Our story of Florence Killilea starts on January 23, 1929, but of course her story starts before that. Born in Milwaukee on April 12, 19021, she spent her early years no doubt as a daughter from a well-to-do family on Milwaukee’s fashionable east side. But things changed for the pretty young lady on this winter day in her 27th year.
On January 7, 1929, Henry Killilea, counsel for the Milwaukee Railroad, suffered a heart attack in his office in the Majestic Building at 2nd and Wisconsin Avenues, and was taken to Milwaukee Hospital. Mr. Killilea took a turn for the worse when he developed cerebral embolus, resulting in the paralysis of his right side on January 17. That day his daughter, Florence, took a room at the hospital and stayed with her father constantly until he died at 10:17 a.m. on January 23.2
This concerns us because Henry Killilea was a baseball man through and through. With his brother Matthew, he had owned the Western League Milwaukee Brewers in the 1890s. In 1901 he had helped plan the making of the American League into a major league with a series of meetings beginning with one in the living room of his Milwaukee home. He then owned the Boston entry in this new major league in 1903 and 1904, watching his team win the very first World Series. More recently, Henry had become the owner and president of the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, having purchased it for $280,000 from Mrs. Idabel Ruby Borchert on January 3, 1928, following the death of her husband, Otto.3
Who would take over the club after Henry's death was not clear. It was thought he desired his daughter to take over the club, but friends reported that she had no great desire to have an active role in the team's affairs.4
The 26-year-old Florence was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, a member of Sigma Kappa sorority, and a leader among the younger social set in Milwaukee.5 But she was her father’s daughter, and consequently no stranger to the baseball world. Florence herself was serving as secretary of the Brewers, making her very familiar with the business side of the game. Having attended many games with her father, who explained its finer points to his devoted daughter, Florence was also familiar with the game on the field.6
If the club was put on the market, it was certain there would be no lack of interest in it, and it would bring in more than the price Henry Killilea paid for it in January 1928. In the year that Henry owned the club it was said to have made more than $100,000. Thus, it was thought that the Brewers franchise might be worth twice what it was purchased for.7 One person believed interested was Rogers Caldwell, a millionaire Memphis sportsman, who had recently attempted to purchase the Indianapolis club of the American Association.8 In the next three weeks the Brewers’ attorney, Thomas E. Torphy, would be approached at least a dozen times by would-be purchasers. One of the bids was said to have come from a group of wealthy Milwaukee Athletic Club sportsmen, and another from a Chicago bank.9
Until things were sorted out, Florence became “nominal head” of the franchise, with the other officers – brother Harry, Attorney Torphy, and Miss Elizabeth Schiffler - on the board of directors.10
Henry Killilea’s will was read and made public a week after his death. All his property (with exception of the farm in Poygan, Wisconsin, going to his brother) and personal fortune – valued at more than $90,000 – went to Florence. (For reasons not important here, Henry’s son Harry was left out of the will.) Thus Florence became owner of the baseball club, to the delight of the national press.11 [Florence actually owned one-half of the Brewers. Phil Ball, owner of the St. Louis Browns, had quietly purchased half of the franchise from Henry Killilea sometime before his death.]12
On February 2, 1929, Florence took over her father’s baseball desk. She told the Milwaukee Journal: “Indeed, I don’t plan to sell the ball club. 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. … For him, if for no other reason, I am going to take a shot at what he wanted me to do. Maybe I’ll flop, but I’m interested in making a go of it. It’s a new prospect that fascinates me. And I have enough faith in the wisdom and the judgment of Louis Nahin, secretary of the club, and Manager Jack (Lelivelt) to know that they will help me not to make a fizzle of it.”13
In an interview with a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter, Florence was confident and outgoing. She talked about baseball and baseball players, saying she missed only a couple of early-season games in 1928 – being in Europe – so was very familiar with the team. In order to “assimilate something about what makes a superior player superior” she planned on going with the team to Hot Springs, Arkansas, for spring training. Before diving into the full responsibilities of club ownership, young Florence planned to go to Youngstown, Ohio, for a visit with friends. She planned on returning “with vigor, enthusiasm, confidence and a humble knowledge that she has a lot to learn.” Her favorite baseball player? Babe Ruth.14
Florence became the public face of the Brewers. The glamorous young owner made for good copy in everything she did, from having her picture in the newspaper throwing out the first pitch at Borchert Field in Milwaukee to later posing for a picture with the pilot before boarding a mail plane to make the three-hour flight to St. Paul to take in a road game.15
The 1929 Brewers had a terrible campaign, finishing in seventh place in the American Association with a 69-98 record. Florence, publicly at least, was nonetheless optimistic for the future. Although the poor season caused a “serious financial strain on the Killilea pocketbook,” the “girl owner” said she was determined to fight back and produce a winner in 1930.16
But things were not much better for the 1930 edition of the Brewers. The team stumbled to a second consecutive seventh-place finish (63-91). To make matters worse, the Brewers lost a reported $60,000, and Florence Killilea moved quickly to reassure Milwaukee fans by announcing a rebuilding program.17
As poorly as her baseball club was performing, Florence Killilea’s personal life was going great. On October 29, 1930, she announced plans to marry the prominent young physician Michael H. Boley on November 25. Boley had attended Riverside High School, where he starred in football. He then attended Marquette University medical school. After graduation he was a resident surgeon at Harper Hospital in Detroit, then the house doctor at Maternity General Hospital in Milwaukee. At this time he maintained offices in downtown Milwaukee. The Boley family was widely known, as Michael’s sister, Ilsa, was a celebrated cellist.18
