Photo Courtesy of Baseball Hall of Fame
I have to preface this article by saying the idea came from my daughter Marlee Glenn. She read some of my past articles and said that I should write about the Women's league. I will say I found out some things I didn't know and was surprised by. I hope you enjoy it.
July 1, 1992, the movie A League of Their Own opened in movie theaters across the country. A light-hearted comedy about the women's professional baseball league of the 1940s and 1950s. Director Penny Marshall brought to life what the casual baseball fan didn't know existed. The movie was a fictional look at the league, but it was also based on facts. So what was the Women's professional baseball League?
How it got started
In 1942, Chicago Cubs Owner Phillip K Wrigley had concerns about Major League Baseball, and it's survival. He had Ken Sells, Assistant General Manager of the Chicago Cubs, form a committee to look for a way to increase revenue. WWII had taken many young players out of the minor leagues and major stars such as Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and Bob Feller. There was also the fear that Baseball may have to be canceled because of rationing due to the war effort, as well as the ever-shrinking player pool.
Enter the Women
Women were becoming an increasingly vital part of the workforce. Women were filling in for men in the factories and shipyards. Many had to because their husbands were off fighting for Uncle Sam. Others felt it WAS their duty to step up. So Why not look to women to fill the void in baseball? Sells envisioned using women's sports as an option. Women's organized Softball was becoming popular, particularly in the Midwest. The idea to set up a softball league that would play in Wrigley Field on off days. Wrigley was looking at the bigger picture. He wanted to bring the women's game to other major league ballparks. However, other teams were not as keen on the idea as Wrigley would have hoped.
So after getting backing from Midwestern Business types, Wrigley pushed on, and the All-American Girls Softball League was born. Wrigley then formed a board of directors, including Branch Rickey, President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Chicago Attorney Paul V. Harmon. They then named Ken Sells the league President (I mean, it was his idea).
Wrigley turned to several Cubs, and Wrigley's staff that he had such was the case when it came to the rules of the game. Chicago Cubs' scout, Jack Sheehan, Vern Hernlund, Supervisor of Recreation for the Chicago Parks Department, and Ken Sells worked together to write the new rules. The committee's outcome was a merged game between Baseball and Softball, taking parts from both games. From Softball, pitching was underhand windmill style (fast-Pitch), and the ball was the standard 12-inch softball. (In 1948, pitching would evolve to overhand, and the ball would be reduced to a standard baseball in 1954).
From Baseball 9 players to a lineup, Lead-offs and stealing were allowed.
Distances were a compromise of sorts.
*Pitcher to Home plate was 40 feet. Shorter than both Softball and Baseball. In 1948 it would increase to 50 feet, and finally 60 feet in 1954
*The base paths were 65 feet long. Longer than Softball, shorter than baseball. They would change that distance 4 times, ultimately making it 85 feet.
Wrigley wanted a spirited Sports competition but, he still thought that the girls should have an air of femininity. So players would be required to attend Helena Rubinstein's evening charm school classes during Spring Training. They were also to be given "beauty kits" and instructions on their use them. They were not allowed to wear slacks or Jeans or have short hair. In fact, outfielder Josephine D'Angelo was fired for cutting her hair. They could not smoke or drink in public and were required to wear lipstick at all times. To assist with this, each team was assigned a female chaperone that traveled with the team. The chaperone would oversee the players to and from games and help with social calendars. The uniform was a tunic with a flared skirt. The length was to be just above the knee but had to go higher to facilitate running.
Location, location, location.
In real estate, they say location IS the name of the game. In the case of the All-American Girls Softball League, it was critical. Not getting the major league parks that he wanted, Wrigley secured 4 medium-sized cities close to Chicago. Rockford, IL. (Peaches), Racine, WI. (Belles), South Bend, IN. (Blue Sox) and Kenosha, WI (Comets). Wrigley concentrated on the Midwest to help control cost by limiting travel. Even during expansion, the league always seemed to stay within the Great Lakes region of the Midwest. Wrigley tabbed Arthur Meyerhoff Wrigley's advertising director to be operations coordinator. He would handle dealing with the communities and city officials to help the league run smoothly. The cities were getting a pretty good deal. Wrigley agreed to pay half of the teams operating cost and ANY over-budget expenses.
Next, they needed players.
With the structure, rules, and locations are taken care of, and next was players. As he had done before, he did again. Selecting Jim Hamilton, the Cubs Sr. Scout, head of the League's procurement division for the US and Canada. To have a strong presence in Canada, Johnny Gottselig, former Chicago Blackhawks star, was hired to scout Canada. Initially, scouting was concentrated on large and highly popular softball leagues. One of these, the Chicago Metropolitan Softball League, took exception. So in 1944, they formed a six-team National Girls Baseball League. This league was founded by Emery Parichy, Charles Bidwill - Owner of the Chicago Cardinals football team, and politician Ed Kolski. They hired NFL legend Red Grange to be the "commissioner" This league also lasted until 1954. It was not as well-publicized as the All-American league. However, in 1952-1953, both leagues formed a 4 team International Girls baseball league.
In all, 280 girls were invited to Chicago for the one-day tryout on May 17, 1943. After this tryout, only 60 girls were selected. League play began officially on May 30, 1943.
What's in a name?
