The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — immortalized in the 1992 film "A League of Their Own" — debuted 75 years ago.
Published May 29, 2018
Published 3 months ago
On May 30, 1943, the South Bend Blue Sox, Rockford Peaches, Kenosha Comets, and Racine Belles played the first official games in the history of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). The Blue Sox eked out a 1-0 win over the Peaches in Rockford, and the Comets beat the Belles 8-6 in Racine. Over the next 12 years, those four teams became 15, and those two games became thousands, played by hundreds of women whose talents transformed America’s pastime. Though it folded after the 1954 season, the AAGPBL would be immortalized with a popular exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1988, and a beloved film, “A League of Their Own,” in 1992. Here, to mark the league’s 75th anniversary, some pictures from its heyday.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveSTARTING LINEUPThe AAGPBL was initially bankrolled by chewing-gum tycoon and Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley, who'd asked a member of the Cubs organization, Ken Sells, to help him devise ways to prop up professional baseball during World War II, when hundreds of major and minor leaguers — including stars like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Bob Feller — traded their cleats and caps for military fatigues. Sells proposed to launch a women’s league, and with Wrigley’s blessing, he dispatched scouts to canvass softball leagues across the U.S. and Canada and invite the best players to Chicago for a tryout at Wrigley Field. 280 prospects were winnowed down to 60, who formed the league’s first four teams. Sells became its first president. (Pictured: Sells, left, stands with players Helen Nicol, Mary Nesbitt, Doris Back, and Connie Wisniewski, in May 1944.)
Transcendental Graphics/Getty ImagesA LEAGUE OF HER OWNOne of the league’s brightest stars was Dorothy “Dottie” Kamenshek. A heavy-hitting lefty with a career batting average of .292, Kamenshek was also a superb first baseman. She played in 10 of the league’s 12 seasons, and was a seven-time All-Star. (In “A League of Their Own,” the role of Dottie Green, played by Geena Davis, was loosely based on Kamenshek.) Stars like Kamenshek could earn as much as $125 per week (roughly $1800 in today's money). Minimum salaries hovered around $45–55 per week. (Pictured: Kamenshek slides into third in 1946.)Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveTHAT’S NOT EYE BLACKWhile the league created new professional opportunities — indeed, a whole new profession — for its players, it also demanded that they conform to a narrow set of feminine ideals. Players took charm-school classes during spring training and followed a strict code of conduct during the season, on and off the field. Their dress and makeup were tightly regulated: “ALWAYS appear in feminine attire when not actively engaged in practice or playing ball,” the league’s rules began. “Boyish bobs are not permissible”; “Lipstick should always be on”; “Smoking or drinking is not permissible in public places”; “Obscene language will not be allowed at any time.” (Pictured: Elise Harney, a pitcher for the Kenosha Comets, applies makeup while teammate Janice O’Hara observes.)Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images"OUR CHAPERONES ARE NOT TOO SOFT ..."Each team had a chaperone to enforce the league's rules, and to approve any and all “social engagements.” (Pictured: the Racine Belles in 1945; their chaperone stands at the far right.)
Bettmann/Bettmann Archive"OUR MANAGERS ARE ON THE BALL ..."Old pros were often hired as managers. (Pictured: Eddie Stumpf, a former minor-league player and coach and the first manager of the Rockford Peaches, poses with players in 1944.)Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveSPRING TRAININGDottie Kamenshek gets a tip from former major-leaguer Marty McManus at spring training in Peru, Illinois in May 1944.Transcendental Graphics/Getty ImagesBELTIN' BELLEThree-time AAGPBL All-Star Edythe Perlick, pictured here in 1947, was a hard-hitting outfielder for the Racine Belles.
