by Jeff Sellers
When you think of the women’s suffrage movement, you might imagine women in long white dresses adorned with yellow “Votes for Women” sashes, carrying banners and marching in a suffrage parade. If so, that would be a historically accurate image. Suffragists used parades and fashion to draw attention to their cause.
You probably do not picture baseball players running to catch fly balls or sliding into home wearing “Votes for Women” sashes. However, this second image is as historically accurate as the first. Along with marches, speeches, and luncheons, suffragists around the nation and here in Tennessee used baseball to advance the idea of women voting.
The story of suffrage baseball is a little-known chapter of the women’s suffrage movement. During the baseball seasons of 1915 through 1917, suffrage games were played throughout the nation. The very first in the South was played in Nashville between the Nashville Vols and the Birmingham Barons. The games reveal several key points in the movement. First, they show the creative and politically strategic ways women used sports to popularize the cause. By hosting suffrage days, they convinced many in a male-dominated sports culture that suffrage was not some radical idea but rather as common as, well, baseball. The endorsement of baseball during the movement helped move the idea into the mainstream. Second, it indicates the level of organization the women had developed in the years leading up to World War I in southern cities. This level of organization prepared the way for a federal amendment to pass in Tennessee only a few summers later.
By 1915, baseball had solidified itself as the nation’s national pastime. Stars like Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson filled newspaper headlines. A young pitcher for the Boston Red Sox nicknamed “Babe” Ruth swatted his first home run in May of that year.
Likewise, the women’s suffrage movement in Tennessee gained popularity. Led by charismatic leaders like Anne Dallas Dudley and Catherine Kenny the Nashville Equal Suffrage League sought new ways to win converts. Energized and organized, Tennessee suffragists mobilized.
They were buoyed by several recent achievements. First, in November 1914, they succeeded in hosting the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) conference in Nashville. This national convention brought suffrage leaders from around the nation to speak. The following spring, they convinced members of the Tennessee General Assembly to pass a joint resolution approving a state constitutional amendment allowing women a partial right to vote in presidential and municipal elections. While this amendment required approval by the next General Assembly in 1917 and a referendum to Tennessee voters for final approval, it proved the Tennessee General Assembly might be favorable to the idea. Building on this momentum, suffragists devised their next strategies. This time they targeted the most male-dominated arena: the sports world. Enter baseball.
Suffragists had a key ally in the Tennessee General Assembly. Clyde Shropshire was a newly elected member of the House of Representatives representing Davidson County in 1915. He was also a prominent lawyer and businessman. A year earlier, he bought a majority stake in the Nashville Vols minor league baseball franchise and became the club’s president. A progressive, Shropshire supported prohibition, equal taxation, and was most decidedly pro-suffrage. In Shropshire, Nashville suffragists found the perfect friend, a pro-suffrage legislator AND the president of the most popular sports team in town.[i]
From the top: Anne Dallas Dudley, President of the Nashville Equal Suffrage League, 1915 (Library of Congress), Catherine Kenny, member of Nashville Equal Suffrage League and organizer of suffrage baseball games (Tennessee Historical Society Collection at Tennessee State Museum, 1988.111), and Clyde Shropshire, president of the Nashville Vols baseball team (1914-1917), legislator, and ardent pro-suffragist (Tennessee State Capitol Archives)
That same spring the New York Giants major league baseball team held the first suffrage baseball game against the Chicago Cubs at the famed Polo Grounds in New York. It is unknown if Dudley, president of the Nashville Equal Suffrage League, or Shropshire, knew about this game, but it is not a far leap to think that they were influenced by it. Nonetheless on June 19, the Nashville Equal Suffrage League met and announced that July 23 would be “Suffrage Day at Sulphur Dell.” They approached Shropshire about the idea and he gave his “hearty endorsement.” The following day the Nashville Tennessean announced the big day with the headline "Vols and Barons Will Play on July 23 for Cause of Suffrage."[ii]
