Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Alta Weiss: A Medical Student With A Baseball Career

Alta Weiss had come from Ragersville, Ohio to be one of the only women in the Starling-Ohio Medical College in Columbus in 1910. But this was not the unusual thing about Alta. By the time she arrived in Columbus in 1910 as a twenty-year-old, she had already had a career in baseball.

Ragersville is south of Sugarcreek in Tuscarawas County. Alta Weiss’s father was the doctor there for fifty years. Alta was born in 1890, the second of his three daughters. She was naturally athletic and, legend has it, could hurl an accurate corncob at a family cat at the age of two, complete with wrist-snap and follow-through.

Alta not only pitched well, but she was an excellent shot with rifle and shotgun, played basketball, tennis, piano, violin and sang. But baseball was her first love.

Her father, Dr. George Weiss, provided her with an outlet when he established a two-year high school in 1905 so that Alta could play on a school team. He also founded Weiss Ball Park in Ragersville and by her fourteenth year, Alta was playing first base and pitching for the town team.

When the family was vacationing in Vermilion in 1907, Mayor H.P. Williams arranged for a game between two local teams, with Alta guest-pitching. She struck out fifteen men in the first game and nine in the second. On September 2, 1907, Alta, wearing a long blue skirt, took the mound for the semipro Vermilion Independents, pitched five innings and then played first base. The Independents won, 4-3.

Overnight she became the “Girl Wonder” in Ohio newspapers. She played the rest of the 1907 season, pitching seven more games, attracting much attention to Charles Heidloff, the manager of the Independents, who even booked League Park in Cleveland. Alta led the team to a 7-6 victory over the Vacha’s All-Stars. She was seventeen.

Her father encouraged her, built a heated gymnasium on his property so she could practice pitching and work out with weights during the winter. He purchased a semipro team and called it the Weiss All-Stars. He hired Heidloff as manager and Alta switched from a skirt to bloomers. The team had a barnstorming spring and summer in Ohio and Kentucky, playing at county fairs and special events, with fans tossing money in the infields after particularly good plays.

Alta was always accompanied by her older sister, Irma. Alta always pitched five innings, then played first base. Irma rubbed Alta’s arm with arnica, a plant extract, each evening. The Weiss All-Stars ended the 1908 season with a 21-19-1 record.

Alta attended the Wooster Academy and then she came to Columbus. Irma passed away and Alta had to buckle down to study medicine. When she graduated in 1914, the only woman in her class, the Columbus Citizen wrote, “Miss Weiss will take the State Board medical examination next week and then go home to Ragersville where she will practice medicine with her father for the summer. In the fall she will go to Harvard where she will enter the physical culture training school to fit herself to teach physical training.”

Alta did not become a physical education instructor. She practiced with her father, then, briefly, at the Girls Reformatory in Delaware. She practiced in Sugarcreek during World War One, taking over the practice of Dr. A.H. Syler during his war service. Alta worked during the horrible influenza epidemic and was discouraged in medicine.

She continued to don a baseball glove occasionally and play with local teams. In 1925 she established a medical business in Norwalk, Ohio, was married for eleven years but her marriage ended in separation.

She took over her father’s practice in Ragersville when he died in 1946. She phased the practice out and then retired, but was always ready to encourage a young ball player from her rocker on her Ragersville porch. Her grand-nephew described her as “eccentric…she owned ten cats, drove a 1940 Buick for years, and read three newspapers a day.”

Alta Weiss died in 1964.

Christine Hayes

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