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Thelma Eisen

(1922 - 2014)

One of the most versatile and talented Jewish professional athletes in America was Thelma “Tiby” Eisen. Born in Los Angeles in 1922, Tiby Eisen was a star of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the only professional women’s league in baseball history. The women’s hardball league, which lasted from 1943 to 1954, was restored to memory by the 1992 Hollywood hit movie, "A League of Their Own." One of at least four Jewish women in the AAGPBL, Eisen was its only Jewish superstar and a pioneer in American women’s sports.

The young Eisen was an outstanding athlete in her native Los Angeles and started playing semi-pro softball at age 14. In 1940, at age 18, Eisen’s all-around ability led her to try her hand at women’s professional football. California investors started a short-lived women’s professional football league (an undertaking that still awaits its Hollywood chronicler) and Eisen played fullback for one of the two Los Angeles teams. When the city council passed an ordinance that banned women from play football within the confines of Los Angeles, the teams traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico, where, according to Eisen, they "filled the stadium."

Before she joined the All-American Baseball League, Eisen applied for a job at the Bank of America in Los Angeles, which sponsored a women’s softball team. The salary for women at the bank was, Eisen recalled, about $60 per month. "You’d work for the bank, then play for the team. I had my interview, but never heard from them," she reported. "My girlfriend, who played on the team, told me they didn’t hire me because I was Jewish – but she didn’t tell me that until twenty years later because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings."

When the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed in 1943, Eisen won a spot on the Milwaukee team, which moved the next year to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Eisen’s best season was in 1946, when she led the AAGPBL in triples, stole 128 bases and made the all-star team.

Eisen’s family was ambivalent about the career choice this "nice Jewish girl" had made, although she ultimately won their respect. "We played a big charity game in Chicago for a Jewish hospital," Eisen recalled in an interview with historian David Spaner. "My name and picture were in every Jewish newspaper. My uncle, who had said, ‘You shouldn’t be playing baseball – you’ll get a bad reputation, a bad name,’ was in the stands . . . bursting with pride that I was there."

During her professional baseball career, Eisen could recall only one instance in which her religion was raised as an issue:

When I was playing for Fort Wayne, I was in the outfield and thought there were three outs. There were only two, but I was coming in from the outfield. The manager Bill Wambsganss [the first man in major league history to complete an unassisted triple play] was waving, ‘Go back, go back.’ And he turned to one of the players sitting on the bench and said, ‘I never heard of a Jew that couldn’t count.’

When Eisen retired from professional baseball 1952, she became a star for the Orange Lionettes softball team and led them to a world championship. In 1993, she helped establish the women’s exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Eisen told David Spaner, "We’re trying to record this so we have our place in history. It’s important to keep our baseball league in the limelight. It gets pushed into the background ... [just as] women have been pushed into the background forever. If they knew more about our league, perhaps in the future some women will say, ‘Hey, maybe we can do it again.’"

A footnote: In the movie "A League of their Own," the actress Madonna plays the character of baseball player Faye Dancer. In 1947, the real-life Faye Dancer was traded for another player, none other than Tiby Eisen.

Sources: American Jewish Historical Society