The Women Who Made Baseball History: The Truth Behind “A League Of Their Own”
Have you ever wondered why there isn’t a professional baseball league for girls? Sure, there’s softball, but there are also plenty of athletic women who are capable of playing with the boys. Whatever the reason may be in the present, there isn’t necessarily pro-baseball for women, but at one point there was. The All-American Girl’s Professional Ball League dominated the 1940s and ’50s, but it came at a price. Women from all over North America came to Chicago to join the league, but the opportunity to play on the field came with its share of challenges.
Ballpark Attendance Was Dying Due To WWII
With World War II in full force by 1942, professional baseball players were leaving the game to join the armed services. Major League Baseball parks across the country were at risk of losing money as a result.
Philip K. Wrigley, of chewing gum fame, inherited the Chicago Cubs’ franchise from his father and was worried about its future. He enlisted the Cubs’ assistant to the General Manager, Ken Sells, to help him come up with a solution. Sells and his committee proposed a girls’ softball league to maintain attendance at parks across the country. The All-American Girls Softball League was founded as a non-profit organization in Spring of 1943.
The First Professional Girls’ League Went Through Several Name Changes
Midway through the first season, the league was changed to the All-American Girls’ Baseball League (AAGBL). This distinguished the professional league from existing softball leagues, especially for the fact that the AAGBL rules were the same as Major League Baseball (MLB).
At the end of the first season, the AAGBL was renamed the All-American Girls Professional Ball League (AAGPBL) over controversy caused due to the adoption of shorter infield lines and underhand pitching. It kept this name until 1945, after which it would again be known as the AAGBL until 1950. During this five-year period, overhand pitching and smaller balls were adopted.
North American Women Clamored To Join In
Women from all over the United States and Canada were invited to major cities to try out for the professional teams. 280 women were invited to the final try-outs in Chicago, where 60 players were selected as the first professional female baseball players.
The Kenosha Comets, Racine Belles, Rockford Peaches, and South Bend Blue Sox were the first four official teams in the AAGBL. They represented cities that were in close proximity to the league’s headquarters in Chicago. Each team had 15 players, a manager, business manager, and a woman chaperone who was there to make sure the girls followed a strict set of rules.
Young Women Proved Themselves As Excellent Ball Players
As Spring Training began in 1943, the players had a lot to prove. Their abilities to play their field position were tested, as well as their throwing, catching, running, sliding, and hitting skills.
The players signed contracts agreeing not to take up any other form of employment throughout their season. This was a huge opportunity for many of these women who were as young as 15 and were now making more than their parents. Making the team came at a price, however, and the girls’ athletic abilities weren’t the only things that were closely monitored.
If They Wanted To Play, There Were Certain Rules They Had To Follow
The players were held to high standards and had to follow particular rules as a part of their contracts. Despite the fact that they were playing sports, the women were expected to maintain a certain standard of femininity.
After a long day on the field during spring training, women were required to attend charm school. Helena Rubenstein’s Beauty Salon was contracted to meet with the girls every evening. They provided lessons on etiquette, makeup application, personal hygiene, mannerisms, and dress code. The players were expected to maintain these standards any time they were not playing on the field.
They Had To Play Like Men, But Always Look Like Women
Each player was given a charm school guide that listed very detailed instructions on how to look and behave your best on and off the field. The guide came with a kit that included a cleansing cream, lipstick, hair remover, and other feminine products.
“It is most desirable in your own interests, that of your teammates and fellow players, as well as from the standpoint of the public relations of the league, that each girl be at all times presentable and attractive, whether on the playing field or at leisure,” the guide states. The AAGPBL’s were so strict, it was as if the chaperones were their babysitters.
Their Uniforms Were For Looks, Not Protection
The uniforms were designed to maintain the players’ femininity on the field, rather than protect them from occupational hazards. The players were subject to serious scrapes and other injuries, especially as a result of sliding onto the bases.
Underneath a one-piece tunic with a short skirt, the players wore satin shorts, knee-high baseball socks, and a cap. The uniforms were inspired by figure skating, field hockey, and tennis outfits of that era. The uniforms were the same across the league but differed in color and each team sported its own patch that was based on its respective city seal.
The League Controlled Every Aspect Of Their Social Lives
It makes a little sense that the league would want to control how the players portrayed themselves on the field, but the league’s control also extended to life off the field as well.
