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Peppas, June, All- American Star: Helping the Kalamazoo Lassies Win the 1954 Championship

By Jim Sargent

By the time she pitched and won the final game of the Shaughnessy Championship Series for the Kalamazoo Lassies on Sunday, September 5, 1954, June Peppas had been selected twice as an All-Star in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She became the league’s first team first baseman in 1953 and 1954, even though she often pitched.

During what turned out to  be the  All-American  League’s final season, Peppas hurled  13  games   and   posted  a  6-4   record  with  a  3.32  ERA.   She  also batted  .333,  her  team’s  best  average  and the league’s fifth highest mark for girls who  played  at least 80 games in 1954. When Kalamazoo played the Fort Wayne Daisies for the league title, June came through big-time.

“Pitcher June Peppas, a former Daisy player,” the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette reported about the final playoff game, “was the villain of the piece. In addition to holding the Daisies to five safeties, she slammed out three hits in five trips to the plate and batted in four runs.”

Leading her club to the 1954 league title, the southpaw batted .450 and hurled two victories in the five-game series—including by an 8-5 margin in the AAGPBL’s last-ever game.

When the All-American (as the league was often called) disbanded after the season, June Peppas, who worked in printing during off-seasons in Kalamazoo, began working full-time at the trade. She also played amateur sports, excelling in fast-pitch softball, basketball, and volleyball.

After earning Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees from Western Michigan University during the late 1960s, June taught vocational-education graphic arts. Later, she operated her own printing business, retiring in 1988.

Today she’s best known for her part in reviving the All-American League. In 1980 June and a few friends began assembling a list of names and addresses of former players. Her work turned into a newsletter and resulted in the AAGPBL’s first-ever reunion in Chicago in 1982. Stemming from that reunion, a Players Association was formed in 1987, and many former All-Americans continue to enjoy reunions—which became annual events in 1998.

Peppas made several contributions to the All-American League. The daughter of George and Edna Peppas, she was born on June 16, 1929, in Kansas City, Missouri. The family soon moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she grew up playing sandlot sports, notably fast-pitch softball. She graduated from Elmhurst High in 1947 and played for the championship Bob-Inn fast-pitch team. The next spring she got a tryout and made the All-American League.

 June’s baseball career, which spanned the years 1948 through 1954, reflects the experiences of many women who played in the All-American’s era of overhand pitching. In 1943 the AAGPBL began by playing a speeded-up game of fast-pitch softball, complete with an underhand delivery. The pitching motion was switched to a modified sidearm in 1946, to sidearm in 1947, and to overhand in 1948. As Susan M. Cahn later pointed out, Philip Wrigley, the circuit’s founder, and his chief advertising agent, Arthur E. Meyerhoff, promoted the All-American League as a clean-spirited, colorful sports show built on “the dramatic impact of seeing baseball, traditionally a man’s game, played by feminine type girls with masculine skill.”
 
During those years the league’s ball was decreased in size. Beginning with a softball 12 inches in circumference in 1943, the AAGPBL used an 11 ½ inch ball in 1944 and 1945, an 11-inch ball in 1946 and 1947, and a 10 3/8 inch ball in 1948—the first overhand season. Midway through the 1949 season, the league introduced a 10-inch ball. In the final season of 1954, the AAGPBL’s ball switched to 9 ¼ inches—the size of a regulation major league baseball.
 
Likewise, the league gradually lengthened the basepaths and the pitching distance from the mound to the batter’s box. For example, batters faced a 40-foot pitching distance and ran 65-foot basepaths in 1943. But in 1948 players adjusted to a 50-foot pitching distance, the overhand delivery, and 72-foot basepaths. In 1954 the pitcher stood 60 feet away from home plate, and the runners sped around 85-foot basepaths.
 
For women like Peppas who began after the 1947 season, competing in the All-American meant playing a tough brand of baseball, a game that grew increasingly closer to major league baseball.
 
A child of the Great Depression, June shared her memories in a 1997 interview: “I was truly a stubborn left-hander. I liked baseball, softball, any sport, when I was growing up. My folks were in the restaurant business, so we were good friends of Harold Greiner, owner of the Bob-Inn Restaurant in Fort Wayne. Harold fielded men’s and women’s softball teams. I played for him from 1942 through 1947 and we won state titles in 1944 and 1945. He scouted for the All-American and recommended me for tryouts. Harold also managed the Daisies in 1949.
 
“I went to spring training at Opa-Locka, Florida, in 1948 and was assigned to the Fort Wayne Daisies. As a pitcher, I was very erratic, but I could hit. It was tough being a home-town product, and in 1949 Harold traded me to Racine.”
 
