In this Women’s History Month post, I’ll be writing about ten great female athletes from New York City. As in past posts about New York’s athletes, I apply a someone flexible definition as to who is ‘from’ New York. It’s not necessarily enough to be born in NYC. I look at women who developed their athletic careers here. I include women who performed for schools in New York, university teams in the five boroughs, and professional sports teams and clubs in New York. The list is not meant to be a definitive ‘Top 10″ list. This subject needs much more thorough research than that. Nor is the list in order.
The distribution of sports is affected by the sports women have been able to compete in as well as sports that are promoted to women in New York City. Of course, until very recently, women were not able to compete in many sports, and opportunities to compete professionally are still very limited. Several NYC high schools, one in particular, have produced talented female basketball players. Conversely, a number of metro-area schools in the suburbs have produced talented soccer players not listed here, such as former Rutgers star Carli Lloyd. Also, NYC boasted a professional women’s basketball team until 2018; however a women’s professional soccer team has yet to exist.
So here’s the list:
Althea Gibson–tennis player
Though born in Silver, South Carolina, Gibson grew up in Harlem and trained at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in the Sugar Hill neighborhood. She would go on to win five major tennis tournaments, including Wimbledon twice. She was honored with a ticker-tape parade on Broadway (Gertrude Ederle is the only other individual athlete to receive that honor).
Chamique Holdsclaw–basketball player
Holdsclaw was born and raised in Queens and starred at the basketball powerhouse Christ the King High School in the Middle Village. She then led the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers to three straight NCAA titles from 1996-98 under coach Pat Summit. She had an 11 year career in the WNBA primarily with the Washington Mystics and the LA Sparks, winning numerous honors.
Natasha Hastings was born in Brooklyn and ran track at A Philip Randolph High School in Harlem. She then enrolled in the University of South Carolina and starred on the track team, earning the nickname “the 400M Diva”. She won Gold Medals in the 4×400 relays in the 2008 and 2016 Olympics and has won golds in numerous other competitions.
Carol Heiss–figure skater
Carol Heiss, later Carol Heiss Jenkins, is one of the most accomplished figures skaters ever. Born in Manhattan, she was competing by age six and coached by legend Pierre Brunet. She won her first title at age 11. In the 1956 Olympics in Rome she won Silver in the Ladies Singles. She then won five straight Ladies Singles World Championships, one of three women to do so. In the 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley, she won the Gold Medal and was ranked first by all nine judges.
Nancy Lieberman–basketball player
Nancy Lieberman was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Far Rockaway and was a star player at Far Rockaway High School. She then attended and played basketball at Old Dominion University from 1976-1980. There she earned the nickname ‘Lady Magic’, a reference to Magic Johnson. She competed for the USA Women’s basketball team and won Gold Medals a the the 1975 Pan-Am games and the 1979 World Championships. After college, she competed in various leagues, including the men’s league USBL. At age 39 she was drafted by the Phoenix Mercury and played a season.
Gertrude Ederle, known as ‘Trudy’, was one of the greatest female sports stars ever and one of the symbols of the Roaring 20s. She was born in Manhattan and began competing as a swimmer at an early age, swimming for the Women’s Swimming Association which produced many stars. She was expected to dominate women’s swimming at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, but surprisingly she only won two individual Bronze Medals and a Gold in the 4×100 relay. However, her great fame happened afterwards when she turned professional and prepared to swim the English Channel, still considered a daring feat. She failed in her first attempt. However, on August 6 1926 she swam across the channel in 14 hours and 34 minutes, setting the record for both men and women (she was the first woman). The news caused a sensation and she was greeted with a ticker-tape parade, a rare honor for an individual woman, in Manhattan.
Like Ederle, Ethelda Bleibtrey (later Ethelda Schlatke) learned to swim at the Women’s Swimming Association in Manhattan. In 1920 she won Gold Medals in all three women’s swimming events at the Amsterdam Olympics, despite there not being a backstroke race for women, which was her strongest event.
Tina Charles–basketball player
Tina Charles was born in Jamaica, Queens and became a star player at the famous Christ the King High School, which led her to be recruited by the NCAA powerhouse University of Connecticut. With Connecticut she won two NCAA championships in 2009 and 2010, and in 2010 she won the John Wooden Award for the best college player. She has since played in the WNBA, primarily with the New York Liberty, and also plays in league overseas. She has won many awards professionally including the 2012 WNBA Most Valuable Player. She has also won Gold Medals with the USA at the 2012 and the 2016 Olympic Games, starting in both finals.
