Thelma Eisen made history as one of the first female professional baseball players, and then created an exhibit honoring her fellow players at the Baseball Hall of Fame, to ensure their triumphs were not forgotten. In 1944 she won a spot on the Milwaukee team of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. In 1946 she made the all-star team, and in 1949 she toured Latin America with another all-star team. After leaving the AAGPBL in 1952, she returned to Los Angeles and played with the Orange Lionettes for another five years, winning several softball world championships. In 1993 she was elected to the board of directors of the AAGPBL Player’s Association, which created an exhibit honoring women at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Tiby Eisen was an outstanding center-fielder in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) of the 1940s and 1950s, starring for nine years in the only professional women’s league in the game’s history.
Thelma “Tiby” Eisen was born in Los Angeles on May 11, 1922, the daughter of New Yorker Dorothy (Shechter) Eisen and Austrian immigrant David Eisen. From age fourteen, she played on top-notch softball teams in Los Angeles, starting with the Katzenjammer Kids, named for manager George Katzman.
Baseball was not her entry into pro sports, she explained: “In 1940, they tried to start women’s professional football in Los Angeles. After they got a couple of teams together, city council said women could not play football in L.A. I was a fullback on one of the teams, and we traveled to Guadalajara. They filled the stadium.”
In 1944, Eisen was one of six Los Angeles athletes chosen to try out for the All-American baseball league, and she won a spot on the Milwaukee team. In her first season, her team won the league championship. The next year the team relocated to Grand Rapids, Michigan. “When we walked down the street people would ask for our autographs, ask us where we were from. They wanted to know all about us,” she said. “It was big time in these small towns.”
At first, Eisen’s ballplaying drew a mixed reaction from family members.
“We played a big charity game in Chicago for a Jewish hospital,” she recounted. “My name and picture were in every Jewish paper. My uncle, who had said, ‘You shouldn’t be playing baseball—you’ll get a bad reputation, a bad name,’ was in the stands, and he was just bursting with pride that I was there.”
Eisen’s best season was in 1946, when she made the all-star team, leading the league in triples and stealing 128 bases for Peoria. In 1949, she was picked for an all-star team that toured Latin America. In 1995, the authoritative Total Baseball encyclopedia named her one of the league’s twenty greatest players.
In 1947, Eisen was traded for Faye Dancer, the woman Madonna’s character was based on in the movie A League of Their Own. The league, which operated from 1943 to 1954, was largely forgotten before the movie, but after its release in 1992 renewed interest in the league inspired new books, documentaries, and baseball cards.
Eisen made $400 a month, “good money,” she said, at a time when banks paid women only $60 a month. Before she joined the league, she had applied for work at the Bank of America, which sponsored a softball team in L.A. “You’d work for the bank, then play for the team. I had my interview, but I never heard from them,” Eisen recalled. “My girlfriend, who played on the team, told me they didn’t hire me because I was Jewish—but she only told me that twenty years later because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings.”
Eisen said she did not encounter antisemitism in the AAGPBL, and there were other Jewish players: Anita Foss, Blanche Schachter, and Margaret Wigiser. She did recall one anecdote:
“Once when I was playing for Fort Wayne, I was out in the outfield and I thought there were three out. There were only two, but I was coming in from the outfield. The manager Bill Wambsganss was waving, ‘Go back, go back.’ And he turned to one of the players sitting at the bench and said, ‘I never heard of a Jew that couldn’t count.’”
Hall of Fame
After Eisen left the AAGPBL in 1952, she settled in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles and starred on softball’s world champion Orange Lionettes until 1957.
In 1993, she was elected to the board of directors of the AAGPBL’s Players Association, which established an exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame, raises funds for reunions, and records the stories of the women who played. Eisen felt strongly about the importance of this work:
“We’re trying to record this so we’ll have our place in history. It’s important to keep our baseball league in the limelight. It gets pushed into the background, so people almost don’t know it happened. Women have been pushed into the background forever. If they know about our league, perhaps in the future some women will say, ‘Hey, maybe we can do it again.’”
Eisen passed away on May 11, 2014, at the age of 92.
Eisen, Tiby. Interviews by author, 1996.
Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball. Edited by John Thorn et al. (1995, 1997).