Overall, June had a solid rookie season, playing in 20 games and hitting .264. She pitched 16 times, finishing with a 4-12 record and an ERA of 4.62. In 1949 she had mixed success, due partly to injuries. She batted .116 in 50 games (39 with Racine), but her pitching record improved to 3-4 with a 2.25 ERA.
 
“At Racine I got my control,” Peppas recalled, “thanks to the teaching of manager Leo ‘Pop’ Murphy. I had a good bat, and also played first base. In 1948 I tore my right knee up. I had it repaired over the winter, and in 1949 I tore up my left knee, but I continued to play. I waited until 1950 to have it repaired. I continued to play team sports until 1968. In 1949, after being traded, I learned how to slide, thanks to Sophie Kurys of the Belles. Also, I did double duty like many others. I pitched every fifth turn, and I played first base the rest of the time.”
 
Once she overcame knee injuries, June’s career blossomed. She spent the rest of 1949 and all of 1950 with Racine. However, because of declining attendance and financial difficulties in 1950, the Racine franchise moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, for the 1951 season.
 
In 1950, her only full season with the Belles, “Pep,” or “Lefty,” as she was also called, bounced back. She hit .268 with 11 doubles, five triples, four home runs, and a career-best 52 RBIs. She also posted a 4-4 pitching mark with a 4.57 ERA. Her main problem continued to be control: she walked more hitters than she struck out. For example, in 1950 she passed 41 batters while fanning 21. In 1951 she walked 31 and struck out 20.
 
In mid-1951 June was traded to the Kalamazoo Lassies. During her three full seasons in Kazoo, the last two as an All-Star at first base, she continued to hit well. Her averages improved from .262 to .271 to .333. In 1954 the southpaw fashioned a 6-4 record, recording her only winning season as a hurler.
 
“I was fortunate in making the All-Star team in 1953 and 1954,” June observed. “I always said the only way I made it was when Rockford’s Dot Kamenshek retired [after the 1952 season].”
 
She added, modestly, “My team, the Kalamazoo Lassies, won the Shaughnessy Trophy in the last year of the league, 1954. I was lucky enough to be the winning pitcher in two ball games.”
 
Pretty, personable, and multi-talented, the 5’5½” 145-pound brunette kept improving her game. She was a hit on and off the field. Recalled teammate Elaine Roth, “June had a good voice, played the piano, and when dressed up, she looked like a movie star.”
 
On the diamond in 1948, the AAGPBL peaked with ten teams and the league’s attendance reached an all-time high of 910,000. The All-American returned to eight teams in 1949, 1950, and 1951, fell to six teams in 1952 and 1953, and ended with five clubs in 1954.
 
Regarding championships during the overhand years, the Rockford Peaches won the Shaughnessy Playoffs in 1948, 1949, and 1950. After Rockford’s run, the South Bend Blue Sox won back-to-back titles in 1951 and 1952. The Grand Rapids Chicks won the league crown in 1953, and the Lassies won Kalamazoo’s only championship in 1954.
 
On the All-American diamonds in 1954, the second year of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, the girls played exciting ball. Hitting a regulation-sized baseball, “Jolting Jo” Weaver of Fort Wayne led the All-American with a remarkable .429 average in 93 games. She also paced the league in home runs with a best-ever 29. Jean Geissinger of the Daisies hit .377 with 26 home runs and a league-high 91 RBIs. Betty Foss, another Fort Wayne slugger, hit .352 with 14 homers and 54 RBIs. And Betty Francis of South Bend averaged .350 with eight home runs and 58 RBIs.
 
Nineteen players hit at least .300. South Bend’s Wilma Briggs batted an even .300 while clubbing 25 homers and driving home 73 runs. Peppas averaged .333 with 16 homers and 49 RBIs, making her one of the league’s best hitters.
 
In the first round of Shaughnessy Playoffs, regular-season champ Fort Wayne (54-40 record) won on a forfeit from third-place Grand Rapids (46-45). A dispute erupted when, due to an injury to Fort Wayne’s regular catcher, the league voted to allow the Daisies to add Rockford All-Star Ruth Richard to the roster.
 
Tempers flared. Grand Rapids, claiming that using a new player was unfair, played the first game under protest—and won, 8-7. Attempting to resolve the matter the following night in Fort Wayne, Chick manager Woody English and Daisy pilot Bill Allington ended up fighting at home plate. Later, the Chick players voted not to play, so the Daisies advanced to the championship round.
 