Sue Bird–basketball player
Sue Bird is one of the most accomplished professional women’s athletes ever. She was born in Syosset on Long Island, New York, but she transferred to Christ the King High School in Queens to compete in basketball. She won the state title in 1998 and was chosen as the New York State Player of the Year. Since then she has played basketball for the University of Connecticut, the Seattle Storm in the WNBA, the USA Olympic team, and three professional Russian teams. She has won two NCAA championships, the Naismith College Player of the Year award, three WNBA championships, four Euroleague championships, and four Olympic Gold Medals, and countless other honors.
Teresa Weatherspoon–basketball player
Teresa Weatherspoon starred for the New York Liberty from 1997-2003, to date the club’s most successful period. She joined as an 11-year veteran of college and professional basketball and an Olympic Gold Medal winner with the USA in 1988. Between 1997-2002 she helped lead the team to four WNBA finals but they lost in each one. Her 50 foot shot at the buzzer to win game 2 of the 1999 final remains one the Liberty’s great moments. They have not reached the final since Weatherspoon’s departure. Despite only 8 years in the WNBA she remains 2nd in career assists and was the defensive player of the year twice.
This is a list of extras that I did give some consideration to. However, it is not a list of 11-15, and again is in no particular order.
Cristina Teuscher was a swimmer at Columbia University and the USA Olympic team, winning Gold in the 1996 Olympics in the 4×200 Freestyle relay. Born in the Bronx, she was an all NCAA athlete at Columbia for four straight years.
Rachel Daly is an English soccer player who played for the St. John’s University women’s soccer team from 2012-2015, setting most of the team’s records. She has since become a regular on the English National Team.
Kristine Lilly is the most capped international soccer player ever, having played for the US Women’s National Team 354 times. She played for the powerhouse University of North Carolina team and won two World Cups with the USA. She was born in New York City but grew up in Connecticut.
Genevieve Hecker, later Genevieve Stout, was golfer and won the US Women’s Amateur tournament in 1901 and 1902. She published a book Golf for Women, the first book ever for women golfers. Born in Darian Connecticut, she is buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.
Lucy Barnes Brown won the inaugural US Women’s Amateur golf tournament in 1895 representing the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. She was born in New York City.
Grete Waitz was a Norwegian long distance runner but became perhaps New York City’s most recognizable female athlete, winning the New York City Marathon a remarkable nine times. She fist won in 1978 when we competed at the personal invitation of marathon founder Frank Lebow. She set a world record.
On this day on October 12th 1824, William Cauldwell was born. He would be the manage the New York Sunday-Mercury newspaper from 1850-1894. At at time when most newspapers didn’t publish on Sunday, he established the Mercury as one of the city’s most influential newspapers. The Mercury was the first newspaper to cover baseball regularly, starting with a match reported in 1853. The paper invented the phrase “national pastime.” Cauldwell hired journalist Henry Chadwick, the most famous promoter of baseball of the 19th Century, to cover the sport. During the Civil War, he found a cheap way to get extensive coverage from the front by inviting soldiers to send pieces and have them published, which was a regular feature. Under Cauldwell the newspaper published published writings of Mark Twain as early as 1864, as well as poems by Walt Whitman (and gave his Leaves of Grass a positive review), and actress Adah Menkin. The Mercury also published many writings of humorist Robert H. Newell, a favorite of Abraham Lincoln.
Cauldwell would eventually embark on a disastrous attempt to make the Mercury a daily paper and leave the paper. He had a career in politics as well in New York and Westchester County. He’s buried at Woodlawn Cemetery.
I’ve written before about the match in Hoboken between the England Cricket Team and the United States in 1859, during England’s celebrated tour of North America with five matches in Canada and the US. England played three matches in the US against sides made of cricketers largely from New York, Newark and Philadelphia. In terms of cricket play, most of the matches were embarrassing for the American sides, despite the English team allowing the North American teams to play with a significant handicap (The American teams played with 22 players vs the standard 11). In Hoboken, the England 11 won by a full innings, which might be the equivalent of scoring enough points in one half of basketball to guarantee victory. But from October 10-12, the England 11 did encounter some tough resistance in Philadelphia. Though England ultimately prevailed by a safe margin, it was the closest of the 5 matches.