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveWINDING UPFor the first few years of league play, pitchers threw underhand, as in softball. Sidearm and overhand pitching were allowed in 1946 and 1948, respectively. (Pictured: Jean Marlowe of the Chicago Colleens winds up during spring training in April 1948.)Transcendental Graphics/Getty ImagesON THE BASEPATHSThere were a few other slight differences between AAGPBL rules and those of Major League Baseball (MLB): The basepaths were shorter (though they got longer over the years), the pitcher’s mound was closer to home plate (but it was moved back several times), and the ball was larger (it gradually got smaller). By 1954, the AAGPBL's last season, the league's rules were almost identical to MLB's. "[T]o me, baseball was much easier than softball," former Peoria Redwings pitcher Maybelle Blair told Deadspin in 2017. "And I loved every cockeyed minute of it." (Pictured: Marie Mahoney of the Racine Belles safely reaches first in a game against the South Bend Blue Sox on July 26, 1947. At this point, the distance between the bases was 70 feet, as opposed to 90 feet in MLB rules, and the ball was 11 inches in diameter, as opposed to 9.25 inches. You can see the larger ball getting away from the South Bend first baseman above.)Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveSAFE!From the beginning, baserunners could take leads — a practice that’s generally allowed in baseball but not in softball — and stealing quickly became an important and exciting part of the women’s game. Sophie Kurys, who played second base for the Racine Belles, was the AAGPBL’s best base stealer and arguably the best base stealer in the history of professional baseball. In 1946, she stole 201 bases in 203 attempts — the highest single-season total ever posted by a pro — and her career total of 1114 stolen bases (in 9 seasons) has only been topped by Rickey Henderson’s 1406 (in 25 seasons). Hailing from Michigan, the speedy Kurys was nicknamed “the Flint Flash” and “Tina Cobb.” (Pictured: Kurys slides into third in a 1947 game.)
Wallace Kirkland/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty ImagesGRITSliding in a skirt took guts, and skin abrasions from the infield dirt were common. (Pictured: Faye Dancer, aka “All the Way Faye,” the inspiration for the character played by Madonna in “A League of Their Own,” gets bandaged up.)Transcendental Graphics/Getty ImagesPHENOMENAL '48Alice Haylett was practically unhittable in 1948: She went 25-5 with a 0.77 ERA. (Pictured: Haylett in 1948.)Minnesota Historical Society/Corbis via Getty ImagesIN THE CLUBHOUSEFriendships were forged on the field, in the clubhouse, and on long bus rides between the midwestern towns where the teams played. (Pictured: Five Kenosha Comets in their locker room.)
Transcendental Graphics/Getty ImagesFIELDER'S CHOICEBetter-known for her fielding than for her hitting, standout shortstop and third baseman Ernestine "Teeny" Petras wields a bat in this 1949 portrait.Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveFLYING HIGHThe regular season was played in the Midwest, but teams sometimes traveled as far as Florida and Cuba for spring training. (Pictured: Chicago Colleens shortstop Dorothy Harrell at spring training in Opa-Locka, Florida, near Miami, in 1948.)Transcendental Graphics/Getty ImagesPLAYER OF THE YEARAlma Ziegler, a pitcher and middle infielder for the Grand Rapids Chicks, was named Player of the Year in 1950, when she posted a 19-7 record with a 1.38 ERA. (Pictured: Ziegler in 1949.)
Bettmann/Bettmann ArchiveIN A PICKLEThe AAGPBL thrived in the late 1940s, drawing nearly a million paying fans in 1948 — an average of almost 1,500 per game. It never welcomed African-American players, however, even after Jackie Robinson broke MLB’s color line in 1947. In the 1950s, the AAGPBL started to struggle as a result of mismanagement, recession, and, as of 1953, the televising of Major League Baseball. 1954 was the league’s last season. (Pictured: Kenosha Comet Helen Fibraski gets caught between Dorothy Naum and Charlene Pryer of the Muskegon Lassies.)Minnesota Historical Society/Corbis via Getty ImagesHEADING HOMEFor 30 years, the AAGPBL was gone but not forgotten. In the 1980s, a players’ association was formed, reunions were organized, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown mounted its Women in Baseball exhibit. Among the many who visited that exhibit was Penny Marshall, who went on to direct “A League of Their Own” in 1992. 75 years after its founding, the league still serves as an inspiration to organizations like the International Women’s Baseball Center, which is observing the diamond anniversary of the AAGPBL's most famous team, the Peaches, with a four-day celebration in Rockford, Illinois. (Pictured: Shirley Jamison of the Kenosha Comets pulls into third during practice; Ann Harnett, her teammate, covers the bag.)