My Darling Clementine

My Darling Clementine

She's On First | Reviews

By Barbara Gregorich
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The following article was published in the May 2, 1996 issue of New City. It may not be reproduced (except for individual, one-time use) or reprinted without permission.

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Only two things slowed my discovery of who Maud Nelson was.

Her name wasn’t Maud.

Her name wasn’t Nelson.

My hunt for Maud Nelson, the most renowned Bloomer Girl of the early era, began seven years ago as research for a book on women who played baseball. From two sentences in a book and two in a thesis, I started with these facts: Maud Nelson, famous pitcher, played for the Boston Bloomer Girls in 1898 and the Chicago Stars in 1902.

Taking the information at face value — that Maud Nelson did pitch, that she was famous — I expected that with a little library work I would learn all about her.

Three months and countless card catalogs and magazine indexes later, I had turned up nothing. Turning to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, I requested copies of the materials in their early-women- in-baseball file. Clippings from the Cincinnati Enquirer and a few other papers dating from 1898-1911 proved that Maud Nelson (sometimes spelled Maude, sometimes Neilson) did pitch for various Bloomer Girl teams.

Usually comprised of seven women and two men, bloomer teams played against men’s nines, barnstorming from coast to coast by train. In the early years, the teams Maud Nelson played for barnstormed from Florida to Maine, Kentucky to Oregon, with long stops in Ohio and Indiana.

Wherever she went, Nelson earned the respect and praise of fans and sportswriters. A 1905 game in Lewiston, Maine, was typical. According to The Boston Herald: “The feature of the game was the pitching, batting and fielding of Miss Neilson. She made three base hits, and had four put outs and four assists and made no errors. In the five innings she pitched she struck out seven men.”

What I was learning was exciting, but the going was slow. When I asked research advice of Sharon Sliter Johnson, a friend and fellow writer, she volunteered to work as my research assistant. Sharon’s father had played in the minor leagues, and she was avidly interested in both research and women in baseball. On the day we agreed to hunt for Maud, neither of us anticipated that the search would burrow into our psyches and stay with us forever.

We checked various biographical volumes. We enlisted the aid of English and Scandinavian historical societies, “Neilson”indicating either nationality. Because so many baseball players of that era were Irish, we also checked Irish-American societies, and because Maud played for the Boston Bloomer Girls and the Chicago Stars, we checked city directories in both Boston and Chicago, then expanded to Cincinnati and Portland. Each search came up empty.

I moved forward, researching other ballplayers — players such as Mary Gilroy Hockenbury, born 1903 in Philadelphia. At the age of fourteen Mary started her ballplaying on the factory-sponsored Fleisher Bloomer Girls.

On a cold January morning, with snow driving against my window in Chicago and piled on lawns in Philadelphia, I interviewed Mary by phone. As she reminisced, she told me that in 1922 she had received a letter from Maud Olson of Chicago, asking her to play on a bloomer team that would train in New Orleans.

Maud.

“Do you mean Maud Nelson?” I asked.

“No,” she replied, “I think it was Olson.”

I asked whether the Maud Olson she knew had ever been a baseball player. No, she answered. A pitcher? Not to Mary’s knowledge.

Logic told me Maud was a common name at the time. A hunch told me there was only one Maud.

Seeking more information on Mary’s ballplaying, I requested microfilm of the 1922 New Orleans Times-Picayune . When it arrived in March, I read that the Chicago All Star Athletic Girls were in New Orleans, managed by Maud Nelson. Not Olson, but Nelson. This was the woman I wanted.

It appeared that Mary Gilroy Hockenbury had remembered incorrectly, but she still led me to an exciting discovery: a pitcher in 1897, Maud Nelson was a manager as late as 1922. That’s 25 years on the green grass of baseball fields. That kind of presence, especially for a woman, indicated not only an intense love of baseball, but steadiness, commitment, and success. Clearly, Maud Nelson was more than a pitcher in 1898 and 1902. Just how much more remained to be discovered.