Cricketer and Philadelphia businessman Charles Barclay
Philadelphia was then acknowledged by many sports commentators as the center of American cricket, with several of the strongest cricket clubs in the nation including the Germantown Cricket Club and the Philadelphia Cricket Club, both of which still exist. Up to the Civil War, cricket was more popular in the US than baseball. The match in Philadelphia was played over two days (October 11th had no play due to local elections) at the Camac’s Woods Grounds. Though the US team was largely the same as had played in New York, a number of Philadelphians played in this match, including Civil War officer Charles Collis, Walter S Newhall, author Jones Wister, and businessman Charles Barclay. Also on the squad was Sam Wright and his English-born son from New York, Harry Wright, who would later have a Philadelphia connection. He would switch to baseball and manage several teams. He was the manager of the Philadelphia Quakers, later the Phillies, from 1884-1893, and is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery.
In the first innings, the Americans scored a respectable 94 runs to the English 126. Controversy struck when English batsman Robert Carpenter bit a ball that was caught by Jones Wister for an apparent wicket, similar to an out in baseball. However, the American umpire Henry Sharpe called the ball wide (like a ball in baseball) negating the wicket. Carpenter went on to score 22 runs. It was the equivalent in baseball to calling a ball instead of a 3rd strike which could have ended a big inning. Wister claimed the incident cost the Americans the match. Ultimately, England held the Americans to a score of 60 runs in the 2nd innings and went on to win by 7 wickets, a comfortable victory. English journalist Fred Lillywhite praised the American performance, noting “they showed excellent points in the way of fielding, and were justly applauded by their opponents.”
5: Dick Brown wins the first America’s Cup in 1851.
In 1851 the ship America of the New York Yacht Club arrived in Britain on what appeared to be a hopeless task–to defeat the greatest ships in the world. The New York Yacht Club was only seven years old at that point, challenging the Royal Yacht Squadron which was over 30 years old. Great Britain was the undisputed master of the seas. Newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, who was travelling in Europe at the time, advised the Americans to not challenge the British, for they would surely get embarrassed.
The America’s captain was Richard ‘Dick’ Brown. He was one of the famed Sandy Hook Pilots, who since the 1600s have guided ships into New York Harbor. He was recommended by the America designer George Steers and America syndicate member George Schuyler as “careful, reliable, faithful, one of the best men in his position I ever saw”. Brown selected a younger pilot Nelson Comstock as his first mate–unfortunately little is known about him.
The race in 1851 was around the Isle of Wight, where the Royal Yacht Squadron was based. It would be familiar waters to the British sailors, but it is unlikely Brown had ever sailed around it earlier. 17 yachts entered against Brown’s America. Though less familiar with the course, he successfully navigated through the Nab rocks on the east of the Isle, a difficult maneuver the others didn’t attempt.
Dick Brown and the America
The America finished first with such an advantage that when Queen Victoria asked who finished second, she supposedly was told, “There is no second, Your Majesty.” Queen Victoria and Prince Albert personally boarded the America to congratulate Brown; when Albert boarded, Brown insisted the royal wipe his feat.
The result caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United Kingdom, many ship designers and sailors studied the race and the ship carefully to understand how to improve their vessels. In the US, newspapers hailed the victory as proof of superiority over their former colonial master–the New York Herald declared, “We have beaten them on land and at sea.” The New York Yacht Club was presented an ornate silver ewer, later named the “America’s Cup” after the first winning ship.
4. Gertrude Ederle becomes the first woman to swim across the English Channel.
The English Channel has long been a challenge that has attracted hardy athletes from around the world. It’s sort of a Mount Everest for swimmers. First crossed by Matthew Webb in 1875, it was next crossed in 1911 and by 1925 only five people has crossed successfully, and no women had even attempted to do so. The record time so far was 16 hours and 33 minutes by Argentinian swimmer Enrique Tirabocchi.
Gertrude Ederle, born in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, first attempted to swim the English Channel in 1925 at age 19. She was an Olympic champion swimmer and had made many high profile swims in the US, including swimming from Manhattan to Sandy Hook. She first attempted to swim the English Channel in 1925 but her trainer, former channel swimmer Jabez Wolffe, pulled her out part-way through. Ederle claimed she had been fine and could have continued. She switched trainers, and on August 6, 1926 she attempted again. This time she swam all the way across in 14 hours and 39 minutes, not only becoming the first woman to swim the channel, but beating the record by nearly two hours, the record for both men and women. She later said, “People said women couldn’t swim the Channel, but I proved they could.”
Ederle’s swim was a huge sensation. She received a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan, lined with two million onlookers. She met President Calvin Coolidge, and starred in a movie about her feat entitled Swim Girl, Swim. She became a celebrity of the Roaring 20s.
Her record stood for only a few weeks; it was beaten on August 30th by German swimmer Ernst VierKotter, though her woman’s record was beaten only in 1950 by American Florence Chadwick. Up to WWII, only four people had swum the channel faster than Ederle. Also, Ederle’s swim had been in very rough sea conditions. Most faster swims by men or women took place in calmer weather. In retrospect, it was one of the greatest ever athletic feats of endurance and determination.
