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Sheriffs, Vivian Anderson
By Jim Nitz
Vivian Anderson Sheriffs played third base for her hometown Milwaukee Chicks in 1944, the city’s only year in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). The spirited infielder suffered a season-ending injury in June of that remarkable season and missed out on the Chicks’ championship. Even though Anderson’s time in the AAGPBL was brief, the league provided her with many enduring memories.
Born as Vivian Sheriffs in Milwaukee on April 21, 1921, she grew up in a middle-class, near-west side neighborhood, the only child of Milwaukee natives; her father, Emmett, was a finance manager at Uptown Lincoln-Mercury, while her mother, Gladys, was head of fur storage and alterations at Gimbel’s Department Store. Anderson attended grade school at 27th Street School and graduated from Milwaukee’s West Division High School. A self-described tomboy, she spent her childhood involved in neighborhood baseball, field hockey, basketball, and football. Her mother eventually put a halt to her gridiron career because of the risk of injury playing with boys. But otherwise Anderson’s parents were supportive of her sporting endeavors.
By the time she was in high school, Anderson was playing organized baseball in the Girls’ Athletic Association and also displaying her athleticism as a school cheerleader. At 14 her talents allowed her to also play in the very popular amateur fast-pitch leagues in West Allis, a western Milwaukee suburb. Here, the infielder played for teams sponsored by local businesses like Ziemer Sausages, Rohr Jewelers, and Madjecki Foods. Fans enjoyed watching Anderson and other future AAGPBL ballplayers including Marge Peters, who would soon be a Rockford Peach. Unbeknownst to her, Anderson was also being watched by AAGPBL scouts, and at 23, she received a letter asking her to fill out and return a personal information form. She did so, was contacted shortly thereafter, and was invited to the 1944 AAGPBL spring-training camp in Peru, Illinois. After successfully demonstrating her skills at the extensive tryouts, Anderson was placed on the Milwaukee roster, making Borchert Field her new second home. The 5-foot-2, 160-pound, strong-armed third baseman was later joined by right-handed starting pitcher Sylvia Wronski, making them the only two Milwaukee natives to play for their hometown Chicks. Anderson, proud of her success, recalled her parents reacting positively: “Oh, my mom was tickled pink, and I guess my dad was in a little way. I think my dad always wanted a boy. I was still a girl no matter which way it worked. But basically, he was quite supportive, I would say.” Even though Anderson was now a professional ballplayer, making money was not what motivated her: “It was pure and simple a sport for me. The money part of it didn’t faze me. I never had a lot of money, so why should I worry about it?”
Anderson started at third base and batted eighth in the Chicks’ inaugural game, a home contest. In front of 631 fans on May 27, 1944, she scored the first-ever Chicks’ run, after reaching base on an infield single, in a 5–4, 11-inning loss to the South Bend Blue Sox.
The AAGPBL typically drew only several hundred fans to Borchert Field. Anderson found this very frustrating, as she believed her team worked hard to play an entertaining brand of ball. Several factors led to the low attendance. First, the Chicks competed for field space with the pennant-winning Brewers of 1944 (owned by Bill Veeck and managed by Casey Stengel), who often played before capacity crowds of 13,500. The Brewers retained the prime home dates at Borchert Field and played as many night games as possible, leaving the women with a less desirable, primarily daytime schedule. Second, local press coverage was minimal. Third, many Milwaukee fans considered the Chicks’ 95-cent grandstand ticket price too high. Chewing gum mogul Philip K. Wrigley, who owned the Chicks, believed the high-caliber ball in his league merited the same pricing as that of the Brewers, who played in the highest level of minor-league ball. Milwaukeeans never embraced the team as did their counterparts in smaller AAGPBL cities with lower-priced admission such as Kenosha and Racine. Anderson was most impressed with the fan support in her favorite AAGPBL city of Rockford. As she said, “Oh wow! We’re going there and those people will really like us.” Fourth, the absence of local ownership (unlike Wrigley’s shared ownership with resident proprietors in the other cities) meant that no prominent businessmen in Milwaukee had a vested interest in promoting the Chicks and making them an integral component of the community. Finally, as Anderson explained, “Of course, we had an awful lot more competition here (unlike Rockford and Kenosha) with the West Allis League, because that was a favorite.” This popularity cut into Milwaukee’s support of the Chicks as the ballplayers on the locally sponsored West Allis clubs were well-recognized in the area, while all of the Chicks, except Wronski and Anderson, were from out of town. Milwaukee’s business community and fans apparently were not interested in offering the Chicks emotional and financial support, because they had already embraced their own local men’s and women’s leagues. This differed from other league cities like Rockford and South Bend, where the AAGPBL team was the primary sports focus.