By May my desk was covered with dozens of newspaper clippings from 1928, when 14-year-old Margaret Gisolo of Blanford, Indiana, helped lead an American Legion Junior team to the state championship. The story of this second baseman who batted .429 in the playoffs and made ten putouts and 28 assists would form an exciting chapter in my book. After interviewing Margaret, professor emeritus of the Department of Dance at Arizona State University, I promised that I would call as more questions occurred to me, and she promised she would answer.

Many months later (the following year, in fact), Margaret wrote to say that, by the way, she had played baseball with Maud Olson’s All-Star Ranger Girls out of Chicago from 1930-34. Immediately I telephoned. “Maud Olson?” I asked. “Could it have been Maud Nelson?” Margaret replied no, it was Maud Olson — of that she was certain.

What was going on? I couldn’t accept that both Margaret Gisolo and Mary Gilroy Hockenbury misremembered the name of their team owner. Disturbed by the discrepancies between my hunch and the Times-Picayune on one hand, and the testimony of Mary and Margaret on the other, I called Margaret back. What did she remember about Maud, I asked. She thought a while. Maud was quiet. Competent. Often she traveled ahead to book games. Maud was married, said Margaret, and her husband, John, traveled with the team.

I telephoned Mary Gilroy Hockenbury and asked if the woman she remembered as Maud Olson was married. Mary thought a while, then said that Maud (the 1922 Maud) talked about her husband, John, but Mary had never seen him. Mary’s lasting impression was that Maud had been a widow.

The paradoxical recollections of Mary and Margaret (husband John dead in 1922, alive in 1934?) baffled me. Sharon and I retraced previous steps, asking ethnic and historical societies to check for Maud Olson, not Nelson. Once again, the result was zero: no such person existed in the files of any society we consulted.

Week after week, month after month, we kept looking. In a 1923 Chicago city directory, Sharon saw three Maud Olsons listed. One of these lived at 936 Leland Avenue, worked as a maid, and was the widow of John. Was this the woman we wanted — the pitcher of 1897, the manager of 1922, and the owner of 1934? Did Maud Nelson have a 37 year span in the national pastime?

And always the unanswered question: who was Maud?

Approximately two years after I’d begun my research, I visited Cooperstown. There I found a photocopy of a postcard of Maud Nelson. At last, I could see the person I searched for.

Maud is dressed in a dark knickerbocker baseball uniform with a light stripe down the side of the pant leg. She is wearing dark baseball stockings (no stirrups) and baseball shoes. Her left hand sports a baseball glove. Her right hand grips a ball, her right arm pulled back as if to pitch. On her head is a baseball cap, its visor so short that Maud’s dark hair, twisted and tucked up into her cap, all but obscures it. She looks short for a pitcher. Her face is squarish, with a wide mouth, straight nose, and dark eyes. Maud Nelson looks serious: full of purpose.

Excited by the discovery, I mailed copies of the postcard to Mary and Margaret, asking each if this was the woman she knew as Maud Olson. Both were positive it was. I was now convinced that Maud Nelson and Maud Olson were one and the same, and that she was the single most important person in the first fifty years of women in baseball.

Rain whispered against my window early one September morning when the phone rang. Margaret Gisolo telephoned to say she had been hunting through boxes in her woodshed and discovered a letter written to her brother Toney in February of 1929. Imprinted with the name “Maud Nelson Olson,” the stationery bore the address 4918 Sheridan Road, Chicago. In the letter, Maud gave Toney a bank reference in Watervliet, Michigan, in case he wanted to check on her financial reliability.

I rushed to my car and drove up Sheridan to find the house. Maud Nelson, whom I had looked for in more states than could fill a lineup, once lived thirty-three blocks north of my apartment.

But 4918 was no longer there, replaced by a newer building or different numbering system. Wherever I went, it seemed as if I had just missed Maud.

Sharon, meanwhile, called the Watervliet Public Library and learned from librarian Cindy Young that: (1) there was a women's baseball team in Watervliet early in the century, and, (2) bound volumes of the Watervliet Record were stored in the library’s back room. Sharon and I made arrangements to drive to Michigan.