3. Babe Ruth smashes the home run record in 1920
Babe Ruth made many accomplishments which could be considered for this list, and to some extent this entry is a stand-in for all of them. He set a new single-season home run record three straight years from 1919-21. He set a record in 1927 of 60 whose significance still endures. He hit four home runs in a single world series game twice in his career (two other players have done this once: Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols).
Babe Ruth in 1920
However, his record of 54 home runs hit in the 1920 season, his first season as a New York Yankee, was what really changed the game. The previous season with the Red Sox, Ruth had set the record with 29, breaking a record of 27 set by Ned Williamson in 1884. However, Ruth’s mark the following year made Ruth the first player to hit 30 home runs in a season, the first to hit 40, and the first to hit 50. Throughout the 20s, he was only player to hit 50 home runs (he did so himself 4 times during that decade). His mark of 54 would not be surpassed by another player until Hack Wilson hit 56 for the Cubs in 1930; Jimmy Foxx was the next American Leaguer to do so in 1932
Ironically, Ruth’s landmark season started slowly. He injured himself in April and did little in the first month for his new club. Then on May 1st he hit a home run completely out of the Polo Grounds (then the Yankees home ground). He broke the record on July 19th, with over two months left in the season. By the end of the season his tally of 54 redefined the limits of a power hitter, and ended the so-called ‘dead ball era.’
The next season Ruth hit 59 home runs, and also led the Yankees to their first World Series. In 1927 he hit 60 which remained the record until 1961 when Roger Maris hit 61, aided by a season that was eight games longer than in Ruth’s era. Since then, three more players have hit more than 60–all of whom have either admitted use of performance-enhancing drugs or are suspected of it.
2. Bob Beamon’s record long jump in 1968
Beamon’s first jump in 1968
When Bob Beamon stepped onto the runway for his first long jump in the 1968 Olympics, he was already the favorite to win the event. The Queens native and former Jamaica High School (located in Queens NY) track star had already won over twenty events that year. It was seen as possible that he would set a new record, especially at Mexico City’s high altitude. However, what he accomplished was beyond what anyone could imagine.
His first jump saw him soar past the limit of the measuring equipment. Officials took over 15 minutes to determine the length of Beamon’s jump. As he waited for officials to bring out a manual tape, Beamon himself supposed he might have broken the record by a couple of inches. However, his teammate Ralph Boston came up to him and said, ‘the jump was well over.”
Finally, the length of 8 meters 90 centimeters was announced; however Beamon did not understand metric measurements. He was finally told his record was 29 feet and 2 1/2 inches, nearly two feet beyond the previous record. Beamon experienced such an emotional reaction to the news that his legs gave way and he suffered a catalepsy seizure. He competitors came to him and helped him to his feet. British 1964 gold medalist Lynn Davies said to Beamon, “You have destroyed this event!”
Beamon’s record would last for 23 years, though many observers felt it might never be broken. Four-time long jump Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis came close to the record numerous times but never broke it. However, at the 1991 World Athletics Championships in Tokyo, American Mike Powell jumped 8 meters and 95 cm, two inches past Beamon’s record. Beamon’s 1968 jump still remains the second longest jump in history, however. Though no longer the record, Beamon’s jump is frequently cited by sports experts around the world as one the greatest athletic feats ever.
1. Jackie Robinson destroys baseball’s color barrier
I cannot possibly do justice to Jackie Robinson’s achievement in 1947, the year he broke Major League baseball’s color barrier; nor will I attempt to. The impact of his achievement would be felt in American society at large, not just in baseball. It was one of the early milestones of the Civil Rights Movement.
Statue of Jackie Robinson and teammate Pee Wee Reese on Coney Island, portrayed together in 1947
The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Robinson with the intention of making him the first of many African-American signings. It was well known to any unbiased observer that there were many players in the Negro Leagues capable of competing in the majors. But as the first to break the color barrier, he was under unprecedented pressure as an athlete. He was constantly subject to racial abuse from fans, opponents, and his own teammates. He endured physical abuse on the field. When travelling hotels often denied him accommodation. Any player could have buckled in this situation.
Robinson not only endured, he shined. He led the National League in stolen bases; he was in the top ten in several hitting categories, including 2nd in runs scored. He deservedly won the Major League Rookie of the Year award. In 1949 he won the National League MVP award.
Like Ruth before him, Robinson led the way during a profound change of the league and the game. In July of the same year, three more Negro League stars were signed by teams in the American League. More followed. When Robinson retired in 1956, almost 7% of Major League players were African-American. By 1959, it was 17%, and in 1975 it was 27%.
