Is She or Isn't He?: Exploring the Gender Identity Controversy over the First Female Byline in a National Sports Publication

By Sowell, Mike | Journalism History, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Is She or Isn't He?: Exploring the Gender Identity Controversy over the First Female Byline in a National Sports Publication


Sowell, Mike, Journalism History


This article focuses on a byline. In 1890, "Ella Black" appeared as a regular baseball writer, covering the Pittsburgh club in the Players' League for the national sports publication Sporting Life. The magazine billed her as a "novelty:" a woman covering baseball with a feminine touch. The authenticity of her identity became a source of debate by Sporting Life writers with some claiming her articles were penned by a man writing under a pseudonym. More than 120 years later, nothing more is known about Black than what appeared in Sporting Life that season, leaving in doubt who was behind the byline. This article is an attempt to settle that question and determine whether she was indeed a pioneer for women in sports journalism or just a cheap publicity stunt by Sporting Life.

At a time when women were only a tiny fraction of American journalists and also were rare among spectators at sporting events,1 a headline in one of the two leading national sports wetatMes of 1890 announced a first in reporting on America's national pastime. "A Woman's View" trumpeted the heading in Sporting Life. "A Novelty in Base Ball Literature - the Base Ball Situation Considered and Commented Upon From a Female Standpoint."2 The byline that followed read "Ella Black," the first of her weekly columns that appeared from March through November 1890 as she reported on the Pittsburgh club in the Players' League, one of three major leagues that season. This was indeed a novelty in baseball as it made her the first known woman sportswriter whose work appeared on a regular basis in a national sports publication.3

Or did it? Less than two months after Black's first byline, Joe Pritchard, the Sporting Life correspondent from St. Louis, wrote that "Ella Black" could not possibly be a woman and must instead be "the nom deplume of some gentleman correspondent in the Gas City" because "the letters are too newsy for a lady to compose."4 Other Sporting Life reporters followed suit in casting doubts on Black's authenticity and reporting.

However, an important ally quickly stepped forward to argue for the authenticity of Black. Henry Chadwick, nicknamed the "Father of Baseball" and considered the dean of nineteenth-century sportswriters,5 used his column to vouch that she not only was a woman but also a first-class sportswriter.

But at the end of one season, Black's byline disappeared without a mention, never to surface again in a sports publication or a daily newspaper. In her absence, the controversy remained unresolved and her place in the history of women journalists has been largely ignored. Was she real? If so, who was she?

This study is an examination of the "Ella Black" articles in Sporting Life in 1 890 to determine if the columns were written by a woman. An effort also is made to locate other writings by her or biographical records of an EUa Black who could have been the Sporting Life correspondent. Finally, this article explores her contributions as one of the first women journalists to write sports and the prevailing attitudes of male journalists toward their female counterparts at that time.

This study was conducted by examining Sporting Life for 1890 and 1891 and all of the articles by or about Black to compare the writing style and reporting in these columns to those of the male baseball writers. This included every mention of her in the reports of her male counterparts or letters from readers of the publication. The search for biographical information about her was done by searching for Ella Black bylines in other newspapers and sports publications of the time period and reading Sporting Life and other publications for any mention of her outside of the year that Black's columns were published. In addition, U.S. Census tecords were searched for information that could determine the identity of such a woman who was, or could have been, a baseball correspondent in 1890.

For much of the 1800s, daily newspapers published only occasional reports of sports events, most often about horse racing. …

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