The Story of Mary Frances Moore, Daughter of Lemon Grove, CA Pioneers and a Baseball Star
Play Ball: In the wake of the riveting 2013 World Series in which players like Ortiz, Gomes, Wacha and Beltran wrote their meaning in the stars, we recall the rise of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) between 1943 - 1954 when young men fought in WW II and Korea and young women filled in the blanks while they were gone.
There was Rosie the Riveter, Belle the Ambulance Driver, Abbie the Fire Fighter…and Mary the Pitcher.
The Comer: Mary Frances Moore was the youngest of five children of Lemon Grove pioneers, Tom and Anna Kavanaugh Moore. Anna hailed from a large Rhode Island Irish family and Tom from County Kerry, Ireland. He worked his way through the silver mines of Colorado and the Southwest, ultimately landing in Lemon Grove in 1910 to become a poultryman and farmer, and a dam builder with the Helix Irrigation District.
The Moore kids grew up in the home their parents built on a big spread on a hill on El Prado Avenue -- a home that would survive into the 21st century.
"Mary really grew up on a horse and a baseball diamond," recalled her older sister, Arleen Moore Dodson, in a 2003 memoir. "She spent her time riding mules and horses and could gentle the meanest animal. She began competing in horse shows around California and the Southwest and won plenty of ribbons. Our family was Catholic and during the 1940s she competed at the big horse show and rodeo sponsored by St. John of the Cross Catholic Church on old Imperial Avenue in Lemon Grove."
Mary was born in 1922 when Lemon Grove was still a "sea of lemon trees" with few streets and plenty of fields and orchards, a kind of big playground that drew local kids to ride horses, run barefoot, coast on homemade wagons and share news of their pet cats, dogs, rabbits, turkeys, parakeets and chickens.
The Lemon Grove Grammar School at Lincoln and School Lane was the town's lone school and it had plenty of playing fields, especially a baseball diamond. Lemon Grovians had formed teams and played ball from the town's inception in the late 1880s. By 1915, with a silver trophy to their credit, baseball fever had gripped the town -- and it was never a no-girls-allowed kind of place.
The Natural: Mary Frances, freckled, raven-haired, small and plump, could throw a baseball like few other kids. When she graduated from eighth grade in 1936, her peers, writing in the school annual, The Lemon Drop, offered this summation:
MARY MOORE: Baseball captain par excellence and all other athletics. Hobby: sports. Ambition: managing a horse ranch. Mary Moore wills to a lucky girl her pitching ability. Good luck, "Golden Arm!"
Amusingly, the school annual writers also predicted that Mary would journey to Finland with her future U.S. ambassador husband to "astound the natives by riding reindeer bareback."
But she never stopped playing baseball. Even after marrying George Gagnon and fulfilling her childhood dream of running a horse ranch -- a pinto pony ranch at Romoland in Riverside County -- she continued to play with regional teams. In 1947 she tried out for the Rockford Peaches in Pasadena and her "golden arm" got the scouts' attention.
The Peach: Mary received a Western Union telegram on Mar. 22, 1948 reading "Answer immediately collect if you will report to all American Girls Baseball League training camp Miami Flordia (sic) April third can arrange transportation either with Bill Allington or by air plane. Max Carey 462 Wrigley Bldg. Chicago ILL."
She was hired as a relief pitcher at a salary of $55 a week (about $740 in 2013 dollars) during the 1948 season, the year the Peaches became the playoff champions. The team was hailed by sports writers as one of the best-balanced teams ever to win the post-season "world series" of girls' baseball.
You remember, dear readers. The Rockford Peaches was a star component of the AAGPBL and the team made famous by the 1992 movie "A League of Their Own." Bill Allington (Tom Hanks) was their impassioned coach.
During the 1948 season, booster games in Rockford were popular as the Peaches sought to raise travel funds. Fans could purchase "beautifully finished 8x10 inch photos by mailing one dollar to The Sports News, 212 East State Street [Rockford, IL]. Allow four days for delivery." They could also purchase the colorful decal shown here.
One of the scrappiest teams in the league, the Rockford Peaches regularly played to sell-out crowds in places like Kenosha, Peoria, Rockford, Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Chicago. While modest compared to some 37,000 screaming fans in Fenway Park at the 2013 World Series, 6,000 screamers in 1948 for an all-girl team was big-time stuff.
Mary pitched her way through the Midwest and into the hearts of her countrymen, together with the famed Dotty Kamenshek, Snookie Harrell, Nicky Fox, Alice Pollitt, Marge Holgerson and the rest of the fabled Peaches. Mary posted a 2-3 pitching average that season.
In October, 1948 a Rockford Sports News headline read "Peaches Slice Prize Melon--Take Winners' Share of Series Cash." As winners of three separate series the Peaches got a 60 per cent share of the playoff pool of $7,346.04. Mary received 1/17th of that sum, $432.12 (about $5,827 in 2013 dollars).
In a letter to Mary dated Oct. 4, 1948 Wilbur Johnson, president of the AAGPBL, wrote, "I hope that you are able to clear up the matter of your sore arm and that you will then see fit to consider playing next year. Your case is a very exceptional one…and you were in every sense a full fledged member of the Peaches Club…My children mention you very often and the boys particularly would like to ride the horses at your place…"
Mary's sore arm kept her at the Romoland ranch through 1949. By 1950 - 53 she was back playing with teams like the San Diego Slick Chicks and pitching no hitters against other teams. By 1953 she had left baseball for the National Softball Congress, playing games up and down the West Coast.
But the rangy, beautiful right-hander had a progressive kidney disease that ultimately killed her on July 12, 1962. She was just 40 years old. Services were held at St. John of the Cross, Conrad Mortuary handled funeral arrangements, and interment was at Holy Cross Cemetery.
Her adoring older sister, Arleen, the family chronicler, later donated all of her press clippings, photographs and memorabilia to the Lemon Grove Historical Society. Among the items is her contract with the Rockford Peaches and the deed to the horse ranch she ran for 17 years.
In 1988 the AAGPBL became part of the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, NY and every one of some 600 women who played pro baseball was honored as unique in the history of the sport.
And so it went in 1948 when the golden girl of a little, whistle-stop town away out West briefly flashed onto the national sports scene and played her heart out for love of the game. She was the real thing, a peach.