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AAGPBL History: The "Belles of the Ball Game" Were a Hit With Their Fans

By Jack Fincher

AAGPBL History: The "Belles of the Ball Game" Were a Hit With Their Fans

By Jack Fincher

AAGPBL History: The "Belles of the Ball Game" Were a Hit With Their Fans

By By Jack Fincher

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AAGPBL History: The "Belles of the Ball Game" Were a Hit With Their Fans

Jack Fincher
July 1989 Smithsonian Magazine
Smithsonian Magazine

July 1989 Smithsonian Magazine, pp. 88-97.


When the Girls of summer played for pay, they proved women did not have to sacrifice their femininity to excel in a man's world.

Visitors to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, were mystified one weekend last fall to behold an ebullient throng of older women trooping around the place as if they owned it. Which, in a manner of speaking, they did. Once, those senior citizens were the glamorous Girls of Summer - stars of the only professional female baseball league this country ever had. Playing for teams with such unabashedly sexist names as the Chicks, the Peaches and the Lassies, they swung for the fences, barreled down the base paths and signed autographs for their adoring fans just like the big-league ballplayers. But they weren't merely shadows of their male counterparts. They added dash and excitement to the national pastime and, in so doing, made it uniquely their own. Sportswriters dubbed them the "Queens of Swat" and the "Belles of the Ball Game." They called each other "Moe" and "Tiby," "Nickie" and "Pepper," "Jeep" and "Flash." They rode stuffy buses from city to city, played six games a week and doubleheaders on Sunday, and dreaded the day in September when the gruelling season would come to an end. Now, ageing in body but ageless in spirit, they were in town to attend the unveiling of a new permanent exhibition in their honor.

Dedicated to "Women in Baseball," the intriguing collection of uniforms, photographs and trophies salutes the 545 athletes from the United States, Cuba and Canada who were part of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) from its inception in 1943 to its demise 12 years later. It is an impressive tribute, and one so richly deserved that most of the heretofore unsung heroines can't understand what took so long. As one of them pointedly noted in Cooperstown: it doesn't say "men's Baseball Hall of Fame," does it?

No, it most assuredly does not. But then, the Girls of Summer didn't always play as if they were destined to be enshrined in any hall of fame, men's or women's. Take, for example, the chilly night in June 1943 when the Racine, Wisconsin, Belles took the home field against the South Bend, Indiana, Blue Sox.

The setting was Horlick Field, a windy old wooden stadium near Lake Michigan with a hand-posted scoreboard and dim floodlights. At that early stage of the league's development, the girls were playing modified softball, not hardball. The distance between the bases was a little longer, there were nine players on a side (instead of the usual ten), and a runner was allowed to take a lead off base and steal. The Racine and South Bend pitchers pinned the high-hemmed skirts of their one-piece uniforms, so as to take nothing away from their speed and control, but they still had trouble getting the ball over the plate and holding runners on base. The fielders had problems, too, and when the comedy of errors was over the Blue Sox had drawn nine walks, made seven miscues, stolen 17 bases and won 12 to 6. "A crowd of 683 cash customers turned out despite the cool weather," reported the Racine Journal Times, but the temperature was nothing compared to the chill they received from the two hours and 35 minutes of how not to play.

That, as it turned out, was the exception to the rule. The league went on to include as many as ten teams and attract more than a million enthusiastic fans a season. The pitching shifted to overhand in 1948, the ball got smaller, the base paths got longer and the calibre of play got better and better. Max Carey, a Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer who managed the Milwaukee Chicks and was the league president for six years, called the 14-inning contest between the Rockford, Illinois, Peaches and the Racine Belles the "greatest" game he had ever seen, male or female.

It was the final meeting of the 1946 championship series. Pitcher Carolyn Morris of the Peaches had a no-hitter going for nine innings, but in the 12th inning Rockford manager Bill Allington took her out. Pitching for the Belles was Joanne Winter, who had survived one close call after another. "I was getting banged all over the place and watching my teammates make these tremendous plays behind me," recalls Winter, who now teaches golf in Scottsdale, Arizona. "They got 13 hits off me but never scored." The game was decided in the bottom half of the 14th inning when the Belles' scrappy second baseman, Sophie Kurys, slid across home plate with the winning run. "I got a base hit, stole second and was on my way to steal third when Betty Trezza [the Belles' shortstop] hit it into right field and I slid into home," says Kurys, a retired businesswoman also living in Scottsdale. "It was real close, but I was safe." Kurys stole 201 bases that year, a professional record no one in any league has even managed to approach.

It wasn’t all fun and games

Ken Sells, the AAGPBL's first president, is a robust, 83-year-old retiree living in Paradise Valley, Arizona, not far from where several major-league baseball teams stage their spring training. He maintains that although female baseball players enjoyed themselves and made reasonably good money, they had a serious mission to accomplish. "They proved," he says, "that women didn't have to sacrifice their femininity to be standouts in what was then a man's world."