Midway through the 1943 season, the league changed the name to the All-American Girls Baseball League. By the end of the season, amid complaints that the game was not "baseball," the name was changed again to the All-American Girls Professional Ball League. In 1945 the name was changed back to the All-American Girls Baseball League. After 1950 when the teams were sold off to individual owners, the name was changed once again to the American Girls Baseball League. Although to many fans, it was commonly referred to as the All-American League or the All-American Girls Baseball League. In 1986 the players association formed and gained recognition. In 1988, the National Baseball Hall of Fame officially recognized the league as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
The war years 1943-1945
From its inception in 1943, the league evolved with changes in rules and attempts at expansion and a leadership change. In 1943 The league drew over 176,000 fans. The league was very well received by fans who were amazed at how well the women performed. The game was viewed as a good form of family entertainment. Many in communities where teams were had minimal opportunity to go to Chicago, St Louis, Cincinnati, or Cleveland to watch a big-league game. Also, with the code of conduct, the players were viewed as the-girl-next-door. She could be your neighbor. They would routinely play exhibition games that supported the Red Cross or military installations.
In 1944 Wrigley decide to add two teams, one in Milwaukee, WI. (Chicks) and in Minneapolis, MN. (Millerettes) Despite winning the league, the Milwaukee franchise folded. While playing in larger population centers would be seen to give more opportunity to gather a fan base. It also meant competing against many different entertainment options. Plus, they played in larger stadiums that distanced the players from fans and proved to be too big in dimensions to enhance the Women's game. Both Milwaukee and Minneapolis folded after the 1944 season. they would reform in 1945, with Milwaukee moving to Grand Rapids, MI. (Chicks) and Minneapolis shifting to Fort Wayne, IN. (Daisies). At the end of 1944, Wrigley was losing interest in the league. The war was going well, and Major League Baseball was no longer in danger of closing. He planned on disbanding the women's league. That is when Arthur Meyerhoff stepped in and offered to take the league off of Wrigley's hands. Wrigley sold the league to Meyerhoff for $10,000. When Meyerhoff took over, he redesigned the board of directors by including representatives from the league's teams. He also did what he knew best use advertising. In 1945 the war was winding down, so Meyerhoff used the end of Spring Training to take the teams to military hospitals to not only play a game but visit the wounded. He also eliminated the charm school requirement. He was intent on showing off the product ON the field. Attendance that year topped 450,000 fans. The war was over, but Women's baseball had its place.
The Meyerhoff years 1946 - 1950
Meyerhoff took over in 1945. That can be seen as the turnaround year for the league and the women's game in general. League cities started Junior leagues for girls 14 and older. There was traveling now to remote locations for Spring Training. Mississippi. Florida and even Cuba in 1947. The game was evolving as distances were constantly being updated. 1946 saw the ball shrink to 10 3/4 inches and Sidearm pitching being allowed. Two more teams were added, Muskegon, MI (Lassies), and Peoria, IL (Redwings). In 1948 two more teams were added Springfield, IL (Sallies) and Chicago, IL (Colleens). Sadly those teams would only last 1 year in the league. They would be kept around as rookie training teams. They would play exhibition games to recruit more talent in the East and South, which would last until 1950. 1948 was also the year that overhand pitching was allowed. A four-team minor league was established in Chicago, the Chicago Girls Baseball League. In 1948 attendance topped 910,000 fans. That would be the league's best attendance year. In 1949 both attendance and revenue started to dip. At the end of the 1950 season, the teams got together and purchased the league from Meyerhoff. This would prove to be the undoing of the league. By taking away centralizing stability, the league suffered in advertising, and teams were left to fend for themselves.
The final years 1951-1954
After the teams took control, they started decentralizing the league. They would still have a commissioner but in name only. Franchises started moving around or folding. The minor league folded, Teams were left to scout for themselves. They had to handle their own publicity and promotion. Then you had the economy coming back from the war, and the Major Leagues could now be seen on television.
All this time, the league kept moving closer to actual baseball with distances and standard regulation baseballs. Without proper direction and valuable training for softball players was lost. With NO other women's amateur baseball leagues to draw from and the lack of advertising and the televising of Major League baseball, all of this sadly worked against women's baseball. In 1950 the Muskegon Lassies moved to Kalamazoo, MI. 1951 the Racine Belles would move to Battle Creek, MI. In 1952 the Peoria Redwings and Kenosha Comets both folded. 1953 the Battle Creek Belles would move to Muskegon and then fold the following season. After 1954 only 5 teams remained; Rockford Peaches, South bend Blue Stockings, Grand Rapids Chicks, Fort Wayne Daisies, and Kalamazoo Lassies. They played in 1955, but it was not listed as an official season.
A women's professional baseball league may have seemed to be ahead of its time. I have seen interviews with former players, and many said it was the time of their lives. They did not consider themselves as a sideshow or a distraction. They considered themselves Professional ballplayers. When asked about today's game, one former player said about relief pitchers, "What these guys can't finish their own game?" Asked about the DH, she said, "If you can't hit for yourself, what are you doing there?"
Should there be another try at women's baseball? Why not have women's basketball, and women's softball is even MORE popular today than in the 1940s. There has been an off and on a Women's fastpitch Pro league. Currently branded as the National Pro Fastpitch. With the numerous sports channels out there, coverage and publicity Could be enhanced. Is a jump to Women's pro baseball that big of a stretch? I don't think so.
Listen to them, tell it.
Here is a link to a video of an interview