Hitting baseball through a glass ceiling

As the Phillies step up to the plate against the Cincinnati Reds on Opening Day, consider the story of Philadelphian Edith Houghton, Major League Baseball’s first female scout.

The daughter of a grocery goods distributor and semiprofessional baseball player, Houghton was born in North Philadelphia in 1912, the youngest of 10 children.

When her family moved to 25th and Diamond Streets, directly across from a baseball diamond, Houghton became captivated with the game. At 8, she was the on-field mascot for the Philadelphia Police League.

“I guess I was born with a baseball in my hand. I enjoyed it more than anything,” she recounted.

She was only 10 when she became the starting shortstop of the newly formed Philadelphia Bobbies – named for the popular “bob” hairstyle. The Bobbies were a “Bloomers Girls” team that would challenge local, semipro, and minor-league men’s teams across the country.

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Edith Houghton in her Philadelphia Bobbies uniform, ca. 1929. From the Philadelphia Record photograph morgue (Collection V07)

With her fellow players ranging in age from 13 to 20, Edith was nearly swallowed by the too-large uniform, which she had to safety-pin. Sartorial quibbles aside, Edith’s talent turned the heads of fans and the press.

“Little Miss Houghton, 10-year-old phenom, covered the ground at shortstop for the team and made herself a favorite with fans for her splendid field work and at the bat,” a Lancaster newspaper stated in 1922.

Three years later, the Bobbies embarked on a 15-game tour of Japan, challenging male teams there. The local press was shocked that Houghton and her teammates wore “sports shoes instead of high heels.”

“For young women in 1925 – to be playing baseball and to be going to Japan – well, that was pretty exciting,” Houghton said in a 2001 interview with the Inquirer. “I wish I could remember more about it, but I was so young. . . . All of the girls were older than I was, so when they wanted to smoke and drink, they didn’t do it in front of me.”

Once stateside, Houghton played for female teams based in New York and Boston. In 1932, she successfully tried out as first baseman for the Fisher A.A.’s, a Philadelphia men’s semipro team.

“Miss Houghton, with no time for dolls or dishes, went in for the diamond game while young and has been at it ever since,” the Philadelphia Record reported the following year.

The attack on Pearl Harbor cleared the field.

Houghton enlisted in the Navy with the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). However, her work as a supply manager didn’t keep the bat out of her hands. On her naval department’s baseball team, she batted .800.

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Houghton ca. 1933. From the Philadelphia Record photograph morgue (Collection V07)

While remaining in the Navy Reserve after the war, Houghton worked for a hardware store before deciding to get back in the game.

Without an appointment, she managed to get in the same room with Phillies owner Bob Carpenter and pitched the idea for an interview.

“He looked at me like I was nuts,” she remembered.

Her pluck paid off. Shortly thereafter, Houghton became the first female scout in the majors.

(Some baseball historians state that the Chicago White Sox’s Bessie Largent deserves the title, but Largent scouted with her husband. Houghton plied the trade by herself.)

The Society for American Baseball Research asserts that the Phillies – already well on their way to becoming the losingest franchise – could afford to take the gamble.

“The Philadelphia Phillies, who through the recent years often played like a bunch of Girl Scouts, came up with something drastic today in their efforts to get out of the cellar – they a hired a girl scout,” declared the Sandusky Register-Star News in 1946.

Clearly, sexism was in full swing. Houghton, the “lady ivory hunter,” was jeered by many fans and newsmen.

“Phillies Sign Lady Scout Who Likes Her Players Big,” ran the Evening Gazette’s tawdry headline.

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Edith Houghton after she was hired by the Philadelphia Phillies as the major’s first female scout, ca. 1946. From the Philadelphia Record photograph morgue (Collection V07)

Houghton was unperturbed, and Carpenter stood by her. “There’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t be just as good a judge of a ballplayer as a man,” he asserted. “Some of them know a lot more about baseball.”

Over a six-year career, Houghton scouted hundreds of players and signed more than a dozen to minor-league contracts, including many local high schoolers.

Of her scouting strategy, she remarked: “First of all, I shall look for size. Players must be big, and they must be fast. But they must be able to hit. I learned early in my baseball career that you can’t steal first base.”

“It’s not hard to pick them out,” she continued. “You look for the natural ability. The rest comes with training.”

The outbreak of the Korean War pressed Houghton back into service, and she remained a reservist until 1964.

She died in 2013, a few days south of her 101st birthday. She was a Phillies fan to the end.

HSP’s library contains several books on the history of baseball, including Proceedings from Philadelphia’s Baseball History (call number GV 863.P4 P5 1990) and Base Ball in Philadelphia: A History of the Early Game, 1831-1900 (call number UPA/Ph GV 863 .P372 S55 2006).  More images of baseball players, both men and women, can be found in the Philadelphia Record photograph morgue (Collection V07)



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