Grave Story: Florence Killilea Boley

Here lies Florence Killilea Boley, one of the earliest female baseball team owners in the country. She took over the American Association’s Milwaukee Brewers in 1929 following her father Henry’s death. Though her time as an owner was tragically short, she was a sensation, even challenging the power of the mighty Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

The list of women who have been considered major-league owners numbers just 10 in the 140+ years of major-league baseball. Then there is Effa Manley, who co-owned the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues and is the only woman in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But beyond those exceptions, it’s been aboy’s club for the existence of the MLB. That makes the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association a rather unusual team, as they had three female owners prior to the 1930s. I found newspaper reports of the team being owned by the widow of Charles Havener, but no dates were provided. Then came Ruby Borchert,who inherited the team when her husband Otto died in 1928. She decided to sell the Brewers to Henry Killilea, whose story I just told. Killilea died after about a year of ownership, and that’s where this story starts.

Henry Killilea died on January 23, 1929. He left behind his wife and two children, Harry and Florence. Florence, 26, was a journalism school graduate from the University of Wisconsin and was active in Milwaukee’s social circle. She’d served as the team’s secretary during her father’s ownership, and she knew quite a bit about baseball.

“Ever since I was a baby, he talked baseball to me constantly,” she told the Associated Press. “It pleased him to have me attend the baseball games. He liked to have me know when the pitcher looked good and all that sort of thing.”

Sure enough, Florence was appointed executor of her father’s estate and was given everything, with the exception of a house that was willed to Killilea’s brother John. Harry, Florence’s brother, didn’t get a dime; from the information that I could find, the father provided a home for his son and new wife after they were married and then tried to evict them when she moved her entire family into it.

Almost immediately there were rumors that she would sell the team, but Killilea killed those rumors quickly enough in early February.

“I feel that I would be doing the one thing that would hurt and disappoint my father if I were to sell the club without at least having a try at it,” she said. “Maybe I’ll be a flop, but I’m interested in making a goof it. It’s a new prospect that fascinates me.”

Killilea was the only woman owner in all of professional baseball and said she would devote herself to interesting more women in baseball. “It isn’t a man’s game, it’s everybody’s game,” she said.

Brewers manager Jack Lelivelt and secretary Louis Nahn were on hand to provide their experience, but it was her team. She vowed to travel with the team to Spring Training in Arkansas and attend as many games as possible. Young, beautiful and working in what was thought of as a man’s profession, Killilea generated a good amount of headlines in the preseason. There were some of the usual sexist language that you might expect from 1929 newspapers, in which (presumably male) columnists called her a “girl” and stated that baseball was too strenuous a sport for women, so therefore women could never develop a real understanding of the game. (Come to think of it, you could have read some of those same comments when Jessica Mendoza was named a commentator on ESPN baseball broadcasts.)

Florence Killilea talks with Brewers manager Jack Lelivelt. Source: Chicago Tribune, March 31, 1929.

If this were a Hollywood movie, the team would struggle at first and turn around for a thrilling finish. Sadly, reality sometimes has unhappy endings. The Brewers, who had lost a couple of their best players to the major leagues, stumbled out of the gate and tried to turn things around by bringing on some veteran ballplayers. She picked up Ed Grimes from Kansas City, and the infielder responded with a solid .285 campaign, but it wasn’t enough. The best pitcher, Rosy Ryan, had a 15-14 record and 4.60 ERA. The Brew Crew put up a good fight but finished in seventh place in the 8-team league.

The owner was a star, though, and the team was called Miss Killilea’s Brewers more than they were called the Milwaukee Brewers. She traveled with the team, even flying in a mail plane to get to St. Paul in time for a game. Lelivelt resigned in June and was replaced by Marty Berghammer, but the move didn’t shake up the club. Killilea ended up losing $60,000 but was determined to keep the club the following season.

Not only did the Brewers struggle again in 1930, but Killilea also had to deal with the legal system. She and the St. Louis Browns went to court over who had the rights to outfielder Fred Bennett. The Browns called it a transfer and wanted the player back, and they had MLB Commissioner Landis on their side. Killilea said it was a sale, with no returns allowed. The Brewers filed suit against Landis to prevent the transfer,which was the first time that Landis’ authority was ever questioned in court.This came even after the American Association teams had made a vote of confidence, declaring that they would abide by Landis’ orders.

“The vote of confidence was very nice, but we can’t win ballgames that way. The judge can have the votes, we want Bennett,” she said.

While I can’t find a newspaper article that definitively gives the result of the lawsuit, let the record show that Bennett played in 92 games with the Brewers, batted .302 with 4 homers and never played for any other team that year. So it appears that Killilea stood her ground against Kenesaw Mountain Landis and freaking won.

As the Brewers struggled again in 1930, rumors about the club’s future began to swirl once more. The St. Louis Browns and owner Phil Ball were investors in the ballclub, giving rise to reports in July that the Browns would move to Milwaukee, pushing the Brewers to the west side of Chicago.Though no teams changed cities, there would be a change in the team’s ownership soon enough. Killilea married Dr. Michael Boley on Nov. 25, 1930. Far from a lavish spectacle, the ceremony was held inside her home, and her only bridesmaid was her sister-in-law Ilse. True to baseball form, the couple immediately set out for Montreal — not as a honeymoon, but as part of a meeting of minor-league baseball presidents.

Boley stepped down from her role as president shortly after,taking a role as a board member. She turned over the reins to Louis Nahn, who was promoted from VP to president. Her official reason was that she was putting her marriage first and that the road trips were getting too strenuous for her. Around this time, she sold her interest in the Brewers to St. Louis Browns owner Phil Ball, making him the team’s sole owner, but that wouldn’t become known for sometime.

Less than six months later though, Florence Boley was hospitalized for a series of worsening medical problems. A blood infection developed into pneumonia, which in turn was followed by heart disease. She was given three blood transfusions, but after being in the hospital for two weeks, she died on June 15, 1931. She was 29 years old. She is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Milwaukee along with the rest of her family.

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