Naturally it rained the day we left. Shedding our raincoats, we sat down with bound volumes of the Record, Sharon to research 1912 and work forward, I to research 1911 and work backward.

What we learned in one morning was all new to us: John and Maud Olson were prominent citizens of Watervliet; John was known as “the baseball man” and fielded a barnstorming team called the Cherokee Indian Base Ball Club, composed of Native Americans; Maud formed the Western Bloomer Girls ball team, co-owned by herself, John, and a Kate Becker of Chicago, with Maud and Kate functioning as player-managers.

After a quick lunch, we decided that I would continue to hunch over the heavy volumes of the Watervliet Record while Sharon would brave the rain to case the town and check records at City Hall.

From the 1909 newspaper I learned that John and Maud had a son, Eddie Olson, who during summers often traveled with the Cherokee Indian Base Ball Club. Sometimes the Record referred to him as “Mrs. Olson and her son Eddie,” sometimes “his son Eddie,” making me wonder whether Eddie was Maud’s stepson. I also learned that John B. Olson, Sr., and his wife Rachel lived in the same household as John, Maud and Eddie.

Intriguing bits of the barnstorming life filled the yellowed pages. John Olson owned a Pullman car, Clementine, in which his teams traveled. The Record reported that the car would “carry eleven Indian base ball players, besides four canvas men and the proprietors and their wives and all will eat and sleep on the car.” The Pullman’s undercarriage held a 1200’-long and 12’-high canvas fence “for use in towns that have no enclosed grounds.”

Sharon returned. Folding her umbrella, she removed her raincoat and shook it out, managing to look ebullient and uneasy at the same time. Her first stop had been an antique shop, where she found two identical postcards of the Western Bloomer Girls and one of Maud Nelson — the very image I had seen in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The photo of the Western Bloomer Girls was the best bloomer photo we had yet discovered. The team consisted of eight women, two men, and a female booking agent or manager or chaperone (it’s difficult to tell which). The players wear traditional baseball uniforms: gray flannels with a cursive WBG embroidered on the shirt. Five women are seated cross-legged in the front row; the back row of players is standing. They all look comfortable. Relaxed. They look like they live to play the game.

Sharon’s elation over discovering the postcards was well-founded. Unfortunately, so was her unease. She had stopped in City Hall, which sent her to the morgue. There she learned that a John B. Olson had died in 1917 and was buried in the Watervliet Cemetery. “That can’t be Maud’s husband,” she beseeched. “He’s too young.” Armed with the date of death, we turned to the May 25, 1917 Watervliet Record to check obituaries.

There a front-page article confirmed our dread: John B. Olson, Jr. died suddenly from pneumonia contracted while crossing Lake Michigan. Dusk enveloped the library as Cindy Young led us to the Watervliet cemetery to find John’s grave, for there also we would find Maud Nelson. With October drizzle beading our clothes, we stood on the grass of the six-grave Olson plot, staring at John’s tombstone, conscious of the fact that Maud Nelson once stood on this very dirt.

The other five graves were empty. Neither John’s father nor mother were buried there, nor his son, nor his wife.

Once again, Maud Nelson demanded that we search for her. Somewhere, she was waiting for us.

Driving home to Chicago, we considered what we had found. It seemed strange that the senior Olsons wouldn’t be buried with their son. It seemed strange that Maud wouldn’t be buried with her husband. Had she married again, and was she buried with her second husband? Or had she left with Eddie and was she buried with him? The trail led back to Chicago, for that’s where Maud was living in 1929, when she wrote to Toney Gisolo.

And Mary Gilroy Hockenbury had remembered correctly — the Maud Olson she knew in 1922 was a widow, and her husband’s name had been John. But Chicago provided no further leads to Maud, so in January we resumed our trips to Michigan, where we at least had the Watervliet Record. Because John’s obituary had identified the Olsons as residents of Watervliet for fifteen years, I determined to discover when they moved there, and from where. Sharon worked her way forward from 1917, trying to discover when they left.

