This web exhibit has been made possible through the generosity of Harry Stern, Zelda R. Stern and the Harry Stern Family Foundation.
During the workday, Canadian Olympic medalist Fanny "Bobbie" Rosenfeld was a stenographer in a Toronto chocolate factory. It was only on evenings and weekends that she had time to resume her role as the "world's best girl athlete." On any given day she could be seen winning softball games before crowds of thousands, breaking national and international track records or leading an ice hockey or basketball team to a league championship. Was there any sport Rosenfeld couldn't conquer? As one author remarked, "The most efficient way to summarize Bobbie Rosenfeld's career... is to say that she was not good at swimming."
Born in 1904, Rosenfeld was known for her wise cracks as well as for her sportsmanship. Although famous as an all-around athlete, she gained the international spotlight with her achievements in track, bursting onto the scene at the 1923 Canadian National Exhibition.
By 1928 Rosenfeld was traveling to the Amsterdam Olympics for what she termed her "greatest victory." There, the small Canadian women's track team, celebrated by the press as "the matchless six," swept the events. With a gold medal for the 400 meter relay, a silver for the 100 meter, and a fifth place in the 800 meter, Rosenfeld scored more points for her country than any other athlete at the Games, male or female.
One year later, her career ground to a halt. Struck with severe arthritis, Rosenfeld was bedridden for months and afterwards confined to crutches.
In 1931 she recovered sufficiently to star on championship softball and ice hockey teams again, but a second attack in 1933 forced her to retire permanently from athletics.
Rosenfeld then moved to coaching track and softball and into the field of sports writing. Her column "Sports Reel" began its twenty year run in the Toronto Globe and Mail in 1937. First as an athlete and then as a writer, Rosenfeld helped topple traditional barriers against women's participation in sports.
Rosenfeld was honored nationally in 1950 when a press poll of sportswriters voted her Canada's Female Athlete of the Half-Century. She was among the first to be inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, and her legend has carried on long past her death at the age of 65 in 1969. With the recent appearance of her portrait on a Canadian postage stamp, the tributes to her continue today.
A Natural Athlete
Rosenfeld was born in Dnepropetravsk, Russia on December 28th, 1904. Her family then immigrated to the small town of Barrie, Ontario when she was just an infant.
As a child growing up in Barrie, she ran her first sprint out of necessity. At a town picnic she and a sister lost the money they had brought to buy their meal. Luckily a race had been organized for children, with a box lunch as prize. Rosenfeld entered and won.
By the time she was a teenager, Rosenfeld had become well known locally as an outstanding, dedicated athlete. She led her high school basketball team at Barrie Collegiate Institute to a League title, and excelled in track as well as in her favorite sport, ice hockey. Friends had even begun calling her "Bobbie" for her short bobbed hair, cut to stay out of the way during competition. And while sexist opinions on women in sports were common throughout Rosenfeld's childhood, her family supported and encouraged her. Brushing aside assertions that strenuous exercise was damaging to the feminine form, her father was always wildly cheering from the stands at Bobbie's games and races. When the family moved to Toronto in 1922, Rosenfeld was ready to make her mark on the city's growing women's sports scene.
- Ethel Berman, Rosenfelds sister, relates the story of Bobbies first race in Paul Patton, "Rosenfelds Feats," Globe and Mail 15 June 1987.
- On Rosenfeld and hockey, see "Fanny Bobbie Rosenfeld," draft in Rosenfeld file of Canadas Sports Hall of Fame, Toronto, and "Casual Start: Set Olympic Mark at Amsterdam, Bobbie Rosenfeld in Retirement," Globe and Mail 3 Dec. 1966.
- On early twentieth century opinions on women in sports, see, for example, Uriel Simri, Women at the Olympic Games (Netanya, Israel: Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sport, 1979).
Pup Tent Bloomers
The year was 1923, and Rosenfeld was at "a picnic in Beaverton, a three ring sporting carnival. I was on a factory girls' softball team. I had done some running at high school in Barrie and was pretty speedy on the bases, and the girls said: 'Why don't you go in the 100 yard dash?'
"I said, 'Aw, what do you mean?' I was wearing these big pup tent bloomers and running shoes.
Well, they persuaded me, the kids on the team, and I went in and won the race. People crowded around, and Elwood Hughes, then sports director of the Canadian National Exhibition, wanted to know who I was.