Meanwhile, fourth-place Kalamazoo (48-49) surprised second-place South Bend (48-44) in three games. Lassie Gloria Cordes hurled and lost the opener, but pitchers Nancy Warren and Elaine Roth won games two and three, respectively.
 
The best-of-five championship round opened at Kalamazoo’s Catholic Athletic Association Field on Wednesday, September 1. Based on interviews, letters from players, and game stories that appeared in the local newspaper, Kalamazoo’s usual lineup featured:
 
2B: Nancy Mudge, an All-Star in 1954 who hit a career-best .232
1B-P: Peppas (Jean Lovell often played first when June pitched)
OF-C-RHP: Chris Ballingall, a “Home Run Twin” who slugged 17 four-baggers
SS: Dot Schroeder, a slick fielder who was the league’s only 12-year player
3B: Fern Shollenberger, the four-time All-Star third sacker who hit .268
OF-1B-C: Jean Lovell, a versatile player who hit .286 with 21 homers
CF: “Home Run Twin” Carol Habben, who connected for the circuit 15 times
C-OF: Jenny “Rifle Arm” Romatowski, an All-Star catcher who hit .258
OF-1B: Mary Taylor, a second-year outfielder who averaged .251 lifetime
RHP: Nancy Warren, with a lifetime mark of 114-93, was a key starter for Kazoo
RHP: Elaine Roth, a spot starter and reliever, compiled a career 45-69 record
RHP: Gloria Cordes, an All-Star in 1952 and 1954, was 12-7 with 2.92 ERA
 
¨ Game one: Lassies 17, Daisies 9                PEPPAS, 2-for-4
 
Kalamazoo hitters blasted the pitching of the league’s top winner, Maxine Kline. Although she had an 18-7 record with 3.23 ERA during the season, Kline gave up 11 runs in six innings, and Kazoo scored six more in the eighth off Virginia Carver.
Performing before a crowd of 1,299 (a total of 8,230 paid to see the five games), Peppas started for the Lassies, pitched seven solid innings, and rapped two hits—including a homer in the first inning. She tired in the eighth, yielding solo homers to Katie Horstman and Jo Weaver. But Nancy Warren relieved, got Jean Geissinger to hit into a double play, and saved the victory.
Hitting dominated the loosely-fielded opener, as the two clubs combined for seven home runs and 11 errors (seven by the Daisies). Horstman connected for two four-baggers, while Weaver, Peppas, and three more Lassies—Carol Habben, Fern Shollenberger, and Chris Ballingall, who hit a grand slam—slugged one each.
 
¨ Game two: Daisies 11, Lassies 4                PEPPAS, 1-for-3
 
In the second game favored Fort Wayne bounced back at home run heaven, as Kalamazoo’s “bandbox” CAA Field was dubbed, hitting five round-trippers to win, 11-4. Gloria Cordes started for the Lassies. Due to a mix-up over the game’s starting time (supposedly there would be a half hour delay), the umpires did not allow her to warm up. Starting cold, Cordes allowed five runs before getting a batter out. After a leadoff walk to Mary Weddle, Katie Horstman homered for a 2-0 Daisy lead. Ruth Richard and Jo Weaver singled, and Betty Foss hit a three-run homer for a 5-0 edge.
Right-hander Elaine Roth relieved Cordes and completed the game. But Fort Wayne hit three more homers, one each by Geissinger, Foss (her second), and Weaver. Kalamazoo countered with leadoff shots by Nancy Mudge in the third inning, Peppas (who played first base) in the seventh, and Dottie Schroeder in the ninth, but the game’s outcome was never in doubt.
 
¨ Game three: Daisies 8, Lassies 7                PEPPAS, 1-for-4
 
After moving to Fort Wayne’s spacious Memorial Field for the rest of the series, the Daisies won a close one, 8-7, fueled by the heavy hitting of Jo Weaver. The AAGPBL’s best batter produced a double, a triple, and a three-run homer in five at-bats, driving in four runs.
Still, Kalamazoo got off to a 3-0 lead in the fourth frame, thanks to a single and three Daisy errors. In the fifth Nancy Mudge doubled and scored from second when Peppas lifted a long flyball to deep right field. Maxine Kline, doing double duty as an outfielder, caught the ball. But when she fell backward on the banked earth, the speedy Mudge raced home.
In the decisive seventh inning, Peppas added a base hit to spark a three-run Lassie rally, capped by Chris Ballingall’s two-run single. But the Daisies came back in the bottom of the inning, scoring twice off Nancy Warren for the final 8-7 margin. After three base hits, Geissinger singled off the pitcher’s glove, and Jean Havlish drew a bases-loaded walk. Gloria Cordes put out the Daisy fire, but neither team scored again.
 