The following list is not meant to be a list in order or a list of 11 through 16.
Y.A. Tittle’s passing records in 1962-63 for the New York Giants
Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941
Carol Heiss’s 5 straight figure skating world championships from 1956-1960
Lou Gehrig’s 2130 consecutive games played
Joe Namath ‘guarantees’ a Super Bowl victory and wins in Super Bowl III
On this day on September 24th, 1785, John Cox Stevens was born at the Stevens family estate in Hoboken NJ at Castle Point, the site of today’s Stevens Institute of Technology. Stevens was a livelong sportsman. He was a founding member of the New York Yacht Club and later nicknamed “the Commodore”. He led the ‘America’ syndicate which built the yacht that won the first ever America’s Cup for the NYYC in 1851. He also served as president of the Jockey Club and was responsible for the Great North-South Match of 1823, won by the Long Island-born thoroughbred American Eclipse.
Stevens also played an important role in the growth of early baseball. In the 1840s, a number of New York City’s early baseball clubs began to search outside of Manhattan for places suitable to practice. The city was increasingly difficult for playing baseball. So, several clubs including the pioneering New York Knickerbockers began to regularly cross the Hudson River by ferry to Hoboken to play at the Elysian Fields. Stevens ran the ferries and profited immensely. The Stevens family also owned the Elysian Fields and profited from the teams playing there.
On October 18th 1862 in a rowhouse on 307 Henry Street in today’s Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, a 21-year-old baseball and cricket phenom named Jim Creighton died from injuries sustained while playing in a baseball match. He was the sport’s first on-field fatality and widely considered to be baseball’s first superstar. He was the most feared pitcher of his day.
James ‘Jim’ Creighton was born in Manhattan in 1841 and moved to Brooklyn with his father. At age 17 he started playing for the Brooklyn Niagaras. While pitching against the Brooklyn Stars in 1859, he was noticed for his ‘low, swift delivery’ as a pitcher. Pitchers were required to throw underhand in that era. Though Creighton’s pitches were considered within the rules, they were perhaps aided by some hidden, but illegal, wrist movement. Creighton’s opponents were impressed, and soon he was playing for the Stars, A year later he was playing for the Brooklyn Excelsiors, probably the second strongest team in Brooklyn, and America, behind the mighty Brooklyn Atlantics.
The entrance Creighton’s house at 307 Henry, now an apartment building called the ‘Creighton’.
The Excelsiors were desperate to surpass their crosstown rivals, so much so that in all likelihood the paid Creighton ’emoluments’ under the table, making him what some historians call baseball’s first professional. Organized baseball was still officially amateur. The Excelsiors nevertheless became a profitable attraction for the league. Anchored by their star, they went on a barnstorming tour in 1860 to Albany, Buffalo, Canada, Baltimore, and other stops.
Creighton was not a one-sport man. Like many baseball players of his time he also played professional cricket simultaneously and starred for the American Cricket Club and the fabled St. George Cricket Club.
The exact cause of Creighton’s death is the subject of debate to this day. Legend has it he ruptured his abdomen while hitting a home run against the Unions of Morrisania. The truth is probably a little less dramatic. Accounts vary but it appears he ruptured his abdomen playing cricket and then aggravated it while pitching against Morrisania. In any case he died four days after the baseball match at his home. His Excelsior teammates mourned at their clubhouse at 133 Clinton St a few blocks away.
The mystery surrounding the cause of Creighton’s death is in part because of the rivalry at the time of cricket and baseball as America’s most popular sport. Baseball was on the rise at the time but it was still far from certain whether cricket or baseball would rule as A
merican’s most popular team sport. Many baseball officials feared that if the injury were blamed on baseball, the sport’s popularity would suffer. These fears turned out to be unfounded; in fact, baseball used Creighton’s death as as a means to create a sense of history and nostalgia. Creighton was immediacy held as the game’s first superstar. His grave at Green-Wood Cemetery became an attraction, decorated with a baseball carved onto the headstone.
In later years, Creighton’s grave would become a model for plaques used at the Baseball Hall of Fame and at Monument Park in Yankee Stadium. Creighton’s house on Henry Street still stands and is now called “The Creighton.” The Excelsior clubhouse at 133 Clinton also in Brooklyn Heights still stands and now has a plaque honoring the team and Creighton (Though several details on the plaque are wrong; Creighton is inaccurately credited with inventing the curveball.). The death of James Creighton marked the beginning of baseball celebrating its past, something which the sport loves to do.