"They asked, 'Do you know who you beat?.' And I said no.
"You beat the Canadian national champion,' and I said, 'Who's the Canadian champion?'"
The Canadian champion was Rosa Grosse, who became one of Rosenfeld's greatest rivals. In 1925, Rosenfeld and Grosse shared the world record for 100 yards at 11 seconds flat.
- Quoted in "Casual Start: Set Olympic Mark at Amsterdam, Bobbie Rosenfeld in Retirement," Globe and Mail 3 Dec. 1966.
Dat's My Girl
Rosenfeld ran in her first major track meet at the 1923 Canadian National Exhibition. This was long before the advent of anything like women's sportswear, and so she had, "hunted all over town for something to wear." As she reminisced, "I finished wearing my brothers swimming trunks, dad's socks and a gym jersey. I must have looked hideous and don't you dare drag out any of those old photos."
But despite her wishes, here is a photograph of her triumph in the 100 meter sprint, awkward costume and all. Tom Eck's famous Chicago Flyers had arrived in Toronto expecting to sweep the event with a lineup that included world record holder Helen Filkey. Canadian record holder Rosa Grosse was running as well, adding further fierce competition. When Rosenfeld snatched first place from both Filkey and Grosse, she gained instant fame.
Rosenfeld later recalled gazing up from the finish line to find her father sitting on the stadium fence, banging on a piece of wood he'd picked up, and shouting: 'Dat's my girl, Fannie.'"
And by the way—that evening, after the race, Bobbie stopped by Sunnyside Park to play softball for her team Hinde and Dauche and win the city championship.
- Quotes in the first paragraph are from Bob Pennington, Column, Toronto Telegram 3 Dec. 1966.
- "Dat's my girl..." quote is from "Bouquet for Bobbie," Globe and Mail 27 Dec. 1950.
Super Woman Athlete
A decade's worth of newspaper's sports sections are full of references to Rosenfeld, "undoubtedly the greatest all-around woman athlete in the world," and her "vast army of admirers." Whether "the super woman athlete" was playing defense for the Lakesides basketball squad, center for the North Toronto Ladies ice hockey team or short stop for the Hinde and Dauche softball club, Rosenfeld led them all to championships again and again. Just one example, from 1931: "Besides managing the [Maple Leafs softball] team, she played first base, and her fielding, hitting and 'fight' brought the Leafs from the cellar to the championship."
In 1924 she even won the Toronto Ladies Grass Courts tennis championship.
Constance Hennessey, one of the founding members of the Toronto Ladies Athletic Club, remembered Rosenfeld as, "not big, perhaps five-foot-five. She didn't look powerful but she was wiry and quick. Above all she was aggressive, very aggressive physically. No, I don't mean that she made a lot of noise or had a belligerent manner. She simply went after everything with full force....She was just the complete athlete and I am certain she would have been good at any sport. Certainly, she was as good as one could see in track and field, hockey, basketball and softball.
Or, more simply, in the words of one historian: "If any single individual epitomized women's sport in the 1920's, she did."
- "undoubtedly the greatest all-around woman athlete..." quote from "Worlds Best Girl Athlete to Stop Running," Clipping from Bobbie Rosenfeld File, Heritage Toronto, nd.
- "vast army of admirers" quote from "Prominent Athlete Slightly Improved: Miss Bobbie Rosenfeld Reported to Be Out of Danger," Globe and Mail 16 March 1933: 9.
- "super woman athlete" quote from "Call to Miss Rosenfeldt to Meet Miss Grosse," Globe and Mail 5 July 1924: 11.
- "Besides managing the team..." quote from "And No. 3..." Clipping from Bobbie Rosenfeld File, Heritage Toronto, 3 Jan. 1931.
- Constance Hennessey is quoted in Douglas Fisher and S.F. Wise, Canadas Sporting Heroes (Don Mills, Toronto: General Publishing Company, 1974) 79.
Controversy at the Finish Line
For the Canadians, the 100 meter race was marked by disappointment. Three Toronto women—Myrtle Cook, Ethel Smith and Rosenfeld—had made it to the finals. But after two false starts disqualified Cook, Rosenfeld and Smith watched as their teammate collapsed on the sideline in tears. Tension grew after another false start disqualified a German runner. Finally the gun went off and the race was on.