On that Tuesday afternoon in November, before a small gathering of immediate families at Florence’s home, Judge John C. Karel told the two young people: “A single inning suffices here, but remember, the new team has ahead of it many seasons and must overcome much opposition together.” He then pronounced the couple man and wife. At this time Florence told reporters she planned on continuing to run the ballclub. “I expect to continue as president of the Brewers,” she said, “and why shouldn’t I? Dr. Boley will continue to practice.”19
Those brave words were short-lived. On January 6, 1931, she abruptly demoted herself to a vice president’s role, elevating Louis Nahin to president of the club in her place. Florence told the Milwaukee Sentinel baseball reporter:
Now that I am married, I find that I have not the time to give necessary to the welfare of the Brewers. Mr. Nahin has been charged with most of the business affair in recent years, and I believe that, in his intercourse with other magnates, he will have a freer, and more complete hand, in these business relations if he can act as president. Naturally, I have the utmost confidence in Mr. Nahin, and with the fine progress he has already made in rebuilding the team for 1931, believe that he can put on the finishing touches to give us that pennant winner.20
She candidly told another reporter, “Louis knows oceans more about baseball than I do. He can do the job much better than I.” Looking back on her two years as head of the Brewers, Florence said she was surprised at the attitude of her male associates: “I must admit that I was a little dubious about taking the position in the first place. I thought the men would scoff at the idea that a woman could know anything about baseball. But they weren’t that way at all. I found, on the contrary, that they were most respectful of any opinions I might have. It was loads of fun.”21
Florence was not out of baseball completely. She still sat on the Brewers board of directors with Phil Ball, Thomas Torphy, Louis Nahin and L.C. McEvoy of St. Louis.22
Mrs. Boley’s immediate plans were to devote her attentions to cooking and sewing—and her most recent interest, tap dancing. Of course, she planned on being in the stands every afternoon rooting on the Brewers, saying "I can’t imagine a better way to spend a summer afternoon."23
Five months later, in late May 1931, Florence entered Milwaukee General Hospital suffering from a blood infection. Two weeks later, her condition took a turn for the worse when pneumonia developed. After treatment, including three blood transfusions to sustain her strength, Mrs. Florence Killilea Boley suffered a heart attack and passed away on June 15, 1931, at the age of 29.24
Florence’s burial was set for two days later at Calvary Cemetery on West Bluemound Road, in the family plot. The Brewers were in Toledo at the time, and the game was called off to allow team members to return to Milwaukee.25
Florence had been well liked by the players. Pitcher Denny Gearin, who knew her longer than any of the other players, said “She was 100 per cent. … We played for mostly Florence in 1929 and 1930. The players knew that the team wasn’t strong enough to make much of a showing but we tried to win for her sake, because we admired her, loved her ever genial personality and knew that if we could get some place in the race it would help her in several ways.” First baseman Art Shires told the press: “Florence was ‘regular’ in every sense of the word. … Her marvelous personality won me over the first time I saw her and I know that I and the rest of the boys were playing for her as much as anything else. I liked Florence.”26
Brewer manager Marty Berghammer said: “Florence was a marvelous character. She had mostly troubles in her two years as president but she was always sweet, always saw the brighter side of any difficulty and was an inspiration to me and the players.” 27
I think Florence would have appreciated what the Milwaukee Sentinel had to say about her the most.
Florence made a number of trips with the ball club while she was president and there was never any of the aloofness her position might have demanded. She was “one of the boys.” She was particularly fond of bridge, and any time a fourth hand was needed Florence was usually appealed to and always accepted. It might have meant playing in a dingy day coach, with a cumbersome, dirty cushion, defiling an imported gown, but she was happy then. Florence was a good sport. She was one of the boys.28
I like to imagine this pretty young woman, born into wealth and privilege, sitting with the boys, overhearing stories not meant for her ears, winning (and losing) a few bucks at cards, and enjoying every minute of it — just like her father had wanted her to do.
This article first appeared at Chance Michael’s website, BorchertField.com, in a slightly different version, with numerous photos. I would like to thank Chance for his contributions to the Florence Killilea biography.
2 Milwaukee Journal, January 23, 1929.
3 Milwaukee Journal, January 3, 1928, January 23, 1929.
4 Milwaukee Sentinel, January 24, 1929.
5 Milwaukee Sentinel, October 30, 1930.
6 Milwaukee Sentinel, January 24, 1929.
7 Milwaukee Sentinel, January 25, 1929.
8 Milwaukee Sentinel, January 24, 1929.
9 Milwaukee Journal, February 16, 1929.
10 Milwaukee Sentinel, January 25, 1929.
11 Milwaukee Journal, February 1, 1929.
12 Pittsburgh Press July 20, 1930; Milwaukee Sentinel, January 7, 1931; Milwaukee Journal, September 1, 1946.
13 Milwaukee Journal, February 2, 1929.
14 Milwaukee Sentinel, February 3, 1929.
15 Milwaukee Journal, May 3, May 25, 1929.
16 Southeastern Missourian (Cape Girardeau, Missouri), February 28, 1930.
17 Milwaukee Sentinel, June 16, 1931.
18 Milwaukee Sentinel, October 30, November 26, 1930.
19 Milwaukee Sentinel, November 26, 1930.
20 Milwaukee Sentinel, January 7, 1931.
21 Milwaukee Sentinel, January 7, 1931.
22 Milwaukee Journal, January 6, 1931.
23 Milwaukee Sentinel, January 7, 1931.
24 Milwaukee Journal, June 10, 15, 1931; Milwaukee Sentinel, June 10, 16, 1931.
25 Milwaukee Journal, June 15, 17, 1931; Milwaukee Sentinel, June 16, 1931.
26 Milwaukee Sentinel, June 16, 1931.
27 Milwaukee Sentinel, June 16, 1931.
28 Milwaukee Sentinel, June 16, 1931.