That's one of the things Philip K. Wrigley had in mind when he decided to start up a women's league in 1942. The chewing-gum magnate and owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team was afraid the wartime draft might shut down the major leagues altogether; a number of minor-league teams had already been forced to suspend operations. If the big leagues did fold, Wrigley reasoned, it might be possible to transfer a professional women's league into those parks. But the major leagues got through the war years intact and consequently the AAGPBL remained in a number of smaller Midwestern towns and cities, where factory workers had money to spend but couldn't travel much because of gas rationing.

In the early 1940's amateur softball leagues for women were thriving in thousands of communities all over the country. Wrigley decided to skim the best players off those teams, whittle the candidates down to a select few, and then use that reservoir of talent to set up his new play-for-pay league.

Wrigley contributed the major share of the start-up costs and also footed half the operating expenses of each team (Local supporters in the four charter cities - Rockford, Illinois; Racine and Kenosha, Wisconsin; and South Bend, Indiana - guaranteed the other half.) As a savvy baseball man and shrewd entrepreneur, he knew what he wanted and he understood how to go about getting it. He drew upon the Cubs organization for executive talent and scouts, and he persuaded his friend Branch Rickey, the respected general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers ( and later the Pittsburgh Pirates) to serve as an advisor and trustee.

Wrigley also understood the importance of image. His league would have nothing to do with the kind of short-haired, mannishly dressed toughies then touring the country on several all-girl barnstorming teams. As one of Wrigley's associates put it, the new league's athletes would be expected to epitomize "the highest ideals of womanhood." The order went down to Ken Sells, the Cubs' assistant general manager and head of the AAGPBL: at the league tryouts in Chicago that spring, Mr. Wrigley expected to see nothing but healthy, wholesome, "All-American" girls.

In May 1943, more than a hundred of the best female softball players in North America registered at the Belmont Hotel in Chicago, and then assembled for tryouts and spring training at the Cubs' Wrigley Field. Most of them were underage, overawed, homesick and as green as the outfield grass. Jane (Jeep) Stoll, presently a resident of Phoenix, went to Chicago as a recent high school graduate from rural Pennsylvania. "I had never ridden on a train," she says "I sat up all night in a Pullman car because I didn't understand how that seat was gonna be my bed."

Sophie Kurys was 17 when she showed up in Chicago, a taciturn Polish Ukrainian from Flint, Michigan. "It was raining when I got there. I told them I wanted to turn around and go right back home. They moved me in with some older girls, and probably told them to mother me a bit. The next day the sun was shining and I felt fine."

Girls. It was always "girls," never "women," and in their recollections it remains so today.

Oh my, what nice eyes you have

The players soon found that they were in for more than they had bargained for. After getting up at dawn and working out all day, they were required to attend charm school in the evening. The classes were conducted by representatives of the Helena Rubinstein cosmetics company, who taught the athletes how to put on makeup, get in and out of a car, and put on a coat with seemly grace. The girls also learned how to enunciate correctly and how to charm a date (look right at him and say: "Oh my, what nice eyes you have"). To avoid getting dirt under their fingernails when sliding on the base paths, they were told to scratch a bar of soap before the game.

Charm school fit right in with the league's so-called femininity concept. It produced a lot of good publicity but it was also a big pain in the neck, or knee, or calf. "It wasn't easy to walk around in high heels with a book on your head when you had a charley horse," remembers Lavonne (Pepper) Paire Davis, who played shortstop and catcher for three teams and is now enjoying retirement in Van Nuys, California.

At the end of that first training camp, Wrigley's four managers selected the 60 best players and divided them up, as equally as possible, into four teams. Then it was time to "play ball." The players were paid between $65 and $125 a week. The 108-game "split" season lasted for three months with the winner of the first half playing the winner of the second half in a championship series at the end.

The slugger who became a nun

That premiere season had barely gotten underway before a new generation and gender of baseball personalities began to shine. One of them was a statuesque redhead named Ann Harnett. She hit the ball well enough to finish as one of the league's best batters in 1943. Eventually the charismatic slugger became a nun and coached a boys' team at a Catholic school. One day, a former AAGPBL executive recalls a nun dropped by and asked, "How're the boys upstairs?" She was referring, of course, to Wrigley and his associates.

For a decade, the AAGPBL teams - each consisting of 15 players, a manager, a chaperone and a driver - rattled around the heartland, trailblazing a path of equal opportunity where no women's professional sport had ever gone before. Everywhere they went, they won new fans - and kept them. "Maybe at first the men came out to see the legs," says Pepper Paire Davis. "But they stuck around when they realized they were seeing a darn good brand of baseball."

