The Late Celebrity of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League

The sweep of nostalgia for what I think is the first women’s professional sports league in the U.S. began in the early 1980s, about a decade before A League of Their Own came out. Dottie Collins, an ex-Fort Wayne Daisies pitcher, said, “It wasn’t until we hit Chicago in 1982 for a reunion that it hit us. We were swamped with reporters . . . and we thought, maybe we can do something about this.”

Then, as the Chicago Sun-Times reported in 1987:

“Tennessee” Jackson in Chicago and “Red” Mahoney in Houston could hardly contain themselves. The two retired ballplayers, gray-haired and in their 60s now, had just received the happy news: the Baseball Hall of Fame had decided to include them in a special Cooperstown exhibit, tentatively scheduled for 1989. “This is so wonderful!” exclaimed Jackson, a reserve outfielder who hit just .220 with three big league clubs in the 1940s. “All of a sudden, everyone wants to know about us.”

Mahoney, an even weaker-hitting utility player, whooped like a lottery winner. “I tell ’em, ‘Man, we could play ball.’ ”

This seems implausible, considering their skimpy numbers, but then, the two faced unusual pressures. Four years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, and 29 years before the passage of the initial Title IX legislation, Lillian Jackson and Marie Mahoney already had taken the field. They were among the several hundred young women who played between 1943 and 1954 when there were three major leagues – the National, the American and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).

The game these women played was good old country hardball. They threw knock-down pitches and low-bridged the shortstop on the double play. They jawed with umpires, played hurt and were tossed out of games. They gambled and drank. Millions paid to see them play. How good were they? Charlie Grimm, then manager of the Chicago Cubs, said after watching shortstop Dorothy Schroeder of the South Bend (Ind.) Blue Sox, “If she was a boy, I’d give $50,000 for her.”

There was little talk of the AAGPBL after dwindling attendance forced its demise following the 1954 season. But last spring, PBS broadcast a half-hour remembrance of the league. In June, Janis Taylor, an assistant professor of film at Northwestern University, completed a half-hour documentary about the league, “When Diamonds Were A Girl’s Best Friend.” Then came the news from Cooperstown. The museum plans to mount an 8-by-8-foot exhibit, recounting the history of the AAGPBL.

“When we were playing,” confessed star Fort Wayne (Ind.) Daisies pitcher Dottie Collins, from her Fort Wayne home several months ago, “we didn’t realize what we had. We were just a bunch of young kids doing what we liked best. But most of us recognize now that those were the most meaningful days of our lives. Times have changed; I don’t think we could ever have a league like that again. The bond between the girls now is very, very close.”

By the time the Evansville Courier told the story of how the AAGPBL had been quite popular back in the day, it was August 1991, and the buzz around the making of A League of Their Own was starting:

In their heydays, the Rockford and Racine teams were the hot draws in both cities, each of which had populations of about 90,000 in the 1940s.

In 1944, more than 68,000 people attended the Belles’ home games. More than 7,000 came out for the opening playoff game in 1946, the year the team won its second league championship.

Attendance at Peaches’ home games averaged more than 90,000 per year throughout the 1940s, easily outdrawing the Rockford Rox, a farm team for the Cincinnati Reds that played next door at Beyer Field, 1947 through 1950.

Daily newspapers in Rockford and Racine headlined game reports on the more than 120 games the teams played each season, and papers throughout the Midwest regularly carried box scores on all the league’s teams.

Beyond that, stories on the league appeared nationally in periodicals including Life, Colliers, the Saturday Evening Post and Holiday, which carried a lengthy text and expansive photo display in a feature titled: “World’s Prettiest Baseball Players.”

And millions of moviegoers saw the ballplayers of the “lipstick league” on the big screen in a 1947 Movietone News newsreel that included footage of Mrs. [Dorothy] Key (then Miss Ferguson, or “Fergie” to teammates) at spring training in Havana, Cuba.

In those days, Mrs. Key, Ms. [Anna Mae] Hutchison (“Hutch” to her teammates) and the other players on their teams were local celebrities.

“We would spend half our time after the games signing autographs,” recalled Joyce Hill Westerman, a Kenosha, Wis., native who played two of eight seasons in the league as catcher for the Belles.

In 1949, a ticket at Horlick Field cost 25 cents for children, 50 cents for students, 80 cents for adults, and $1.25 for reserved seating.

Mrs. Westerman has seen a resurgence of interest in the league in the last decade, but “up until then, nobody talked about it,” she said. . . .

A documentary [Taylor’s] was the catalyst for director Penny Marshall’s interest in developing “A League of Their Own.”

A League of Their Own opened in mid-July 1992. A couple weeks later, the Minneapolis Star Tribune caught up with two of the league’s veterans to get their opinions of the movie:

Kay Heim McDaniel, who now lives in Rosemount, was one of the first players recruited to play in the league. A resident of Edmonton, Alberta, she was a catcher for the Kenosha Comets starting in 1943, the inaugural season of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Nancy Midge Cato, now a resident of Elk River, Minn., was one of the last players in the league. She played second base for the Kalamazoo Lassies, the team that won the 1954 “World Series” championship in seven games. The league folded shortly thereafter.

Thanks to the success of the hit movie, McDaniel and Cato are dusting off scrapbooks that hadn’t been looked at for decades. The movie whetted the curiosity of their friends, many of whom are just now discovering that the women were former pro baseball players.

“When we moved to Rosemount, I never told anyone that I had played,” McDaniel said. Before that, “whenever I tried to tell someone, they’d look at me like I was from outer space.”

Cato got similar reactions. “They’d say, ‘You mean you played softball.’ And I’d say, ‘No, it was hardball.’ And they’d say, ‘But they pitched underhand.’ And I’d say, ‘No, it was overhand.’ I had to convince them that it was really baseball . . . . Most of the people I know now didn’t have the foggiest idea I ever did it.”

The movie plays loose with some of the facts about the league, rankling both veterans. Their chief complaint is that the team’s manager (played by Tom Hanks) is shown being drunk for many of the games.

“That never would have been tolerated,” McDaniel said. “He would have been fired in a minute,” Cato agreed.

While they understand that director Penny Marshall wanted to make a comedy, both players admit to being a bit miffed at the frivolous attitude the film assumes.

Cato said the actresses – including Geena Davis, Madonna and Lori Petty – weren’t convincing as ballplayers. “The feminists are going to get mad at me for saying this, but they threw like girls,” she said. “The pitching (by Petty) looked very slow to me. We didn’t play like girls, we played like boys.”

Another gripe deals with a player who is shown having her bratty son sitting in the dugout bothering the players. “I was told recently by another player – I never saw it myself – that there was a woman who took her baby with her on the road (trips), but she never had the baby in the dugout,” McDaniel said.

The showboat antics of the players, including Madonna catching a popup in her cap and Davis doing the splits while catching a foul ball, also had the women flinching. “Rinky-dink,” is how Cato described such action.

But neither woman wants to go on record as just bad-mouthing the movie. They’re glad their league finally is getting some long-overdue public recognition.

“I’m delighted that it’s making many more people aware of it,” Cato said.

To read about the details of the history of the AAGPBL, which lasted from 1943 to 1954 and generally played about a 110-game schedule each year, in about a half-dozen Midwest cities, you can go to their official website. They feature a full roster of the AAGPBL players.