When girls played pro baseball

Staff Written Featured, Sports

By Jim Halloran

columnist

The end of the League was inevitable. The nineteen fifties were decades before the current era recognition of the female athlete. The soldiers returned home, among them over 500 major league players and 3000 minor leaguers and the spotlight quickly turned to them.  It was also the end of rationing ,which was a boom to other forms of entertainment and allowed people to travel. Televisions were appearing in households across America which replaced going out to the local ballpark. In addition to this, the league was undergoing changes in administrative management. The League which was originally controlled by the League ownership and administration changed to individual team ownership. The decentralization broke up the commitment to a balanced league and gave way to competitive imbalance in which the wealthier teams dominated. By the time the League expired in the mid-fifties, few paid much attention.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum

The dormancy continued until 1988 when after several years of lobbying,the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY opened a permanent exhibit honoring the league and its star players. Several hundred people attended the opening including many of the players. They were thrilled with the overdue recognition.

Irene Applegate commented: “ It gave you goosebumps walking in there. It’s unbelievable they had us in there with all those famous ballplayers. It’s a real honor, just kind of overwhelming.”

Dottie Key recognized the immortality of it. “ The Hall of Fame is where they will remember me after I am gone. I keep pinching myself – am I still alive?- cause usually you are dead and gone. They’re doing this for us while we are still alive.” Some including Applegate thought the recognition was a little bit too long noting that many of the players had since passed way.

A League of Their Own

The surviving members of the league were in for a surprise with the release of the movie “A League of Their Own” in 1992. The very popular movie created a publicity run for the girls for which many were not prepared for.

The movie would not have happened if not for a short documentary film, created by Kelly Candaele, the son of Fort Wayne Daisies outfielder Helen Callaghan Candaele St. Auban.  Kelly, along with friend Kim Wilson, produced the film about his mother’s league. It appeared on PBS in 1987 and just happened to capture the attention of Penny Marshall, the well known Hollywood director, producer and actor. The result was the release in 1992 of the comedy  movie “A League of Their Own.” It was a fictional account of the relationship between two sisters, one who was a catcher for the Rockford Peaches, the other a pitcher for the Rockford Peaches and the Racine Belles. The movie presented a somewhat realistic account of the League’s first season. Its successful release garnered $107.1 million for Columbia Pictures in the first six months of its release.

A number of former players were used as consultants and some made cameo appearances. The movie does a very good job displaying how hard the players worked and their skill level by showing action shots of hitting, catching, throwing and sliding. It also includes a number of humorous scenes depicting Charm School and how the league exploited their femininity.

The players were initially skeptical of what the final version would represent. Irene Applegate recalls, “ I didn’t like it too much the first time; some of the things the coach did made me kind of angry. But I really liked it the second time. I could laugh then. I thought it was a cute movie.”

Dottie Key also had her reservations, “The first time I saw it I was paying attention to particular scenes. The second time I sat back and really watched. I sat there and I cried and I cried and I cried., because all the memories came back. Especially when they played our song.”

The movie stars Tom Hanks as a heavy drinking Jimmy Dugan a has been former major league player as manager along with a star-studded cast of actresses Madonna, Rosie O’Donnel and Geena Davis. There are numerous hysterical scenes as when he addresses a crying outfielder: “Are you crying? There’s no crying in baseball” It is available on You Tube if you have an urge to view great comedy.

The movie ends with a flip forward to 1988 with the opening of the Hall of Fame exhibit. It brought much needed attention to a long forgotten era of professional baseball. Columbia Pictures informed every newspaper, radio and television station in every town where former players lived. The surviving players were not prepared for the avalanche of publicity generated to them. Invitations for interviews and speaking engagements came flooding in. The ball players became celebrities again.  

Betty “Mo” Treza: “ The movie certainly gave our league exposure and all us gals. I can’t believe how popular we have become. I have been on TV shows, talked on the radio and in three local papers. This all happened in one month.”

Helen Waddell: “We have been having a ball over this film. We have had interviews on TV, radio, newspapers and magazines, people calling us from all over the country. We had the premier, then a party after. Really whooping it up here. We were even in a parade.”

A Final Note

With only a handful of surviving players of the league and none of the creators, women’s professional baseball has been put to rest – at least for now. However, there is a future as more female athletes continue to excel at what were formerly male sports. There will come a day when women will be playing alongside men in the major leagues. But for now we can only recognize the contribution that the women and organizers of the AAGBL have made to the history of baseball in America.

[references: The Origins and History of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, Fidler, Merrie A. , McFarland and Company 2006, When Women Played Hardball, Johnson, Susan E., Seal Press, 1994]

Jim Halloran lives in Madison and  is the author of Baseball and America.

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