The chaperone even had to approve of potential social engagements that the girls were interested in, as well as living arrangements and eating places. They were also prohibited from drinking and smoking in public. Still, maintaining their feminine image was of the utmost importance. Their rules stated: “ALWAYS appear in feminine attire when not actively engaged in practice or playing ball.”
The Chaperones Were Pretty Much Babysitters
The team chaperones were there to monitor the girls’ behavior while acting as a go-to person for guidance in anything the girls might need.
According to the AAGPBL charm school guide, “Your chaperone is your friend, your counselor, and guide… She has a direct responsibility to you, to your family, to the club which employs her and to the League which she represents. Adhere to the rules and regulations in a manner that will not reflect upon her. Feel free to go to her with any of your personal problems and you will all derive a greater enjoyment and a finer benefit from your association.”
You Could Get Cut From The Team If You Cut Your Hair
It was crucial to follow the rules; otherwise, there were consequences. First offenses prompted a fine of five dollars, ten for the second and if there was a third, the player was suspended. Sometimes, the league just went ahead and fired a player.
Such is the case for Josephine “JoJo” D’Angelo, an outfielder for the South Bend Blue Sox, who was fired after her hair was cut too short. Baseball historians believe that the reason for all the strict rules and control over the girls’ appearance was to prevent audiences from thinking the players were lesbians — but many of them were, according to a report by Narratively.
Actual MLB Players Became The Managers Of These Teams
Professional ballplayers from the MLB signed on to manage many of the AAGBPL teams. Professionals were hired with the hope that people would be interested in coming out to see the women play.
In this picture, Martin McManus, a former infielder, and manager for the Boston Red Sox helps Dottie Kamenshek with her hitting during spring training of 1944. Other former MLB players who signed on as AAGBPL managers included Bert Neihoff, Josh Billings, Eddie Stumpf, and Bill Allington, who never had a losing season while managing the Rockford Peaches and the Fort Wayne Daisies.
The On-Going War Went Hand In Hand With The AAGPBL
The AAGPBL saw a successful first season with over 175,000 fans in attendance and the following year was just as hopeful. Patriotism felt as a result of the on-going war encouraged attendance, and many spectators were impressed by the girls’ athletic abilities.
Much of the players’ time off the field was spent supporting the war. Exhibition games were held at army camps and veteran hospitals. The players would visit wounded soldiers before and after games. Of course, many of the players had brothers, husbands, or other relatives who had gone off to war. Next, let’s take a look at some of the most memorable female baseball players!
Dottie Kamenshek Would Serve As A Huge Inspiration
Dorothy “Dottie” Kamenshek played for the Rockford Peaches for most of the AAGPBL’s existence. She was just 17 years old when she was scouted to try out for the league in its early years.
Kamenshek started in the outfield but was soon moved to play first base. She was widely regarded as one of the greatest female athletes of the 20th century, with a career batting average of .292. In over 3,700 at-bats, Kamenshek only struck out 81 times. The seven-time All-Star was known for her double-play combination with this next player.
Snookie Harrell Was Essential To The Rockford Peaches
Dorothy “Snookie” Harrell was a shortstop for the Rockford Peaches for eight seasons — five of which she was an All-Star team member. Harrell threw and batted right-handed with a lifetime batting average of .228.
Harrell’s career was at its height in 1947 when she was first elected to the All-Star team. From that year on, she led the Rockford Peaches in runs batted in over four consecutive seasons. Throughout her career, she had 306 RBIs, 229 stolen bases, and only struck out 95 times out of almost 3,000 at-bats. Harrell helped her team make it to six playoffs and win four championships.
Audrey Wagner Could Pitch And Hit
Audrey Wagner (far right) was one of the original 60 players in the AAGPBL. She joined the Kenosha Comets as a pitcher but was eventually made into an outfielder for her outstanding batting skills.
In 1948, Wagner won the Player of the Year Award and was the only player to hit a .300 average that season. She was also elected to the All-Star team for the second time, having been tied for fourth in home runs and tied for eighth in RBIs. After her career with the AAGPBL, she spent a few years with the National Girls Baseball League (NGBL).
Helen Nicol Could Strike Almost Anyone Out
Helen Nicol (first woman on the left) was one of the greatest pitchers in the AAGPBL. She would pitch for nearly ten years with both the Kenosha Comets and the Rockford Peaches, a career in which she averaged a 1.97 ERA.