With Rosenfeld and Smith starting cautious after all the confusion, Elizabeth Robinson of the United States pushed out in front. Then, as one sportswriter put it, Rosenfeld, "whose courage has never been questioned, rallied strongly and raced down the stretch probably faster than any woman ever traveled in this world." She crossed the tape so close to Robinson that the judges were uncertain who had placed first.
In the end, Robinson was awarded the gold, but coach Alexandrine Gibb wasn't alone in her opinion that, "Bobbie Rosenfeld won." She wrote, "The five judges at the finish were each picking one position. And both the judge who picked first and the judge who picked second chose Betty Robinson, of the United States. Ethel Smith was undoubtedly third. Then where was Bobbie Rosenfeld? In my opinion and that of a number of others at the finish, she either won or it was a dead heat." Unfortunately for Rosenfeld, a silver medal would have to do.
- The quote "whose courage has never been questioned" is from M.J. Rodden, "Scanning the Sport Field," Globe and Mail 1 August 1928: 10.
- Alexandrine Gibbs quote from her article "Canada at the Olympics," MacLeans Magazine 1 October 1928.
- For more on the 100 meter race, see Ron Hotchkiss, "The Matchless Six," The Beaver Oct.-Nov. 1993, 35-7.
No Finer Deed
Rosenfeld had never trained for the Olympic 800 meter event. She was entered into the race only to encourage teammate Jean Thompson. The youngest member of the "matchless six," seventeen-year-old Thompson had spent the week before the Games resting an injured leg, and team officials worried that this had lowered her morale.
Thompson started the race strong, but after being passed and jostled by a few of the runners she dropped from second to fourth place and was starting to falter. Rosenfeld, running in ninth, sprinted to draw even with her, and then coaxed Thompson the rest of the way to the finish line.
Many watching this performance realized that Rosenfeld could have continued her push forward and won another medal. Instead she, "stayed at Jean's shoulder to the finish and then let Jean finish fourth, taking fifth for herself." As the team manager Alexandrine Gibb remembered it, "Bobbie Rosenfeld's sportsmanship in this event was one of the high spots of the games....In the annals of women's athletics, there is no finer deed than this."
- Quotes are from Alexandrine Gibb, "Canada at the Olympics," MacLeans Magazine 1 October 1928.
- For more on the 800 meter race, see Ron Hotchkiss, "The Matchless Six," The Beaver Oct.-Nov. 1993, 33-4.
On the final day of the Olympic track and field games, Bobbie Rosenfeld, Ethel Smith, Jane Bell and Myrtle Cook took their places out on the field for the 400 meter relay. After the disappointments of the 100 meter race, with Myrtle Cook disqualified for false starts and Rosenfeld possibly robbed of her gold, the pressure was high. Still, Smith remembered, "We all felt we were going to win."
Rosenfeld was the "lead-off girl," and by the time she passed the baton, they were running first. With Smith speeding "like one possessed" and Bell on the third leg sprinting "the race of her life," the women had a three yard lead as anchor Myrtle Cook prepared for the hand-off. "The pass between Myrtle and Jane was nearly a flop," remembered coach Alexandrine Gibb.
"It was only when Miss Cook had nearly reached the line at which she must have the baton in her possession that Jane Bell reached her- Myrtle Cook was running at top speed...a fraction of a second later it would have been a catastrophe..." Instead it was a victory as Cook raced ahead and increased the Canadians' lead. When she crossed the finish line, the relay team had set a new world record and won the gold.
- Ethel Smith quoted in Ron Hotchkiss, "The Matchless Six," The Beaver Oct.-Nov. 1993, 35.
- All quotes in second paragraph, as well as the account of the race, are from Alexandrine Gibb, "Canada at the Olympics," MacLeans Magazine 1 October 1928.
Crashing the "Sacred Sanctum"
"Athletic maids to arms!...We are taking up the sword, and high time it is, in defense of our so-called athletic bodies to give the lie to those pen flourishers who depict us not as paragons of feminine physique, beauty and health, but rather as Amazons and ugly ducklings all because we have become sports-minded...
"No longer are we athletes the pretty maids of yesteryear. Our perfect 36's are being ruined, our features are becoming quite 'Frankensteinish,' shout these croquet and pat-ball advocators, all because we are no longer satisfied with being just a 'rib of Adam', but we have elected to hurl the discus, throw the javelin, run and jump as 'Adam' does....