Even the Chicks’ famous manager, Max Carey, a ten-time National League stolen-base leader, did not help to draw large crowds. However, the Chicks themselves firmly believed in Carey’s managerial and instructional skills. Anderson said of the Hall of Famer: “The man was solid heart. He loved the game and he tried to teach the fine points of it just as though he were out there playing. You probably realized he was one of the prime bunters and base stealers, which is probably the reason I can’t enjoy baseball today – sliding into first base or sliding into a base straight head-on to have your head bashed does not compute in my book. We were taught how to hook slide.” Anderson said Carey “never hollered or screamed at anybody, but he made his point by saying: ‘I do have something to say about this and I would prefer that you listen carefully or you may have a problem later.’ So it was all positive, things that he did—very positive man. I liked him, as you can plainly see. He always behaved absolutely as a gentleman.”
At least one Chick, however, did not see eye-to-eye with her manager, rookie third baseman Judy Dusanko. Frustrated at being relegated to a backup role behind local favorite Anderson, Dusanko began writing letters on the bench during a game in June. Carey, who had never given the Canadian ballplayer even one at-bat or inning in the field, banished the shocked Dusanko from the Chicks in front of her teammates.
Anderson was allowed to live at home with her parents during homestands. They were good about letting her live her own life as a professional ballplayer by simply inquiring if the Chicks won, asking if everything was going well, and attending as many games as their work schedules permitted. Even residing at home, Anderson was still accountable to the Chicks’ “well-groomed, well-spoken” chaperone, Dottie Hunter. Anderson considered the Canadian, who had played with the 1943 Racine Belles and Kenosha Comets, to be a mother figure who “hovered over” her ballplayers. One time during a homestand, some of the Chicks “were just having a good time, and we were eating and having a drink and dancing and doing things like this, and we look up and here stands Miss Hunter. Oh, oh, -- and she just said ‘carry on’ and walked away – just a perfect lady. And the next morning, she said: ‘You know I could really hurt you girls,’ but she said, ‘I wouldn’t do that the first time.’ And believe me; we were very careful after that.” Anderson was also very impressed with how Carey and Hunter worked together via strong communication skills, comparable to a mom and dad, to keep the Chicks a cohesive team.
Andy, as her teammates nicknamed Vivian, recalled that the Chicks enjoyed going out together while developing friendships that allowed them to support one another during low moments. The Chicks came from all over the United States and Canada. As a Milwaukeean, Anderson recalled saying, “I’ll introduce you to our type of culture here and you tell me about yours.” She enjoyed road trips with her teammates and found visiting new towns to be an exciting experience. She particularly enjoyed the enthusiastic acceptance of the AAGPBL in Rockford, a town where the locals did not have many other sports entertainment options.
Philip Wrigley stressed femininity in a player’s appearance, both on and off the field. Certainly the uniforms were unlike the pants that were worn in the local women’s leagues. In addition, in the league’s early years, charm school was a requirement so that the players would “dress, act and carry themselves as befits the feminine sex.” Anderson, who said she had “four left feet,” broke her right big toe when posture-improving books tumbled off her head. She deemed the Ruth Tiffany charm school a “nightmare,” even though she understood the reasoning behind it. Anderson believed it really helped “farm girls” who had not grown up learning “proper things.” Wrigley wanted to avoid a tomboy image for the AAGPBL and his publicity emphasized graceful, feminine, 1944 role models who were not allowed to wear shorts or slacks in public. The women were willing to endure this, as they knew they were privileged to be among the athletes who survived the May training camp cuts.
The Chicks wore one-piece short gray dresses with red trim and belts. Also included were knee-length black socks and a small black cap featuring a red bill and a black M inside a yellow circle. Anderson called the uniforms “attractive” but added, “I was a little bit perturbed when I saw the shorts and realized I was going to be sliding and – oow! I think I still have a few scars to prove that point. They were a little bit impractical; we were used to playing with the long pants, at least to protect a little part of us. But they were generally accepted as being quite neat looking.”