Sometimes also credited as Helen Fox, Nicol had to adjust every time the AAGPBL enacted new rules. The AAGPBL used to require underhand pitching, much like in softball. But because the rules were changed to closely reflect baseball, sidearm and overhand pitching were required. It took more than a season for Nicol to get it down, after which she went on to win all four playoff games that she pitched.
Margaret Stefani Was There From The Beginning
Margaret Stefani is another one of the original 60 players from the AAGPBL’s inaugural season. Stefani started her career with the South Bend Blue Sox. She was selected to the All-Star team at the end of the first season after posting 99 hits, 87 runs, and 55 RBI in her rookie year.
Stefani was renowned as a singles hitter and was essential for driving in runs, averaging over 43 RBIs per season. In 1948, Stefani briefly joined the Rockford Peaches but that would be her last season as a player. The following year, she returned to the South Bend Blue Sox as a chaperone.
Dottie Hunter Became A Chaperone For The Girls
Dottie Hunter played first base for the Racine Belles in her AAGPBL debut in 1943. Hitting ..224 in 80 games, she and her team went on to win the first AAGPBL championship. Hunter has the distinction of being the only girl in AAGPBL history to go to the playoffs every year.
Hunter’s baseball career as a player was short lived. After that first season, she joined a new team, the Milwaukee Chicks, as a chaperone. The following year she chaperoned for the Grand Rapids Chicks until the AAGPBL folded by 1954. And the reasons for the AAGPBL’s demise were far too many.
The Reasons The AAGPBL Didn’t Last
The AAGPBL was in decline after the 1954 season. One of the reasons was the lack of funds for promotion and publicity due to a growing recession. But a huge factor was the increasing lack of talent among players.
With baselines and mounds being pushed farther back to keep up with AAGPBL regulations, the existing talent pool was unable to keep up with new field dimensions since they were more accustomed to softball. Also, as television was becoming more popular, families chose to watch MLB games from home rather than go out to see an AAGPBL game.
The Movie That Immortalized Them All
Though the AAGPBL didn’t last, its legacy will forever live on with the 1992 movie A League of Their Own. The film starred Geena Davis as Dottie Hinson, whose character was based on Dorothy Kamenshek.
Historians say that A League of Their Own did a great job of representing the AAGPBL as a whole. But most of the characters were fictionalized and are not supposed to represent any one player. Historians also speculate that the movie deliberately leaves out the true reason for all the etiquette classes and feminitiy standards, which was to avoid questioning the players’ sexualities.
1943: The AAGPBL’s Inaugural Season
The AAGPBL debuted in 1943 with four official teams: Racine Belles, South Bend Blue Sox, Kenosha Comets, Rockford Peaches. The Racine Belles took the lead in the first half of the season with 34 wins.
The Kenosha Comets, third-best at the time, topped the league in the second half with 33 wins, earning themselves a spot in the championships that year. By that time, however, the Comets’ fire burned out. The Racine Belles swept the Comets in three out of five games, making them the first World Champions of Girls Professional Baseball.
The Rules Were Different For The Ladies
The traditional guidelines for baseball were originally altered to accommodate play for women. Men’s baseball called for 90-foot baselines, pitching distances of just over 60 feet, and balls that were “not less than five ounces nor more than 5 1/4 ounces.”
For women, however, there were 65-foot baselines and a pitching distance of 40 feet. Balls for the AAGPBL were also bigger and heavier. But throughout the years, the women’s rules were adjusted, making distances longer and balls lighter to closely match men’s baseball, which made things more interesting for spectators.
Jean Faut Had An Incredible 1949 Season
Jean Faut was unhittable when she would take the mound. During her magical 1949 season, she pitched 12 shutouts and proved herself to be the best pitcher in the league. For anyone thinking she was just a one year wonder, her career earned run average was 1.23. She won a total of 140 games, losing 64 along the way.
Since ending her career in 1953, Faut has been considered by historians as one of America’s greatest athletes. She never had a losing season and probably could have played with the big boys if given the chance. After retiring, Faut became a professional bowler.
The AAGBL Employed 600 Female Athletes
Between 1943 and 1954, 600 female athletes competed in the AAGBL. The chance to play professional baseball was a once in a lifetime opportunity but was also very competitive. Starting with just four teams, the league expanded as it became more popular.
