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 in 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, Eisen returned to her home town of Los Angeles and played with the Orange Lionettes for another five years, winning a world championship. In 1993, she was elected to the board of directors of the AAGPBL Players Association.
Family and Early Life
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 the age of fourteen, she played on top-notch softball teams in Los Angeles, starting with the Katzenjammer Kids, named for manager George Katzmann.
Baseball was not Eisen’s 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 brand new All-American baseball league, and she won a spot on the Milwaukee roster. In Eisen’s 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 know all about us,” she said. “It was big time in these small towns.”
At first, Eisen’s ball-playing drew a mixed reaction from family members. “We played a charity game in Chicago for a Jewish hospital,” she said. “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.”
The speedy Eisen was a fine defensive outfielder and a great base stealer. Her 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 on whom Madonna’s character was based in the hit 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 AAGPBL inspired new books, documentaries, and baseball cards. In 2022, the movie was adapted into a television series also called A League of Their Own.
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 Los Angeles. “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.”
Eileen said she did not encounter antisemitism in the AAGPBL, and there were other Jewish players: Anita Foxx, 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, Eisen was elected to the board of directors of the AAGPBL’s Players Association, which organizes reunions, documents the league’s history, and promotes women’s baseball. Eisen was instrumental in the creation of an AAGPBL exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. She 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. She was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2022.
Eisen, Tiby. Interviews by author, 1996.
Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball. Edited by John Thorn et al. (1995, 1997).