A 1907 issue yielded the information that Maud, Eddie, and Maud’s nephew, Alphonse Brida, returned from Chicago. The discovery of a new family name excited me: the more names, the greater our chances of finding Maud Nelson. Possibly Maud had a sister who married a Brida.

On alternate Wednesdays, each of them rainy, we made the drive to Watervliet. One Wednesday I reached 1905 and learned that John, Maud, and family moved to Watervliet in February, arriving by train from Chicago Heights, Illinois. But checking of the Chicago Heights directories revealed neither Nelson nor Olson nor Brida.

Brida. We couldn’t find the name in any phone book. What nationality was it? I couldn’t find it in any book on name origins. It certainly didn’t sound Irish. Or English, or Scandinavian. To Sharon I posed a question: what if it wasn’t Maud’s sister who married a Brida, but … what if Maud’s own name were Brida? What if she Americanized it to play baseball — a common phenomena of the times. Sharon countered that perhaps Maud married somebody named Nelson — perhaps she was married before she married John Olson.

Thoughts of Maud coursing through me, I worked daily on the book that would become Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. By this time I had reached the 1940s and was interviewing players of the All-American Girls Baseball League.

Whenever possible, Sharon and I would meet at the Chicago Historical Society to check city directories. The 1928-29 phone book indicated that Elmer Brida resided at 4918 N. Sheridan Road — Maud’s address. Unfortunately, this led nowhere.

We also found the Olsons during the 1890s, up to 1905. John B. Olson Sr. and his son were steamfitters. They moved around from year to year, living on the city’s near west and near north sides. In 1923, Edward M. Olson appeared in the city directory, residing at 936 Leland — the same address as Maud Olson, widow of John. And in 1929 Maud’s in-laws, John Sr. and Rachel, lived with her at 4918 Sheridan Road. By that time, Edward M. Olson had disappeared from the phone book, leading us to believe he probably moved away — to the suburbs or beyond.

Eddie Olson seemed an important key to Maud Nelson. If he was her natural son and born around 1900, there was a very slight chance he was still alive. If he was her stepson and born earlier, he still may have had children and grandchildren.

Finding him took time. I was well into the 1950s when Sharon called one morning to say that an obituary she requested had finally arrived.

Edward Martin Olson was born in Chicago on February 20, 1895, his father John Benjamin Olson, Jr., his mother Lena Boe. On May 20, 1923, he married Edna Reimers, who died in 1971. Their son Donald died in 1972. In December of 1976, Eddie Olson died at the age of 81. The paper said he was buried in Graceland Cemetery.

I drove to Graceland, where written records indicated Eddie was buried in the same plot as John Sr. and Rachel. The grave was difficult to locate, its limestone markers weathered, the chiseled names barely discernible. Although the name of Edward Olson wasn’t cut into a headstone, cemetery records listed him as buried there. The trail of Eddie Olson seemed to stop.

But many weeks later, Sharon received another obituary — one which reported that Eddie Olson was survived by a half-brother, Howard Schick.

Calling libraries and funeral homes, Sharon learned that Howard Schick had died only six months earlier, survived by his children. Through them, she received confirmation that Eddie and Howard were half-brothers, that Lena Boe and John B. Olson, Jr., had divorced, and that Eddie had come to visit his mother in Chicago as a boy and young man. But the Schick descendants knew nothing else about John B. Olson, Jr., and nothing about Maud Nelson.

The sky gray, sharp rain tapping at the windows, we returned to Watervliet. As we had so many times before, we walked into the single-story brick building and nodded our greetings to librarians Cindy Young and Wanda McLain. Arranging our notebooks on one of the two long tables near the front desk, we walked back to the storage room and pulled out two volumes of the Record.