The success of the league opened up opportunities for other professional women’s sports leagues. I took time and money, but today there are several professional leagues for women. The most popular of these is the WNBA, which was founded in 1997 and is nationally broadcast on ESPN in 2018.
Single Season Records Put The MLB Players To Shame
In 1954, the length of the AAGBL season was 113 games. A regular MLB season is 162 games. In those games, a starting pitcher is considered elite if they reach 20 wins. I the AAGBL, Connie Wisniewski holds the record for wins in a season with 33.
The MLB record for stolen bases in a season in 138. In 1946, the AAGBL record was set with 201. Just about the only record MLB can hold over the AAGBL is batting average for a season. Joanne Weaver hit .429 in 1946, falling just short of Hugh Duffy’s 1894 record of .440.
A Players Association Was Formed By League Alumni In 1986
When the league folded in 1955, many people forgot about the league. There was no Hall of Fame or union to keep the athletes in the public eye. All that changed during an alumni-held reunion in 1986 in Chicago. It was the second reunion of former players in four years and inspired the women to for their own player’s association.
June Pappas was nominated President of the association, who was tasked with convincing Cooperstown (the MLB Hall of Fame) to recognize the athletes of the AAGBL. The efforts resulted in the formation of the National Women’s Baseball Hall of Fame, which currently has 10 inductees.
Exhibit At The Baseball Hall of Fame
In the Baseball Hall of Fame, there is an exhibit dedicated to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The exhibit is titled Women in Baseball, and predominantly features famous AAGPBL players along with other women that helped to form or run the league, even if they didn’t play themselves.
The Women in Baseball Exhibit opened in November 1988, with a large turnout, including many of the former players that traveled cross country for the unveiling. The exhibit is considered to be an important aspect of not just baseball history but in sports in general.
“There’s No Crying In Baseball”
Although Penny Marshall did not use the names of actual players in the film A League of Their Own, the movie’s famous line “there’s no crying in baseball” was said by player Lavonne Paire “Pepper” Davis in real life.
After she had broken each one of her fingers playing baseball throughout her career, she was asked by a fan how she had managed to keep playing while being continually injured. Her response to the fan was that “There’s no crying in baseball,” which as adapted into the movie and became one of the film’s most notable quotes.
Mrs. America Was Involved
At the time, Mrs. America, Fredda Acker was a member of the South Bend Blue Sox in 1947. In addition, she was also employed by the AAGPBL and worked as a charm school assistant. Acker was extremely popular among her fans that came to love her when she made an appearance in Havana for the team’s spring training.
Although she was the face of the team, she never actually played in a regular season AAGPBL game. However, her friends didn’t mind that she didn’t actually play, especially those that were boys.
Dorothy “Dottie” Kamenshek Retired from Baseball and Became a Physical Therapist
Dorothy “Dottie” Kamenshek joined the AAGBL at just 17 years old and eventually served as a chaperone for the girls when she no longer played herself. It was undoubtedly Dottie’s role in the organization that largely inspired and shaped the storyline of A League of Their Own.
After retiring from the game in the early ‘50s, Dottie still wanted to help athletes grow. She went on to receive her bachelor’s degree in physical therapy from Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1958, eventually becoming a physical therapist in Ohio. She relocated to Los Angeles, becoming chief of therapy for a children’s services agency, before retiring in 1980.
Dorothy “Dottie” Kamenshek Passed Away In 2010
After a lifelong career as an athlete and physical therapist, Dottie passed away on May 17, 2010, in Palm Desert, California. Following her death, family, friends, and former colleagues gave their praise of Dottie and her last legacy on women’s baseball.
“She was the greatest ballplayer in our league,” said Pepper Paire Davis, a catcher and 10-year veteran in the league who remained friends with Kamenshek. “She was one of the few ballplayers in our league who hit .300, which is like hitting .400 in the majors.”
The AAGBL Had Their Own Victory Song
If you were in the stands for a winning AAGBL game, you were guaranteed to her the girls chant their victory song. While the tune has a long-standing history with the league, it wasn’t popularized until the 1992 film A League of Their Own debuted. The song, which was co-written by Pepper Paire and Nalda Bird included the lines:
“Batter up! Hear that call! The time has come for one and all To play ball. We are the members of the All-American League. We come from cities near and far. We’ve got Canadians, Irishmen and Swedes, We’re all for one, we’re one for all We’re All-Americans! Each girl stands, her head so proudly high, Her motto ‘Do or Die.’ She’s not the one to use or need an alibi.
