructor, ironically the same vocation Alta had wished to pursue before her father persuaded her to study medicine. In addition to her teaching duties as an emeritus professor of physical education at Oregon State, Lois coached the university’s women’s track and field and tennis teams. She earned her Ph.D. from Ohio State in 1971 and retired in 1996. Today, Lois is immortalized in Cooperstown in the “Women in Baseball” exhibit at the Hall of Fame, right alongside Alta Weiss.

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As always, the majority of the information from which I built my story comes from contemporary newspaper articles, but I also would like to recognize two indispensible works that include Alta’s story: Barbara Gregorich‘s Women at Play and Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball by Leslie A. Heaphy and Mel Anthony May. Yet, it is Infinite Baseball Card Set Booklet Series subscriber Mary Shea to whom I owe the most gratitude. When I posted a sneak peak of my Alta Weiss illustration, Mary wrote to tell me about her own conversation with Lois Youngen and her connection with Alta Weiss. Lois’ story became the perfect ending to Alta’s, and I owe it all to Mary, who put me in contact with the AAGBBL star. Lois gracefully answered all my questions about her relationship with Alta and, in turn, I hope she will soon be the subject of a Booklet herself

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This week’s story is Number 8 in a series of collectible booklets.

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. I will also start a Subscription to the series as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 006 and will be active through July of 2019. Booklets 1-5 can be purchased as a group, too.

 

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