¨ Game four: Lassies 6, Daisies 5                 PEPPAS, 2-for-4
 
Gloria Cordes, this time properly warmed up, pitched a complete game. Allowing five runs on nine hits, Gloria helped Kalamazoo tie the series. With Fort Wayne leading 5-2 in the eighth, Kalamazoo rallied for four runs by combining a walk, a sacrifice bunt, and five singles—by Mudge, Ballingall, Fern Shollenberger, Jean Lovell, and Carol Habben, with Habben driving home the winning tally. Bill Allington summoned Phyllis Baker in relief of Kline, but it proved too late.
Ballingall led the visitors with three hits, including a double. Peppas contributed a single, a double, and one RBI; Dot Schroeder rapped a base hit and a solo home run; and Shollenberger added two singles—as the first seven batters in the lineup produced 13 hits.
 
¨ Game five: Lassies 8, Daisies 5                  PEPPAS, 3-for-5
 
Saving her best for last, June enjoyed a three-hit night and pitched a clutch game, yielding four singles and one double. She had plenty of hitting support from Mary Taylor, who had a perfect 5-for-5 game with two doubles, and Chris Ballingall, who went 3-for-4.
Peppas made one big error. With her club ahead 5-1 going into the bottom of the fifth, she yielded two singles and a walk to load the bases. With two outs she dropped a pop fly, allowing two Daisies to score. But the lefty June got the third out with no further damage.
June gave up a run in the bottom of the eighth, but her teammates scored three in the last two frames. The game-winner came home in the top of the eighth on Schroeder’s big double. Also, a base hit plus RBI singles by Peppas and Ballingall added two markers in the ninth.
 
In the end, the inspired Lassies rose to the challenge and batted .337 as a team. On the other hand, the usually heavy-hitting Daisies averaged .275.
 
When the league was unable to continue in 1955, Peppas and other independent-minded players made necessary adjustments. A Michigan resident, June later completed her higher education. Working as a printer, she participated in many sports, including softball, basketball, bowling, hunting and fishing, downhill and water skiing, and flying.
 
The All-American League, however, was soon forgotten. Many people in the Fifties thought that women were not supposed to play baseball. So most female athletes competed on other fields of endeavor. Finally, in 1980, Peppas launched the newsletter project to get in touch with friends, teammates, and opponents.
 
“I missed an organizational meeting,” the former All-Star recalled, “and was elected president, which I held for four years. We accomplished becoming a Players Association, getting the permanent display on ‘Women in Baseball’ at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and the movie, A League of Their Own.
 
“We are quite proud of our accomplishments,” June Peppas reminisced, “and we hope the All-Americans will never be forgotten again. We were a proud lot.”
 
 
Sources:
 
An earlier version of this article appeared in SABR’s The National Pastime for 2002. I first interviewed June Peppas at the AAGPBL Players Association Reunion at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in mid-October 1997, and again by telephone two weeks later. Her statistics are from the summary sheet prepared on a yearly cumulative basis for the All-American League by the Howe Bureau, copy in AAGPBL Files in Northern Indiana Center for History, South Bend, Indiana. Newspaper articles about the 1954 playoff championship between June’s Kalamazoo team and the Fort Wayne Daisies are from the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette and the Kalamazoo Gazette. Also, Peppas sent copies of additional clippings from her personal collection, along with a letter containing further recollections dated January 5, 1998. She provided more information about the AAGPBL of her era in a letter dated May 22, 1998. I also received informative, detailed letters from former All-Americans Chris Ballingall, dated May 30, 1998; Elaine Roth, dated June 1, 1998; Gloria (Cordes) Elliott, dated June 25, 2001; and Nancy (Mudge) Cato, dated August 2001. For background and history about the league, see Merie Fidler, The Origins and History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2006), pp. 15-25, and Susan M. Cahn, “No Freaks, No Amazons, No Boyish Bobs,” Chicago History (Spring, 1989), pp. 30-31. A good condensed version of Peppas’ career can be found in Leslie A. Heaphy and Mel A. May, eds., Encyclopedia of Women in Baseball (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishing, 2006), pp. 226-227. Last but not least, the AAGPBL web site provides a wealth of information about teams, players, and more; see http://www.aagpbl.org/

Contributed by: Jim Sargent
Submitted on: 06/19/2008

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