Nashville Tennessean, June 19, 1920 (newspapers.com)
The article promised its readers a day of banners, votes-for-women speeches, prizes, and notable government officials. Featured dignitaries would include Governor Tom C. Rye, and U.S. Senator Luke Lea, though Lea missed the actual game due to other business. As for prizes, Shropshire offered cash incentives. He pledged $10 to each player that hit a homerun, $5 each for the first triple, run scored, and stolen base. Suffragists themselves would sell tickets, and then walk through the grandstands selling “cigars, peanuts, lemonade, popcorn. All proceeds would go to support the movement.[iii] The day’s events would all be organized under the leadership of Dudley, Kenny, and members of the Nashville Equal Suffrage Association. Sulphur Dell, the Vols famed stadium, would be adorned in yellow bunting and pennants flying from the grandstands. A large banner prominently displayed would read:
“Votes for Women. You believe in fair play. You’ve had your innings—we want ours. Score a home run for equal suffrage.”[iv]
Kenny, a brilliant suffrage strategist, promised the day would be “the biggest thing ever pulled off in Sulphur Dell.” Dudley suggested it would be a “symphony in yellow.”[v]
By all accounts the game was a success, both for the suffragists and the Vols. The Vols beat the Barons 6-3, and the suffragists sold about 2,000 tickets in one of the most well-attended games of the season.[vi] As for prizes, Shropshire’s cash prizes were awarded to his Vols players that scored runs and stole bases. No one hit a home run for the big grand prize.
Undoubtedly, the game made an impression on the Barons and the suffragists in Birmingham. A month later suffragists there hosted the next suffrage baseball game. This time another Tennessee team, the Chattanooga Lookouts, traveled to Rickwood Field. Fortunately, photographs published in newspapers in Birmingham provide our only known images of suffrage baseball played in the South.
In Birmingham, suffragists made a day of it. Before the men’s game, women suffragists played their own game in front of the crowd. Like in Nashville, players wore the “Votes for Women” sashes and similar prizes were given out to players.[vii]
From the top: Suffragists and Players in Pro-Suffrage Sashes (Birmingham News, Newspapers.com)
The 1916 season was an exciting one for the Nashville Vols. They had one of their best teams in years and would go on to win the Southern Association’s pennant. The excitement around the team encouraged the Nashville Equal Suffrage League to once again partner with Shropshire’s team to promote the equal suffrage message. On August 21, 1916, the Vols played the New Orleans Pelicans in the second suffrage baseball game in Tennessee.
This time, suffragists played a more prominent role in the game. Before the game, players on both teams gathered as “Mrs. John Wesley Gaines tied suffrage sashes around each player.” To start the game, Kenny was given the honor of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. The year before, it was two men. In the third inning, Kenny introduced Tennessee Governor Rye, a suffrage advocate, who delivered a speech from home plate. At the end of the fifth inning, suffragists awarded prizes to the players. Along with monetary prizes for runs scored and stolen bases, suffragists baked cakes as awards. Other cakes, which had been displayed in store windows downtown, were awarded to both the winning and losing team. In two of the more bizarre contests, a cake was given to the most handsome player, called “the Apollo,” and the ugliest player. Nashville Vol’s star outfielder Gus Williams accepted the cake for handsomest player “with a sheepish grin.” First baseman Dick Kauffman received the ignominious prize of ugliest player.[viii]
Pro-Suffrage Governor Tom Rye attended both suffrage games in 1915 and 1916 (Tennessee State Capitol Archives)
Even though it was only the fifth inning, Kenny gave the Pelicans the loser’s cake to the joking protest of their manager who said the game was not over.[ix]
Even prominent Nashville sportswriter Binkley Horn was presented with a cake for his support. Horn and others wrote several favorable articles for women’s suffrage preceding each of the suffrage games.
Like in the previous season, suffragists sold tickets and concessions that supported the cause. Sportswriters reported suffrage day was “successful and enjoyable in every sense of the term.”[x]
Most importantly, articles reported that both teams, the Vols and Pelicans, “threw their support to the suffragettes,” and “to a man the Vols voted to let the fairer sex have the ballot.”[xi] Clearly, Tennessee suffragists had supporters both within baseball and print media.