Dottie Collins Left The Game For Motherhood
Female athletes who start out young in their careers eventually have to decide how to handle one of life’s most precious milestones: motherhood. This was true, especially back then, since most women were starting families in their ‘20s as opposed to engaging in professional sports.
Dottie Collins pitched for the Fort Wayne Daisies, leading all pitchers with 293 strikeouts, collecting 17 shutouts, and throwing two no-hitters in a 17-day period back in 1945. Her career on the rise, she realized she was pregnant by 1948. She pitched until she was four months along, retiring by the age of 27 to raise her family.
The League’s Demise Left Some Women Disappointed
Eventually, the league’s popularity dwindled by the mid-’50s, which was unfortunate news for women who entered the league mid-way through its existence. A lot of women who joined the AAGPBL planned on making a career out of it.
Shirley Burkovich joined at 16 years old in 1948, the height of the AAGPBL’s existence. “When I went into the league, I thought that was going to be my career. I planned on playing forever… I know it was hard for a lot of girls to have to give up something you loved. It was here and then all of a sudden it was gone,” she told SB Nation in 2018.
The Women Were Property Of The League
In those days, the AAGPBL was more or less a business venture to maintain revenue at baseball stadiums during the war. As a result, the women who signed on to play were the property of the league itself for many years before the teams became self-governed.
Viola Thompson Griffin, who pitched from 1944 to 1947, once said, “Our league, they were the bosses. We didn’t have any unions or any say in anything. The managers were former major league Hall of Famers that were teaching us… You couldn’t and wouldn’t last long if you let what they said about you get to you. We stuck it out instead of going home.”
The Job Was Demanding, To Say The Least
A job with the AAGPBL was not easy. The women played six to seven games a week and double-headers on Sundays and holidays. When they weren’t in a game, their free time was spent practicing. And they had to do it all while looking pretty in skirts.
“We didn’t have all that much freedom, but we didn’t have time, anyway. [We were] practicing when we weren’t playing, but we played most every day. Sometimes we’d pray for rain because we didn’t have much time off,” said Viola Thompson Griffin according to SB Nation.
They Were In It For Love Of The Game
Despite how demanding being a player in the AAGPBL was, many of the women didn’t seem to mind. If anything, they were just happy to be getting paid to do something they love. Some women recall that they would’ve been happy to play even if it was for free.
“[We] would have played in the league for nothing if it had come to that, and I think that was true because we loved it so much. It was a dream come true,” said Joyce Hill Westerman to SB Nation. Westerman was a catcher from 1945 to 1952.
They Tried To Reach Perfection
The women of the AAGPBL undeniably worked hard and were quite hard on themselves after a bad game. While each team had their own ways of doing things, all of them, for the most part, would criticize where they went wrong.
“If we had a bad game, made a few mistakes or errors in the night game, the next morning we could pretty well be assured practice would be called. And we could practice one play until we got it perfect. That might be an hour, it might be 15 minutes. We had to know that play until it came automatic to us,” Viola Thompson Griffin told SB Nation.
Not Everyone Was Cut Out For It
You really had to love baseball to overcome the downsides of it, and although some women did enjoy it, they didn’t enjoy being part of the league. Though records from the AAGPBL are incomplete, it’s estimated that a quarter of all women who played for the league dropped out within a year.
This was because of the game’s demanding schedule and the high visual standards they were held to. “You had to love baseball to do that. A lot of girls would come and get discouraged and leave in a year or two,” Joyce Westerman told SB Nation.
They Were Humble About It
For many women, the AAGPBL was their life. But for how involved they were in the game, they didn’t really let it bleed into their personal lives. Even after the league’s demise, the players hardly received recognition and couldn’t even talk to their families about it.
Viola Thompson Griffin told SB Nation, “I didn’t talk about it because there wasn’t anybody to discuss it with that thought it was that good, or that big. They’d always say, ‘Oh, you mean softball.’ It wasn’t until the Hall of Fame until things sort of exploded for us and then the movie, of course, and then all of a sudden we were celebrities.”