Before Mia Hamm, Jackie Joyner–Kersee and Billie Jean King, a generation of little girls looked up to another group of female athletes: players in the All–American Girls Professional Baseball League. With the grace of ladies and the grit of fierce competitors, more than 600 women played in the AAGPBL from 1943 to 1954, forever altering the country’s views on women’s ability to play sports at a professional level. With long workouts, a grueling game schedule and skirted uniforms that often left the women bruised and bloody from sliding, these ladies proved they could play just as well as men – and look good while doing it.
With a rich benefactor on board – and without the backing of Major League Baseball – four women’s teams were formed for the inaugural 1943 season, including two in Wisconsin: the Racine Belles and the Kenosha Comets. By the time the final pitch was thrown in 1954, hundreds of women had found fun – and sometimes fame – on 15 teams in the Midwest.
The league also provided the first taste of independence for many women in the post-war era. Kenosha’s Joyce (Hill) Westerman, 86, formed lifelong friends and took her first trip across the Wisconsin border for league tryouts in Chicago in 1945. “That was exciting,” she says, of the train ride from Kenosha to Chicago. “I hadn’t been out of Kenosha except to go up to Green Bay or something. It was a little scary – I was 19.”
It’s been nearly 60 years since the girls took to the diamonds, and for most of that time, few people outside of the league cities and teams knew of the women’s accomplishments. But when the feature film A League of Their Own was released 20 years ago, the former players experienced newfound fame. The movie’s historical-fiction depiction of the league provided a glimpse into the lives of these hard-throwing, home-run-hitting women. And the film’s final historical scene, which pits two sisters on rival teams against each other in the World Series, left people talking – and wondering – about what really went down on the field during the AAGPBL’s 12 years of existence.
A league is born
As American industries lost men to the draft during World War II, baseball was no exception: More than 500 professional ball players enlisted, including players like Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. The minor leagues were even harder hit, with more than 4,000 men leaving to serve their country during the war.
Philip K. Wrigley, the famous chewing gum magnate and owner of the Chicago Cubs, asked Ken Sells, an assistant to the Cubs’ general manager, to look for options to keep baseball alive without the boys. Sells and his committee came up with a novel idea: If they couldn’t get the boys, then why not try the girls? The nonprofit All–American Girls Softball League was formed in the spring of 1943, and Wrigley soon sent scouts throughout the U.S. and Canada to recruit softball players and hold tryouts for the new league. Of the 280 women who were invited to tryouts in Chicago, 60 made the final cut.
Originally, Wrigley wanted games to be played at major league parks when the men’s teams were away. But most major-league team owners didn’t buy into his vision, so in the inaugural season, Wrigley and his colleagues settled for four teams in mid-sized, non-major league cities: the Racine Belles, the Kenosha Comets, the Rockford (Illinois) Peaches and the South Bend (Indiana) Blue Sox.
The game was initially a baseball–softball hybrid, with a 12-inch ball, underhand pitching, shorter base paths than professional baseball (but longer than softball’s) and nine players on the field, compared to softball’s 10. Each season the rules were adjusted, and the game began to more closely resemble baseball with 9-inch balls, longer base paths and overhand pitching by the final season. These adjustments were reflected in the league’s name, which changed to the All–American Girls Professional Ball League at the end of 1943, the All–American Girls Baseball League in 1945 and finally the American Girls Baseball League in 1950. Today, it is collectively known as the All–American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Wisconsin’s two original teams in Racine and Kenosha survived until 1950 and 1951 respectively. The Belles won the league’s inaugural playoff championship in 1943 and added another title in 1946. In 1944, Milwaukee fielded the Chicks, which won the league and playoff championships before moving to Grand Rapids the following year.
Skirts in the dirt
For many players, like Joyce Westerman, the women’s league was their first chance to play on a competitive team. Born on December 29, 1925, in Kenosha, Westerman was introduced to baseball at a young age by her uncle, who lived next door. “Of course I fell in love with it right away,” she says. “I could really hit and I could really hit better than the boys. It used to embarrass me because I knew girls weren’t supposed to be that good.”
When her parents lost their home during the Great Depression, Westerman’s family of nine moved into the country to live in an old home without running water or electricity. She attended a one-room schoolhouse and continued to play ball at recess.
After graduating from high school, Westerman got a job at Kenosha’s Nash Motors, where her father and sister also worked. While working for Nash, Westerman played on the company’s softball team. In 1944, Westerman and another local girl were asked to sub for the injury-plagued Kenosha Comets.
While she had never seen a league game, Westerman had heard of the AAGPBL and was confident she could play. “I thought, oh, they’re probably not that good. I thought I was a pretty good ball player, although we didn’t have any competitive sports in high school or junior high,” she says. But she quickly learned just how talented the women were. “I got up to hit once, and I fouled the ball and I considered myself really lucky. I never saw girls play like that. These girls were from all over the United States, and they played ball all the time. They were on state teams and national [softball] teams, where I had hardly any team experience at all.”
That fall, Westerman officially tried out for the league in Kenosha with about 40 other women. She made it to the next round of tryouts in Racine and then a final tryout and spring training in Chicago. Westerman made the league and was assigned to the Grand Rapids Chicks. She made $55 a week playing for Grand Rapids, compared to her $40-a-week salary at Nash.
Westerman says she got a lot of practice her first year in the league but didn’t get much game time. “I didn’t play very much the first couple of years, because not having much team experience I had to learn a lot. About my third year I started playing more,” she says.