The 1916 Nashville Vols played the New Orleans Pelicans in Tennessee’s second suffrage baseball game. (photo credit: Spaulding’s Official Baseball Guide)[xii]
Nashville Tennessean, August 22, 1916 (newspapers.com)
By the summer of 1917, the country had entered World War I. Many players were being drafted into service and many suffragists were divided on strategy. Conservative organizations like the Nashville Equal Suffrage League felt they should support the war effort through war service. Other organizations like the National Woman’s Party favored more aggressive measures like picketing the White House.
In Nashville, suffrage leaders organized another suffrage day baseball game. However, despite initial articles that the game would be held on August 19 between the Vols and the Pelicans, the game was held without any such suffrage fanfare being reported by the press. It remains unknown as to why the third suffrage day at Sulphur Dell did not happen or went unreported. However, the Vols did participate in a suffrage day a few days later, this time as the visiting team. They traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas to play the Travelers.
Like in Nashville, suffragists in Little Rock awarded cakes and prizes to the players. A Nashville Vol, catcher Gabby Street, even received a cake from the opposing suffragists to thank him for his support. Gabby declared, “they [women] are just as capable of handling the ballot as the men.”[xiii]
With the end of the 1917 season, it appears the women’s suffrage themed games came to a close. Things were swiftly changing. With the war consuming much of the country’s attention, baseball and suffragists gave their energy to support the war effort. After the war, the focus turned to a federal amendment rather than the strategy of each state determining the matter individually. That same year, Shropshire retired as the president of the Nashville Vols and became Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives.[xiv] The following year, he unsuccessfully ran for governor in the Democratic primary against Albert H. Roberts. Key suffrage leaders like Dudley became focused on the national strategy. She became vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1917.
Nonetheless, the suffrage games played throughout the Southern Association’s minor league seasons of 1915-1917 had a profound impact on changing public sentiment around the women’s suffrage movement. While they may seem a quirky anecdote of the suffrage movement, they illustrate how organized and energized the movement was in Nashville and throughout Southern cities. They also point to the sophisticated political strategies suffragists employed to influence public opinion. Suffrage baseball illustrated that an arena dominated by men could make the idea of women voting socially acceptable. The endorsement of the players and baseball organizations, and even the sportswriters, helped influence and set the stage for the years to come, when Tennessee would pass presidential and municipal voting rights and ultimately narrowly pass the 19th amendment in 1920. Had it not been for the suffragists’ savvy promotion of suffrage baseball, Tennessee might not have had the votes to ratify the amendment and become the 36th and final state it needed to become law.
Jeff Sellers is the Tennessee State Museum director of public programming
[ii] The Nashville Tennessean, 19 June 1915, newspapers.com, 2020
[iii] Suffrage Ball Game and the Patronesses. The Nashville Tennessean, 18 July 1915, newspapers.com, 2020
[iv] Make Plans for Suffrage Day at Tennessee Fair, The Nashville Tennessean and The Nashville American; June 20, 1915; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Nashville Tennessean, pg. 1A
[v] Yellow Will Be Color Scheme in the Dell Friday, The Nashville Tennesean and The Nashville Tennessean; July 20, 1915; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Nashville Tennessean, pg. 10
[vi] The Nashville Tennessean, Sunday January 11, 1948, newspapers.com, 2020.
[vii][vii] Suffragists See Best Local Game of Season, The Birmingham News, August 19 1915: newspapers.com, 2020.
[viii] Votes for Women Day Makes Vols Confirmed Suffragettes, August 22, 1916, newspapers.com, 2020
[x] Suffrage Day at Dell Success in Every Way, Nashville Banner, August 22, 1916, newspapers.com, 2020.
[xi] Votes for Women Day Makes Vols Confirmed Suffragettes, The Nashville Tennessean, August 22, 1916, newspapers.com, 2020
[xiii] Cy Morgan Gets His Revenge, Travelers Get Licked Twice, Daily Arkansas Gazette, August 31, 1917, newspapers.com, 2020.
[xiv] Clyde Shropshire Decides to Retire, Nashville Banner, December 15, 1917, newspapers.com, 2020.