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A Ball at the Beach: The 1997 All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Reunion

By Jim Sargent

Going to a reunion can be a fun experience. Attending an All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Reunion for the first time is a most unusual experience. Probably no organization in America is based upon the close camaraderie and genuine warmth which exists between the hundreds of women who make up the AAGPBL Players Association.

According to Jean (Faut) Eastman, a two-time Player of the Year (1951 and 1953) and now a member of the AAGPBL Board of Directors, about 280 former players, relatives of players, and guests attended the 1997 reunion. About 120 of those were All-Americans. Many of the guests were associate members of the AAGPBL Players' Association, which can be joined by paying annual dues of $25.

Looking at the AAGPBL's numbers in historical perspective, more than 600 girls played at least one game from the league's inaugural season in 1943 through the finale in 1954. By the date of the banquet on October 25, 1997, at the Myrtle Beach Martinique Hotel, the Players' Association's Directory listed 370 members. Also, two dozen league personnel were still living, including eight chaperons and five managers. Ninety-nine former players were listed as deceased.

Overall, then, the All-Americans turned out in good numbers for "A Ball at the Beach." The Reunion Committee, co-chaired by Jean Eastman and former player Helen ""Gig"" Smith, planned and launched an excellent series of activities.

The week's events began with a meeting of the Board of Directors on Tuesday. On Wednesday most of the players, their relatives, and guests arrived, registered, and began to enjoy the beach and Martinique's facilities, particularly the Hospitality Room.

The Hospitality Room became a reunion gathering point throughout the week. Memorabilia was available for sale by two league-related businesses, Uniquely Racine, of Racine, Wisconsin, operated by Stan and Mardi Timm, and Gals in Sports, of Lakeville, Massachusetts, operated by Linda Lundin and Kathy Bertrand.

A continually changing group of All-Americans gathered in the Hospitality Room, renewed friendships, swapped baseball stories, signed autographs, and generally had a good time. Laughter and chatter spilled from the room from just beyond the breakfast hour until late in the evening.

My nephews Mike and Scott Sargent, two enthusiastic autograph collectors, each managed to collect over 100 different signatures. No wonder: most All-Americans are happy to sign autographs. In fact, many would help the collectors line up an autograph as soon as another player entered the room. On the whole, an AAGPBL Reunion is a collector's dream!

One of the several All-Americans I interviewed was former Fort Wayne Daisy first baseman Vivian "Kelly" Kellogg. I heard Kelly say to each requestor, whenever she signed a baseball card, a baseball, or an item of memorabilia, "Thank you for the honor."

Mike Sargent observed, "I've never been to an event with so many women where almost every one of them is pulling a baseball out of her purse!"

Indeed, many All-Americans love to get each other's signatures on cards or baseballs, which is partly why they are such enthusiastic signers.

But a more important reason is that while the All-American League existed from 1943 through 1954, recognition for the players never began until after 1980. At that point June Peppas, a professional printer who pitched as well as played first base in the AAGPBL from 1948 through 1954, began a newsletter.

The newsletter project took a while to get rolling, but Peppas persevered. As a result, the league held the first-ever reunion in Chicago in mid-1982. Over 200 players attended.

I interviewed Peppas, who shared some recollections about her playing career and about the origins of the newsletter.

Today [1997] the AAGPBL quarterly newsletter, Touching Bases, is edited by Dottie Wiltse Collins. Each issue features at least two dozen pages of reprinted articles about players, current news about players' health, activities, and interests, and reprinted letters from players about what's happening in their lives.

"I wouldn't trade playing in the league for anything," June told me. "It feels great to see all of these wonderful people gathered together."

I heard that sentiment echoed by many All-Americans whom I interviewed, including Doris "Sammye" Sams, Thelma "Tiby" Eisen, Alice (Pollitt) Deschaine, Dottie Collins, Joyce (Hill) Westerman, Earlene "Beans" Risinger, Viola "Tommy" (Thompson) Griffin, Renae Youngberg, Betsy Jochum, Elizabeth "Lib" Mahon, Mary Moore, Fran Janssen, Jean Eastman, Gig Smith, and Isabel Alvarez, to name a few.

Besides socializing, the featured events included the General Membership Meeting on Wednesday evening; the historical tour of Charleston, South Carolina, on Thursday morning; a trip--taken by three bus loads of women--to the Alabama Theater for live music from the 1940s and 1950s on Thursday evening; a golf outing at the Beachwood Golf Club on Friday morning; a "Pig Pickin's" dinner Friday evening; and a cruise of the Myrtle Beach coastline on Saturday morning, with the banquet and featured speaker that evening.

As a professor of American History and the author of many articles in sports history, including several about former All-Americans, I had been invited to make the keynote speech. I delivered a PowerPoint presentation, "Remembering the All-Americans: When Women Played Hardball Fifty Years Ago."

My program included over 140 screens of historical information, about half of which featured pictures from the league's early years. I highlighted the 1947 season, which was the AAGPBL's fourth year of existence.

In 1947 eight teams were using an 11-inch baseball to play a 112-game schedule, capped by the top four teams squaring off in two semifinal rounds and the final round of Shaughnessy Playoffs.

Following the order of finish in 1947, we saw team pictures of the Muskegon Lassies (69-43), the Grand Rapids Chicks (65-47), the Racine Belles (65-47), the South Bend Blue Sox (57-54), the Peoria Redwings (55-57), the Rockford Peaches (48-63), the Fort Wayne Daisies (45-67), and the Kenosha Comets (43-69).

In the end, Grand Rapids defeated Racine in the seven-game series, winning the final contest, 1-0, behind the excellent four-hit pitching of Mildred Earp. "Millie" out dueled Anna May Hutchison, who pitched in eight of Racine's 11 playoff games!

That narrow Grand Rapids victory reversed the previous year's championship. In 1946 Racine beat the Rockford Peaches in a six-game series, winning the title with a 14-inning 1-0 thriller.

My presentation also included pictures from the 1947 spring training adventure--when the AAGPBL flew all eight teams to Havana, Cuba, where the women trained and played several exhibition games; typical events from a league season, including the youth clinics which All-American teams held several times each year to spark interest in baseball; action shots from different teams; and pictures of the All-Star players of 1947.

In 1947 one Knoxville lassie made the All-Star team at two positions, pitcher and outfield, and she was also named Player of the Year (an honor she won again in 1949). Sammie Sims of Muskegon fashioned an 11-4 record as a hurler in the league's first sidearm season (All-American pitching was underhand before 1947, and overhand beginning in 1948). Sammie also hit .280, the fourth best average in the circuit, with 41 RBI and 40 stolen bases.

Based on the ovation which followed, I believe the All-Americans enjoyed reliving highlights of that shining season played fifty years ago.

Since the years are catching up with more and more players, the Board of Directors voted to hold the reunions every year, instead of every other year.

If forthcoming AAGPBL Reunions are like "A Ball at the Beach" in 1997, they will be historic gatherings of some of the most independent, achievement-oriented, and distinctive American women of the Forties and the early Fifties.

Contributed by: Jim Sargent
Submitted on: 11/14/1998

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