By Russ Walsh
The Philadelphia Phillies, never known to be a leader in the National League standings or in social justice issues, recorded a remarkable Major League Baseball first on Feb. 14, 1946. That day club, team president Robert R. M. Carpenter hired Edith Houghton, a Philadelphia native with a long and distinguished career in baseball and softball, as the first female professional scout. Said Carpenter as he announced the hiring, “There’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t be just as good a judge of a ballplayer as a man. Some of them know a lot more about baseball.”
The 34-year-old Houghton certainly knew what she was looking for in a ballplayer.
“First of all, I shall look for size,” she told Art Morrow of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Players have to be big, and they must be fast. I think I’ll be able to spot a prospect all right. After all, I played for the Hollywood Girls and we were on tour six months playing men’s teams … all through the South. Oh, I know what a ballplayer looks like.”
Houghton got the job by walking into Carpenter’s office and asking for it. Carpenter was impressed with the Navy veteran’s credentials and conferred with general manager Herb Pennock before making the job offer. Pennock was equally impressed.
“I am convinced she knows baseball,” said Pennock. “She should help us a lot in our scouting of sandlot and semi-pro players in and around Philadelphia.”
The reaction in the press to Houghton’s hiring varied from bemusement to misogyny. A caption of a photo of Houghton signing her contract read, “HEY LOOK! SHE UNDERSTANDS BASEBALL.” One paper suggested that since the Phillies generally played like a bunch of Girl Scouts, they might as well hire a girl scout for their staff. Some cynics suggested that the move was all a stunt to distract the fans from the poor product the Phillies’ management put on the field.
Hiring Houghton was no stunt, however. She had earned her credentials through years patrolling shortstop for numerous women’s teams, starting when she was just 10 years old. Houghton was born in Philadelphia on Feb. 12, 1912, the youngest of 10 children. Her father, a former semi-pro baseball player, taught her the game. Young Edith was a baseball prodigy with skills beyond her years. At 10, she joined the Philadelphia Bobbies, a team of teens and 20-year-olds, as their starting shortstop. The team competed in the Bloomer Girls league, a precursor to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of A League of Their Own fame.
Her age, size, skill, and the baggy uniform she wore cinched with pins and string, attracted the attention of sportswriters. One wag writing for a Lancaster, Pa., newspaper said, “Little Miss Houghton, 10-year-old phenom, covered the ground at shortstop for the team and made herself a favorite with fans for her splendid field work and at the bat.”
While playing with the Bobbies in 1925, still just 13 years old, Houghton and her teammates went on a two-month barnstorming tour of Japan, where she introduced unsuspecting Japanese baserunners to the hidden ball trick and generally acquitted herself as the best player on the Bobbies team. Asked about her experience by an interviewer, she said, “Oh it was fascinating really. We won a few games, but I didn’t keep close track. I was mostly just interested in playing.”
Houghton’s parents decided that the trip to Japan would be at least as educational as her regular schooling and sought and received permission for her to miss some school. Later, she graduated from Philadelphia’s prestigious Girls High School.
Soon after the Japan junket, Houghton joined the New York Bloomer Girls, the top women’s team of the time, where she played for six years. After that, she toured the country with the Boston-based Hollywood Girls, playing mostly against men’s teams. Interest in women’s baseball waned with the advent of Major League Baseball on the radio, however, and Houghton auditioned for and wound up playing first base for a semi-professional men’s team in Philadelphia.
With opportunities to play baseball becoming increasingly scarce, she was forced to resort to playing softball. While it took her some time to adjust to the larger ball, she ended up playing for the top softball team in the country, the New York Roverettes.
When the United States entered World War II, Houghton joined the Waves, the female branch of the Navy, and in addition to her work as a supply officer, maintained an .800 batting average on Navy-sponsored women’s baseball teams in and around Washington, D.C.
Discharged after the war, but still in the Naval Reserve, Houghton was working in a hardware store in Philadelphia when she decided to become a baseball scout. During her time as a Phillies scout from 1946-51, she signed 16 players, none of whom ever made it to the Major Leagues, although a few made it as high as Class B ball. She said competition for recruits was intense.
“We were all scouting the same guys,” she told an interviewer. “If you find a player you think has talent, you bet your buttons 10 other [scouts] are after him, too.”
Also, she said some players did not want to be scouted by a woman.
With the onset of the Korean War, Houghton was recalled to active duty in 1952. She remained in the Navy for the next 20 years retiring as a Chief Petty Officer. She moved to Sarasota, Fla., in the 1960s and died there just eight days shy of her 101st birthday on Feb. 2, 2013.
Edith Houghton was a true groundbreaker. Not only was she a first-rate ballplayer good enough to play with and against the boys and the first woman hired to be a Major League scout, but she was also the only woman to hold such a position for nearly 65 years until the Seattle Mariners hired Amanda Hopkins as a full-time scout in 2015.
Russ Walsh is a retired teacher, diehard Phillies fan, and student of the history of baseball with a special interest in the odd, quirky, and once in a lifetime events that happen on the baseball field. He writes for both the SABR BioProject and the SABR Games Project and maintains his own blog The Faith of a Phillies Fan. You can reach Russ on Twitter @faithofaphilli1
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