For managers, the league reached into the ranks of old-time ballplayers, many of whom came and went trailing faded dreams of glory. Bill Wambsganss of the Cleveland Indians, the only man ever to pull off an unassisted triple play in the World Series, always carried around a Yellowed press clipping to prove it. Others, like the famous Red Sox slugger Jimmie Foxx, preserved their cherished memories in a bottle.

Chaperones protected the morals of the players at home as well as on the road. The girls were officially forbidden to drink, gamble, violate curfew, wear shorts or slacks in public, or go out on dates alone without permission and an interview of the prospective swain. A good thing, too. "My mother wouldn't let me play until I convinced her we'd be chaperoned," remembers Betty (Moe) Trezza of Brooklyn.

Quite a few of the girls were underage and the league kept a particularly close eye on them. Thelma (Tiby) Eisen, who was an outfielder with three different teams between 1944 and 1952, had an admirer when she was a rookie who followed her on a road trip. He checked into the same hotel one night and invited her up to his room before they went to dinner. "I wasn't there three minutes before there was a knock at the door," Eisen says. "It was the house detective wanting to know what was going on."

Some chaperones knew their baseball; others did not. We had one who was famous for yelling things like, 'Hit a home run, honey, and we win!' Sophie Kurys recalls. "The only trouble was, we would be four runs behind in the bottom of the ninth with two out and the bases empty." Some chaperones had other priorities. Shirley Jameson of Albuquerque remembers going to bat in a tense situation only to be restrained by her chaperone. "Oh, my dear," the woman exclaimed. "You don't have your lipstick on!"

Off the field, chaperones sometimes had their work cut out for them. Maddy English, a third baseman for the Racine Belles who now lives in Everett, Massachusetts, once told a sportswriter who wouldn't stop pestering her: "If you don't leave me alone, I'm going to jump in Lake Michigan." He didn't. She did, and had to be fished out. Other infatuations were less threatening. Sophie Kurys had a fan club of 11- and 12-year-old boys in Racine, one of whom invited her home for a pork chop dinner one afternoon before a game. Faye Dancer, an exuberant center fielder for the Fort Wayne Daisies who now resides in Santa Monica, California, got a letter from a GI in France after her picture appeared in Life magazine. "I am not proposing," he wrote, "but I have about $1,000 and old jalopy in New Jersey, I am footloose and fancy free, and I can settle anyplace."

"Dolly got beaned behind the ear"

On the field, there were times when the Girls of Summer could have used some protection from one another. Action was replete with daring plays along the base paths, brush backs at the plate and painful "strawberries" from sliding hard in short skirts. One day Dolly Pearson Tesseine was playing shortstop for the Daisies when the opposing pitcher came barreling into second base and spiked her. "Next time you do that, I'm going to jam the ball down your throat," Dolly said. When Dolly came up to bat, the pitcher knocked her down instead. Nobody got hurt that time, but when Dolly was batting in an exhibition game one day, she was hit right behind the ear by a pitch.

The players acted like women on and off the field. Pretty June Peppas of the Kalamazoo (formerly Muskegon) Lassies performed a little shimmy when batting that her fans called the "Peppas wiggle." But sometimes in the heat of a game, the girls played just as recklessly as men. Once Alma (Ziggy) Ziegler of the Grand Rapids Chicks was playing second base when the batter hit a ground ball to the shortstop with a runner on first. The shortstop tossed the ball to Ziggy for a force-out at second and Ziggy threw to first for the double play. The runner, however, came into second base standing instead of sliding; the ball smacked into her and she was called out for interference. "I didn't throw at her," Ziggy recalls innocently. "She ran into the ball."

So intense was the play, sometimes even the umpires weren't safe out there. Pepper Paire Davis will never forget the time she knocked down Lou Rymkus, a hulking future all-pro football player who was moonlighting as an umpire. After sliding in at second, she whirled around to protest Rymkus' call and her fist inadvertently caught him square on the chin. The big guy ended up flat on his back. "I guess you know, Pepper," Rymkus murmured apologetically as he looked up at her, "that I gotta throw you out." Pepper knew.

In the scant free time they had to themselves, the players managed to raise a little hell every now and then. Joanne Winter got together with a teammate one night and tried to pass off two ladies of the evening on their manager as the new rookies he was expecting. Pepper Paire Davis and Faye Dancer occasionally hoisted a few beers together in a local cemetery to escape the prying eyes of townspeople, who tended to regard the players as kid sisters. "We were just kids having fun," recalls Dottie Collins of Fort Wayne, Indiana. "Not until it was all over did we look back and realize we had been pioneers."