"The modern girl is a better worker and a happier woman by reason of the healthy pleasure she takes in tennis, hockey, lacrosse, swimming, running, jumping and other sports. The sacrifices which girls have to make to keep themselves fit are all for the good. They work better because they play better. When one sees the well-filled playing fields today, one has no fear for the future of Canadian womanhood....
"The girl athletes have successfully crashed the sacred sanctum of men's sports realms. The sporting public likes them and wants them...
"Would all this ballyhoo of leathery-limbs, flat chests, physical injury, be a direct result of male resentment to the female intrusion of their athletic circle? Can it be that they just 'can't take it?'"
Lamp Shades and Ribbon
While Rosenfeld may have been Canada's most famous female athlete in her day, she still needed to work at the Patterson Chocolate Factory to pay her bills. As her sister commented, "If Bobbie were alive today she'd be a millionaire, with all the endorsements athletes have now. Instead she had lots of hatboxes. Not luggage. Hatboxes.
Rosenfeld looked back on this fact with humor. "We gals were babes in the wood then and clung to that old cliche about sports for sports sake," she wrote in 1950. "After I came back from the Olympics, Dr. Saul Simon decided to arrange a series of exhibition races.... My first race was in my hometown of Barrie. When I arrived...the officials were most apologetic. No girl racers had answered the challenge, but would I run against the boys? I did, and won with the help of a three-yard handicap. My prize—a lamp shade and a yard of moire ribbon. I shuddered at the thought of collecting, maybe, another half dozen lamp shades and yards more of moire, so right there and then I persuaded the doc to cancel the rest of the tour."
- Bobbie Rosenfeld, "Fanny Harks Back to the Golden 20s," Globe and Mail 27 Dec 1950.
- Ethel Berman quoted in Paul Patton, "Rosenfelds Feats," Globe and Mail 15 June 1987.
- Bobbie Rosenfeld, "Feminine Sports Reel," Globe and Mail 13 July 1940.
The only woman on the Globe and Mail sports staff, Rosenfeld was one of a small but prominent group of female sportswriters across the country. Other Canadian columnists included old friends like fellow runner Myrtle Cook and Alexandrine Gibb, coach of the 1928 Olympic track team.
For eighteen years, Rosenfeld covered women's sports with wit and "refreshing candor." She celebrated female pioneers in everything from bowling to rodeo riding, and wrote with authority on softball, basketball, hockey, track- all the fields she had once dominated. Along the way she mocked herself and most everyone else, recommended taffy and orange juice to cure hangovers, and occasionally reminisced about the golden age of girls sports, "when the Cook and the Rosenfeld held sway... (kind of snooty, eh!)"
But perhaps more importantly, Rosenfeld used her column to advocate for women athletes. She debunked the sexist attacks that insisted women looked, "better with a frying pan than a tennis racquet." She encouraged girl's sports in the schools, asserting that, "competition when properly organized and directed has a contribution to make to the education of women." Throughout the years, Rosenfeld continued to remind a too-often forgetful public that girls were "in sports for good."
- On women sportswriters in Canada, see Douglas Fisher and S.F. Wise, Canadas Sporting Heroes (Don Mills, Toronto: General Publishing Company, 1974) 304.
- "refreshing candor" quote from "Top Athlete Was Refreshing Writer," Obituary, Globe and Mail 15 Nov. 1969.
- "when the Cook and the Rosenfeld" quote from Bobbie Rosenfeld, "Feminine Sports Reel," Globe and Mail 29 Aug. 1940.
- "better with a frying pan..." quoted in Bobbie Rosenfeld, "Feminine Sports Reel," Globe and Mail 10 January 1941: 16.
- "competition when properly organized..." quote from Bobbie Rosenfeld, "Feminine Sports Reel," Globe and Mail 28 May 1941: 18.
- "in sports for good" quote from Bobbie Rosenfeld, "Girls Are in Sports for Good," Chatelaine July 1933: 6+.
