When girls played pro baseball

Staff Written News

By Jim Halloran

columnist

By 1943 the full impact of World War II was being felt in all American homes. 

Young men were at war, and women had taken their place in the workplace. Gasoline, home heating fuel, food items, and household goods joined a list of goods being rationed; with the exception of a multitude of war movies and newsreels, there was not much to see at the local movie theatre. 

Most Americans were staying close to their home gathered around the radio listening to programs such as Tom Mix, Boston Blackie and Amos and Andy when not reading or playing parlor games. Sporting events were also hampered. 

In baseball, over 500 major league and 2,000 minor league players were serving in the armed forces. Due to the diminished quality of play, attendance plummeted and serious consideration was given to canceling the baseball season. The games did go on, but only after a plea from FDR to continue on in order to help relieve the tension of the times.

Phillip Wrigley, the chewing gum mogul, and owner of the Chicago Cubs took a different approach to keeping the interest in baseball alive – a women’s baseball league. Many scoffed at the idea, but Wrigley had become aware of the growing popularity of women’s softball and moved ahead with his plan. 

Along with the support of Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Max Carey, a former major league player, he launched the four-team, American Girls Professional Baseball League. The original teams were all located within a 100 mile radius of Chicago, in war production cities, and included the Rockford, Illinois Peaches, the South Bend, Indiana Blue Sox, the Kenosha, Wisconsin Belles and the Racine, Wisconsin Comets. Through some creative, promotional planning the idea caught on, and within year four additional teams were added.

Wrigley was a marketing genius for his time – new owners paid in $23,500 to have a franchise in the non-profit corporation. Wrigley provided the equipment, players, and umpires. He recruited players from all over the country and paid them $45 – $85 per week for the four-month season. The pay was more than double the average war time pay standards. The players belonged to the league, not to the teams. They were distributed depending on skill level and position in order to create balanced teams. Femininity and appearance were of utmost importance.  The players wore tunic like dresses designed by Mrs. Wrigley with skirts higher than knee level. They were sent to charm school and supplied with make up to complete the feminine look. The most publicized player of the early league was Catcher Mary “ Bonnie” Baker, a fashion model. She was described as having “a gorgeous smile, dark eyes fringed by long lashes, dark hair that off the field she wears a smart up sweep. Mary [Bonnie] Baker has a truly regal bearing and knowns how to wear clothes and set off her tall beauty.” The initial publicity theme of the league was “Recreation for War Workers” but was quickly changed to promote “Femininity”. 

The following rules were firmly enforced:

1. ALWAYS appear in feminine attire when not actively engaged in practice or playing ball. This regulation continues thru the …Playoffs. At no time may a player appear in the stands in her uniform.

2. Smoking and drinking are not permitted in public places.

3. All social engagements must be approved by the chaperones.

4. All living quarters and eating places must be approved by the chaperones.

5. For emergency purposes, it is necessary that you leave notice of your whereabouts at your home phone.

6. Each club will establish a satisfactory place to eat and a time when all members must be in their individual rooms. In general, the lapse of time will be two hours after the finish of the last game.

{The Origins and History of the Al American Girls Professional Baseball League, Marie A. Fidler}

Whether to see glamorous women athletes or good baseball, fans turned out in impressive numbers. The seasons expanded to more than 100 games and held an All Star Game at Wrigley Field in its first season. As the skill level increased so did the challenge. The league quickly changed from pitching underhand with a standard softball to throwing overhand with a reduced size ball, the size of the diamond was enlarged, and with those changes became an excellent and exciting game of real “baseball” as it took on all the usual appearances of what people expected out of professional baseball.

Next week: The players and their teams

Jim Halloran lives in Madison is the author of Baseball and America (www.baseballandamerica.com)

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