It was clear, too, that ultimately they played with great skill and polish. After watching shortstop Dorothy Schroeder of Sadorus, Illinois, work out one day, Cubs manager Charlie Grimm said, "if she was a boy, I'd give $50,000 for her." Wally Pipp, one of the best glove-men in the business when he played first base for the New York Yankees in the early 1920's, called Dorothy Kamenshek of Anaheim, California, "the fanciest fielding first baseman I've ever seen-man or woman." Fort Lauderdale of the Florida International Baseball League once tried to buy her contract form the AAGPBL. Not long ago, after watching rare film footage of the league at its peak, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research enthused, "The way they were throwing the ball was unbelievable. It looked as though they were as good as men." They weren't quite. They lacked the requisite power. No one in the league ever hit more than 16 home runs (though granted, the fences in most ballparks were never moved in). But some old-timers remember seeing Triple-A players take practice cuts at the plate against the likes of Jean Faut Eastman (who posted 140 wins in eight years with the South Bend Blue Sox and had a combined earned run average of 1.23) and come up empty.

"Casey’s mother played center field"

The league's second year, 1944, was the last for Wrigley and Sells, since it became obvious the war wasn't going to close down the majors after all. Wrigley sold his interest to Art Meterhoff, his Chicago Advertising man, and Gradually ownership passed on to local boards in each town. Franchises at first flourished but then attendance sputtered fitfully until after the Korean War, when televised big-league baseball finally killed the AAGPBL forever. Whereupon the players, most still in their athletic prime, put down their bats and balls and gloves and went on to raise families and often to coach their children. (It has been said of Helen Callaghan St. Aubin's son, Casey Candaele of the Houston Astros, that he "runs just like his mother." That's a compliment. His mother played center field for the Daisies.) They also started energetic careers in everything from pro golf, pro bowling and school teaching, to anesthesiology and statistical analysis.

The game seemed forever behind them. To most people they met, in fact, it was as if such a thing as women's baseball could never exist. When the subject came up, as Pepper Paire Davis told Sport Heritage magazine in 1987, "They'd do a double take and say, 'you mean softball.' And I'd say again, 'No, I mean baseball.' And after I'd say it about the fourth or fifth time, they'd say, 'You Like men's baseball? Like with a hardball?' And from the look in their eyes, I could see that they still didn't believe me. You can look 'em right in the eye and say 'baseball,' and they'll look right back and say 'softball.'"

Not until 1982 did persistent letter writing and spur-of-the-moment phone calls result in the league's first official reunion in Chicago. A second followed four years later in Fort Wayne, were, after a chorus of "The Old Gray Mare," the Fort Wayne Daisies' veterans defeated the Michigan-Illinois- Wisconsin team 8-3 in four innings. About that same time, the more active members of the league launched a letter-writing campaign aimed at persuading the curators at Cooperstown to develop a special exhibit recognizing their contributions to baseball. The players association organized in 1987 and then came a third reunion last year in Scottsdale, complete with the kind of high jinks the Girls of Summer were famous for--shorting sheets, shave-creaming cars, coating light bulbs with Limburger cheese, filling Oreo cookies with toothpaste and posting a teammate's phone extension on the motel bulletin board under "Room Service - All Hours." Out of all the comradery emerged a serious sense of purpose about making the Baseball Hall of Fame, a dream that was realized last fall. Now some league supporters have their sights set on a commemorative postage stamp. But more than that, as life's bottom of the ninth approaches, many want somehow to pass their overflowing goodwill and shared remembrances on to another generation of women athletes--athletes like Julie Croteau, for example, a freshman who started at first base this past spring on the men's varsity baseball team at St. Mary's College, a liberal arts school in Maryland. This summer she's sharpening her skills as a member of a semi-professional team. "If there was a women's league today," she says, "I'm sure I'd be in it. But it's hard for me to think of playing baseball with girls. I've been playing with men all my life."

The "Women in Baseball" exhibition at Cooperstown seems to suggest that immortality in sports need not be limited to the newspaper clippings of a Bill Wambsganss. Or even to the poignant newsletter wish list crafted one recent Christmas by Pepper Paire Davis. With the same verve she once employed protesting close calls at home plate Davis wrote:

Give us the lust back,
In the loving and the living.
And the joy back
In the sharing and the giving!
Put the glow back in our face,
That shows we enjoyed the race.
The laughter back in our hearts.
The youth and the strength,
Till death do us part!

No one ever wins that kind of appeal in an argument with the ump, of course. But as every ballplayer knows, if you raise enough hell this time, the next decision just might go your way.

Sections Print Cite
AAGPBL History: The "Belles of the Ball Game" Were a Hit With Their Fans

Jack Fincher
July 1989 Smithsonian Magazine
Smithsonian Magazine

July 1989 Smithsonian Magazine, pp. 88-97.

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