Anderson’s AAGPBL career ended abruptly because of two badly broken fingers suffered on June 4, 1944. As she explained, “The baseball, someone sliding into the base, and me – all at one time – hit these fingers. So, what good was I [to the Chicks]? I coached third base for a while. I had a big splint on my hand, and I could point.” A local doctor, the same physician who amputated two of Brewers outfielder Hal Peck’s toes in 1942, suggested that Anderson’s injured digits should also be removed. Anderson replied, “I guess not. Goodbye!” Medical opinions from a Chicago doctor prevailed, and her visit also exposed Anderson to future professional softball opportunities there. The right-handed-hitting and throwing third baseman played in only 11 early-season Chicks contests, and had five singles in 34 at-bats, with one strikeout and six walks. She was replaced in the Chicks’ lineup by newcomer Doris Tetzlaff of nearby Watertown, Wisconsin. Anderson’s injury (four breaks in her fingers), plus those to other Chicks, led to an infusion of talent by the league, allowing the Chicks to rebound from an average first-half of the season at 30 wins and 26 losses to a strong second half at 40-19. Milwaukee finished 1944 with a 4-games-to-3 championship playoff “World Series” victory over the Kenosha Comets. Anderson, always a team player who wanted to support her friends, accompanied the team to all seven of those games at Kenosha’s Lake Front Stadium, as Borchert Field was occupied by the Brewers for their American Association league playoffs.
Anderson’s AAGPBL career was only slightly shorter than her team’s stay in Milwaukee. Because of the poor attendance in 1944, the Chicks moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1945, and remained there until the league’s demise at the end of the 1954 season. Anderson, however, was not close to being done as a ballplayer, even with her permanently crooked right index and middle fingers. After healing, she moved south later in the summer of 1944, to play pro fast-pitch for the Bluebirds of the Chicago National Girls Baseball League. There, team owner Charles Bidwell (owner of the Chicago Cardinals of the National Football League) helped secure jobs for his ballplayers. Anderson worked days doing clerical work for Keeshan Motor Express, played ball on nights and weekends, and roomed with teammates in an apartment near the Bluebirds’ South Side ballpark. After playing for the Bluebirds again in 1945, Anderson returned to her hometown, eventually landing with the semipro Milwaukee Jets, a team with future AAGPBL ballplayers such as Jackie Mattson Baumgart and Edna Scheer. Here, the realization finally came that it was time to hang up her spikes. Anderson was starting to feel the aches and pains of her injuries and her mother told her, “I think it’s time you grow up and realize you can’t last forever doing this.” She realized that her very physical, aggressive style of play was wearing her out.
Shortly after Anderson’s professional ballplaying career ended, so did her four-year marriage to Daniel Anderson. After their 1942 wedding, the Andersons did not see much of each other, because Daniel, a staff sergeant in the Army, was overseas. However, they did share a love of baseball; they met when Vivian was playing in West Allis, where Daniel was serving as a coach before joining the military. Vivian recalled that her husband was very excited for her when she went pro in the AAGPBL.
In subsequent years, Anderson worked in office management, the secretarial field, public relations, loan closing, dispatching, and credit/collections before concluding her work career in 2010 (at the age of 89!) after 17 years with Barrett Moving and Storage as the long-distance-driver log documenter. In her spare time, she continued her athletic exploits by bowling for decades and became a member of the local 600 club.
The former Chick never left her hometown area and continued to live in her own home as late as 2011. After the AAGPBL was brought to life in the 1992 feature film A League of Their Own, Anderson, like many other AAGPBL alumnae, participated in various events as a representative of the league. Noteworthy were her 2001 induction into the Milwaukee Brewers Walls of Honor at Miller Park (the inaugural induction) and her participation in an AAGPBL player panel discussion at the 2001 SABR Convention in Milwaukee. Anderson said she never ceased to be amazed at the number of fans who requested autographed baseball cards after the debut of A League of Their Own.
Even though Vivian Anderson played for the Chicks for only a short time, she helped establish the indomitable, hard-nosed attitude necessary for Milwaukee’s first championship in any major-league sport. As of the summer of 2011, only the 1957 National League Braves and the 1970-71 NBA Bucks had won championships since. Anderson shared these feelings about her short stay in the AAGPBL: “I loved the game. I wanted to play!” Surely, this was the approach needed by the Chicks as they strove toward that 1944 title.
October 6, 2011
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AAGPBL Baseball Card No. 87–Dorothy Hunter. Larry Fritsch Cards, Stevens Point, Wisconsin
AAGPBL Baseball Card number 236–Vivian Anderson. Larry Fritsch Cards, Stevens Point, Wisconsin
Anderson, Vivian Sheriffs. Numerous personal and telephone interviews from December 1994 to August 2011
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Oral History Interview with Vivian Sheriffs for “The Forgotten Champs: The Milwaukee Chicks of 1944 Oral History Project." Interview by Michael E. Telzrow. Minds@UW. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Archives Dept., 11 Dec. 2009. Accessed August 21, 2010. http://minds.wisconsin.edu/handle/1793/38224
“Vivian Sheriffs, Betty Moczynski, Jackie Mattson Baumgart.” I Remember Milwaukee. WMVS (television), Milwaukee, February 7, 1996
Contributed by: Merrie Fidler
Submitted on: 11/01/2011
Copyright: SABR/AAGPBL Joint Biography Project