Many people have written about the various barnstorming tours of Japan by male baseball teams from the U.S., the most famous being the 1934 tour sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun (owner of the long-dominant Yomiuri Giants), which included Babe Ruth. Not so many people are aware of the female “squad of semiprofessionals who made a remarkable and sadly ill-fated tour of the Orient in the fall of 1925.”
That team was the Philadelphia Bobbies, composed of females aged thirteen to twenty, who went to Japan with the promise of making as much as $500 apiece for playing exhibitions. The Bobbies were one of two leading “bloomer girl” squads of the 1920s. The other was the New York Bloomer Girls…. The trip to the Orient in 1925 was collaborative effort of Mary O’Gara, the Bobbies’ manager and chaperone, and Eddie Ainsmith, a former Major Leaguer, who, just the year before, had taken twenty-four young men to Japan and boasted that each earned $830 playing exhibition baseball….
Ainsmith handled financial arrangements for the tour. Three Japanese promoters agreed to pay one-way, first-class passage for the team across the Pacific and assured Ainsmith and the Bobbies that generous gate receipts would cover costs of lodging, meals, and return fare–with a tidy profit for everyone in the traveling party. Unfortunately, that never happened. The Bobbies received a typically warm Japanese welcome. Reporters were on hand to greet them when they landed in Yokohama. So were the university teams they were scheduled to play. Tour promoters passed out flowers, had welcome banners strung, and provided rickshaws to shuttle the Bobbies from the Tokyo train station to their rooms at the newly built Western-style Marunouchi Hotel….
By early November, as the Bobbies continued to barnstorm through central Honshu with stops in Kyoto and Kobe, they began to lose regularly, and the crowds began to dwindle. E. R. Dickover, the U.S. consul at Kobe, summed up the situation in direct–if hardly diplomatic–language. “Because the girls could not play a sufficiently strong game to compete with any school team in Japan and as the Japanese would pay only to see a baseball contest and would not turn out simply because one of the teams was composed of girls, the trip was a financial failure from the start, despite all the advertising efforts of the promoters.”…
By mid-November, reality began to sink in. Two of the Japanese promoters disappeared without paying any bills. The third promoter, T. Shima, went bankrupt. Finally, on Friday the thirteenth–appropriately enough–Ainsmith and Mary O’Gara had a showdown about money. Ainsmith thought if the Bobbies moved on to Korea they could get a fresh start and turn their financial troubles around. O’Gara was afraid and wanted to go home. The two parted ways. Ainsmith convinced Leona Kearns and two other players–Edith Ruth, who played first base, and infielder-outfielder Nellie Schank–to go to Korea. With Hamilton, the three U.S. players, and four Japanese players, Ainsmith set out for Seoul. O’Gara and the nine remaining Bobbies threw themselves on the mercy of the expatriate Americans living in Kobe. But those U.S. citizens were being called upon constantly to bailout wayward travelers and were developing thick skins. The only help the Bobbies received was from an American named Henry Sanborn, who fed and housed the players at his hotel, the Pleasanton [scroll down], and tried unsuccessfully to convince an Osaka newspaper magnate to start a fund-raising campaign. The failed Japanese promoter, Shima-san, also tried unselfishly, in the face of his own financial problems, to drum up donations from wealthy Japanese to pay the Bobbies’ way back. But he, too, was unsuccessful. Finally, and almost miraculously, a wealthy British-Indian banker stepped in to save the Bobbies. N.H.N. Mody, who was living at the Pleasanton Hotel, heard about the Bobbies’ troubles and, without ever having met any of the players, wrote a check for 12,000 yen, approximately U.S.$6,000, to pay their passage back home.
O’Gara and the nine Bobbies in her company arrived home in Philadelphia on December 6, 1925, having done little to promote women’s baseball. Around that time, Ainsmith and his group returned to Kobe, where they asked the U.S. consul to accompany them to the police to try to secure the funds they had been promised by the promoters who disappeared. The police said they could do nothing. Again, Henry Sanborn provided what help he could, housing Ainsmith, his wife, and the three remaining Bobbie players in his hotel. He even hocked some brass treasures and curios to try to raise enough money to ship the Bobbies home. All he could get for them was about $300, not nearly enough for the tickets. Ainsmith then announced he had managed to have money wired from the States, but only enough to pay for his and his wife’s passage home. With his back to the wall, his patience running out, and his pockets only half full, Ainsmith told the players they would have to fend for themselves. The Ainsmiths sailed for home on December 27, 1925, leaving behind the three young women who had stood by the troubled tour leader all winter. U.S. Consul Dickover explained how such a callous abandonment was allowed to happen: “While Mr. Ainsmith was morally bound to care for the girls and should have remained with them until their repatriation, he could not be held legally responsible and so was permitted to leave.”
Indirectly, Ainsmith’s cold-heartedness led to Leona Kearns’s death. By early January 1926, her parents were frantic. Kearns was embarrassed and ashamed and had never written about her troubles. But her parents read about the return of the rest of the Bobbies in early December and began making a series of increasingly worried inquiries about their daughter. When Claude Kearns finally learned in early January that his daughter was stranded in Japan, he rushed to a local bank and borrowed $300 to pay for a second-class ticket home. On January 18, 1926, a relieved Leona Kearns boarded the Empress of Asia with her two friends, Nellie Schank and Edith Ruth, whose fares were covered with Sanborn’s help and the proceeds of a benefit dance.
The trip home was as disastrous as the tour…. [W]hen the ship finally got under way, it was battered by winter storms. For nearly four days, the crew plowed through winds as high as seventy miles per hour (112 kilometers per hour) that churned waves eighty to ninety feet high (twenty-four to twenty-seven meters). The second-class passengers rode out the tempest below deck behind steel storm doors. When the doors finally were thrown open the afternoon of January 22, Kearns felt as if she had been released from prison. She ran wild up and down the deck, delirious at finally sensing the end of her exciting but troubled journey. A ship’s officer warned her it was dangerous to run around on deck since the ship was still rolling. So Kearns went to the salon to have tea. Her friend Nellie Schank had been feeling seasick and was out on deck getting some air. Kearns finished her tea and stepped out to join Schank just as a giant wave rose out of the sea. Kearns shouted a warning to Schank, leaped over a bench, and sprinted for a bulkhead door just as the towering wave crashed. Edith Ruth, the third of the stranded Philadelphia Bobbies, saw the horror unfold from the tea parlor. She ran to the door and was relieved to find Schank grasping a rail as the receding water swept almost everything from the deck to the sea. Kearns, however, was nowhere to be seen.
The crew of the Empress of Asia cut the ship’s engine and circled the stormy sea for an hour. No trace of Leona Kearns ever was found. She was seventeen. Eddie Ainsmith, the quarrelsome catcher who already had a full career when he recruited her for the tour and left her behind in a strange land, lived another fifty-five years. He went on to become a Major League coach, an umpire, and a scout and, briefly, in 1947, managed the Rockford (Illinois) Peaches of the All-American Girls Baseball League. He died in Florida at the age of ninety in 1981.