Born Fanny Rosenfeld in Dneipropetrovsk, Russia on December 28
Family immigrates to Barrie, Ontario
Wins first trophy at Great War Veterans Association Track Meet; family moves to Toronto; begins work at Patterson Chocolate factory and joins their company sponsored Pats Athletic Club
Gains international fame at the Canadian National Exhibition by defeating the world record holder in the 100 meter dash; earns reputation as the world's greatest female all-around athlete as she excels on championship basketball, hockey and softball teams over the next ten years
Wins Toronto Ladies Grass Court Tennis title
Wins shot put, the 220 yard dash, long jump, 120 yard low hurdles and discus, and places second at javelin and the 100 yard dash all in just one day at the Ontario Ladies Track and Field Points Championship
Leads her team to a gold medal in the 400 meter relay, wins a silver medal for the 100 meter dash, and runs fifth in the 800 meter, a race for which she had not even trained, at the first Olympic games to admit women to track and field competition
Struck suddenly by severe arthritis, she is bedridden for 8 months, then forced to use crutches for a year
Returns to hockey and softball upon recovering; leads the league in home runs and is voted the outstanding woman hockey player in Ontario
Forced to retire from sports after a second attack of arthritis at the age of only 29; coaches track and softball; works as a sports columnist for the Montreal Herald
Begins almost 20 years of writing the column "Sports Reel" for the Toronto Globe and Mail; uses her column to advocate for women in athletics as well as covering a wide range of sports
Among the first inductees into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame at its opening
Selected as Canada's Female Athlete of the Half-Century
Retires as columnist; becomes Globe and Mail Public Relations Manager
Leaves the Globe and Mail due to illness
Dies in Toronto on November 14 at age 65
Elected to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame
Canadian Postal Service issues Bobbie Rosenfeld stamp
"And No. 3..." Clipping from Bobbie Rosenfeld File, Heritage Toronto, 3 Jan. 1931.
"Auto Injures Girl Athlete." Clipping from Bobbie Rosenfeld File, Heritage Toronto, 15 March 1932.
"Bobbie Rosenfeld, a Sports Champion." Obituary. Toronto Telegram, 14 Nov. 1969.
"Bobbie Rosenfeld Going, Girl Athletes Mournful." Clipping from Bobbie Rosenfeld File, Heritage Toronto, 26 April 1932.
"Bouquet for Bobbie" Globe and Mail 27 Dec. 1950.
"Call to Miss Rosenfeld to Meet Miss Grosse." Globe and Mail 5 July 1924: 11.
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——. "No Man's Land of Sport."Toronto Star 26 April 1932.
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——. Telephone Interview. 3 August 1999.
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"New World's Record For Girls' 100 Yards." Clipping from Bobbie Rosenfeld File, Heritage Toronto, 21 Sept. 1925.
"No Matter the Game Bobbie Was Champ." Clipping from Bobbie Rosenfeld File, Heritage Toronto. 27 Dec. 1950.
Patton, Paul. "Rosenfeld's Feats." Globe and Mail 15 June 1987.
Pennington, Bob. Column. Toronto Telegram 3 Dec. 1966.
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——. "(Feminine) Sports Reel." Globe and Mail, various columns, daily from 1937-1957.
——. "Sports Reel: Fanny Harks Back to the Golden 20's." 27 Dec 1950.
——. "Feminine Sports Reel." Globe and Mail 1 January 1941: 17
——. "Feminine Sports Reel." Globe and Mail 10 January 1941: 16
——. "Feminine Sports Reel." Globe and Mail 28 May 1941: 18.
——. "Feminine Sports Reel." Globe and Mail 29 Aug. 1940.
——. "Feminine Sports Reel." Globe and Mail 26 Oct. 1940: 15.
——. Letter to Bobby Hewitson. 12 Jan. 1960. Rosenfeld file at Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, Toronto.
"Rosenfeld, Fanny 'Bobbie.'" Draft in Rosenfeld file of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, Toronto, nd.
Roxborough, Henry Hall. Canada at the Olympics. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1969.
"She Made Track Record and Joshed the Umpire." Clipping from Bobbie Rosenfeld File, Heritage Toronto. 20 Sept. 1924.
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"When Canadian Girl Sprinters Triumph." Globe and Mail 10 Sept. 1923.
"Wild Cheers Ring Out from Myriad Throats to Welcome Olympics." Globe and Mail 25 August 1928.
"World's Best Girl Athlete to Stop Running." Clipping from Bobbie Rosenfeld File, Heritage Toronto, nd.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Bobbie Rosenfeld." (Viewed on March 3, 2015) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/rosenfeld>.