By 1948 the league boasted 10 teams, and more than 910,000 fans turned out to watch the games that year. “The idea that 5,000 fans are up in the stands yelling and hollering for you, that’s a really great feeling,” Westerman says. “I took everything seriously and I wanted to do my best, so I did get nervous. But after the first pitch, you’re OK.”
In addition to adjusting to playing in front of a crowd, Westerman also had to adjust to the league’s interesting uniform choice: a belted, one-piece flared tunic. “When I saw those uniforms I thought, there’s no way I would ever play in those uniforms with those skirts and all that, sliding on your bare legs. We were used to jeans and stuff like that,” she says.
But all players were required to wear the skirts, which were part of Wrigley’s goal to make the women appear feminine and ladylike. “Wrigley was always very conscious of image as a businessman,” says Merrie Fidler, the AAGPBL Players Association secretary and author of The Origins and History of the All–American Girls Professional Baseball League. “He went to pretty strong lengths to make sure that the league was acceptable to his social stratum as well as the rest of the [social strata]. I don’t think he would have been able to get businessmen in the [AAGPBL] league cities to support teams if he hadn’t emphasized the feminine image.”
All teams were supervised by a chaperone, and players were instructed to wear makeup and, during the league’s first two seasons, attend etiquette classes. A newsreel from a spring training exhibition game in 1951 shows Dorothy “Dottie” Schroeder, the only woman to play in the league all 12 seasons, having her hair braided while the announcer says, “Dottie Schroeder is quite confident that her hair won’t get in her eyes.” Another clip in the reel shows Fort Wayne Daisies (and one-time Milwaukee Chicks) player Thelma “Tibby” Eisen sliding into home then sporting a bruise the length of her thigh. “Better a bruise than long pants, hey gals?” the announcer cajoles. Westerman recalls putting on makeup and lipstick before games only to sweat it all off while playing. “They wanted you to look like women but play like men,” she says.
The high expectations on the women as athletes helped the league survive. “Ultimately what made the league successful was the skill of the players,” Fidler says. “The feminine image drew the spectators in to see the game, and once they saw the skill the players displayed, they became fans.”
To encourage competition, the league discouraged fraternizing among teams. But with trading and traveling, friendships were inevitable. “I made a lot of friends in the league,” Westerman says, including fellow Wisconsin native and Racine Belles center fielder Annastasia “Stash” Batikis. The two remain good friends today.
Throughout her eight years in the league, Westerman mostly played catcher, a little outfield and then first base for four teams: Grand Rapids, Peoria, Racine and South Bend (she was loaned to the Fort Wayne Daisies for two weeks in 1946 but broke her nose and a finger during practice before she played any games with them). It was common for players to be traded often, sometimes even mid-season, to keep the league competitive, Westerman says.
Westerman played her last season as a professional ball player in 1952. She finished her career with the South Bend Blue Sox, winning the league championship while batting a career-high .277. Married for two years at that point, she decide it was time to retire. “I thought, I’ve played this long, and my husband was so good about letting me play. I thought, I gotta hang it up, and so I did. I really missed it, though,” she says.
The league had been on a downward slide since the 1950 season, when individual team owners bought out Wrigley’s ad man Arthur Meyerhoff (who took over the league following the 1944 season). In addition to losing Wrigley’s money and national publicity efforts, the AAGPBL faced growing competition in the entertainment field. “After the war there was bowling and movies and all these things that they didn’t have during the war,” Westerman says. “And people had cars and could get around more, so attendance was dropping.” The All–American girls played their last official game on September 5, 1954, when the Kalamazoo Lassies beat the Fort Wayne Daisies to claim the league’s final championship title. The Lassies’ winning pitcher in that game, June Peppas, would also prove to be the league’s link to the future: Peppas helped organize the league’s first reunion in Chicago in 1982.
A movie of their own
After the last pitch was thrown, the women’s legacy remained largely unknown for more than 30 years. “After the league disbanded in 1954, basically the main people who knew about it were the people who lived in the [AAGPBL] league cities and went to the games,” Fidler says. “Outside the league cities it wasn’t very well known.”
The players did what they could to keep the memory alive. In 1982, a group of former league members organized a national reunion in Chicago, which Westerman attended and calls “the biggest thrill of my life.” Five years later, former players united to form the All–American Girls Professional Baseball League Players Association. The group aimed to reach out to every former player and collect the stories, history and memorabilia necessary for preserving the legacy of the league. Ultimately, they hoped to get the attention of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
Their efforts paid off. In 1987, a 27-minute documentary called A League of Their Own was released nationwide. The following year, the Women in Baseball permanent exhibit officially opened at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Then Hollywood came calling.
The feature-length film A League of Their Own was released on July 1, 1992, bringing to light this forgotten piece of women’s history. With a famous director – baseball fan Penny Marshall – and stars like Tom Hanks, Rosie O’Donnell, Geena Davis and Madonna, the movie had widespread commercial appeal. Quotes like “There’s no crying in baseball” and “If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it” became cemented in the American psyche.
The movie included scenes of Westerman and 48 other former league members playing ball at a reunion held in Cooperstown. As for the accuracy of the film, Westerman says overall Hollywood did a good job. But what about that final historical scene, when Dottie’s Rockford Peaches are battling her sister Kit’s Racine Belles for the league championship? Fans of the movie have debated whether or not Dottie dropped the ball on purpose when her sister barrels into her at home plate to score the game-winning run. Was Dottie just letting her sister win so she could finally experience life in the spotlight? Not in a million years, Westerman says: “I don’t care if it was her mother, you wouldn’t have dropped that ball.”
Chelsey Lewis is grateful to trailblazing female athletes, who helped make it possible for her to play sports in high school. This article appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Wisconsin Trails.