Minutes later, Sharon let out a whoop. Peering over her shoulder, I read in the January 4, 1929 issue of the Watervliet Record: “Mrs. Maud Olson Dellacqua was over from Chicago a couple of days the latter part of last week on business and called on old friends here.” A November 1929 issue contained this item: “Mrs. Maude Olson Dalacqua and her brother, J.B. Brida, were here from Chicago over the week end.” Then, in an October 1931 issue, Sharon found this: “Mrs. Maud Olson Dallacqua and her stepson, Joseph Dallacqua, motored over from Chicago today and called on local friends.”

Maud Nelson Olson had remarried, and we now knew the last name (though not its correct spelling!) of her second husband. We knew Maud’s birth name as well — Brida. And the name of a second stepson: Joseph. What would we find when we looked up “Dellacqua” in the Chicago phone book?

We found somebody by that name at an address around the corner from me. He confessed he had never heard of Maud Nelson, but he did know a Joe Dellacqua — his grandfather, who lived in the suburbs. We dialed Joe Dellacqua and asked him if he was the stepson of Maud Nelson. “Oh, Maud!” were his first words. “Sure. Maud owned a baseball team.”

There it was. The words “Maud” and “baseball” uttered naturally in the same sentence: permanent association. We had followed the footsteps for years, had stood on the dirt of graves, had searched in places far and near, and now a person who knew Maud Nelson intimately was alive and willing to talk to us.

Joe Dellacqua was perhaps ten years old when Maud married his father, Costante, a widower. He remembers that Maud and Costante met at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, where Costante was a chef and she worked in the cafeteria. Maud raised Joe and he, like Eddie before him, got to travel with a baseball team when one day around 1926 or 1927, Maud said to his father, “Let’s start a baseball team.”

Thus the All-Star Ranger Girls that Margaret Gisolo played on were born, with Maud and Costante as owners. Maud and Joe drove ahead as booking agents and Costante (whom the players called John — hence Margaret Gisolo’s memory of Maud being married to John was also correct!) stayed with the team.

The name “Brida” was Italian, and Maud was born in the Austrian Tyrol. She came to America with her father and brothers. Joe thought she grew up in Chicago, but wasn’t sure. He had no idea how Maud acquired the last name of “Nelson.”

During one conversation, Joe’s wife Evelyn said to me in an off-hand way, “You know her name wasn’t Maud.”

It figured that the woman I now knew as Maud Brida Nelson Olson Dellacqua would test me once again. “What was her name?”

“Clementine,” answered Evelyn.

Maud Nelson died on February 15, 1944, at the home she and Costante had lived in for ten years, not far from Wrigley Field. She is buried in Graceland. From where I live, I can walk there. One rainy day in February, Sharon and I met to locate the burying place of Maud Nelson.

It’s a single grave, for Costante returned to Italy after Maud died and is buried there. The gravestone is enduring granite, though nobody has visited the site in decades. She is buried near the Olsons. “Sister & Wife, Clementina B. Dellaqua, 1879-1944” is chiseled into her tombstone. The last name is misspelled, and the birth date may not be correct, for her social security records list it as November 17, 1881 and her death certificate as February 15, 1874. As I placed a bouquet of carnations across the gravestone, I knew there would always be something new to discover about Maud Nelson.

A baseball should be carved into the granite. The game was in her blood. She played it professionally for decades, making pitching appearances as late as 1922, when she was 41 years old. She pitched for men’s teams and women’s teams, played third base in late innings, scouted players, managed teams, owned them and then sold them, increasing the number of successful bloomer teams. If it hadn’t been for Maud Nelson, hundreds of women would never have been able to play baseball — hardball: the real thing.

She had the ability to look deep inside people and see if they had the right stuff. She picked out Margaret Gisolo for the All-Star Ranger Girls. And back in 1934, she picked out Rose Gacioch, an eighteen-year old wanna-be from Wheeling, West Virginia, took her barnstorming, and made a player out of her. Ten years later, Rose Gacioch would sign with the All-American Girls Baseball League and go on to an eleven-year career with the Rockford Peaches.

Maud Nelson’s influence extended beyond her lifetime. She was a hero, and I’m honored that I was the one to find her.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fiber your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

 

— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

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