The Girls Who Played Ball 70 Years Ago


In his book Mama Played Baseball, children’s author David Adler recalls the Big War era of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League – a unique if oft-neglected chapter in the nation’s evolving feminist narrative.

Begun at a most precarious historical moment in time, the AAGPBA was largely the brainchild of Chicago Cubs owner and prolific businessman Phillip K. Wrigley. Wrigley saw in the wartime drawdown of male athletes a sporting and entrepreneurial opportunity: Done right, a women’s baseball league would keep the National Pastime vital, support the war effort and turn a buck doing it.

To Wrigley’s credit, all three goals were achieved. Despite its short eleven-year span (1943-1954) the All-American fielded 550 players and 15 teams; raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Red Cross; staged multiple team visits to Army field hospitals and; managed to turn a profit.

But the League became less and less popular with the postwar refortification of major league rosters. And as it faded from existence it consequently lost much of its rightful significance as a feminist milestone.

The All-American was two decades later resurrected in memory if not reality. The push was on to pass Title IX, the landmark legislation that guaranteed gender parity for women in sports. To that end, the League was invoked alongside pioneers Wilma Rudolph, Althea Gibson and Billie Jean King as proof positive that female athletes could excel given an even playing field.

As a result, the legislative wrangle over and eventual passage of Title IX introduced a new generation of feminists to the AAGPBA, spawning renewed interest.

But with the legislative victory secure, the AAGPBA’s star once again faded. It had served a noble purpose but in return was once more relegated to relic status.

All of that changed in 1992 with the release of actor/director Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own, a fictionalized account of life in the All-American. The film was a commercial success, providing the League with a second revival and enduring place in the country’s sports and feminist awareness.

But while A League of Their Own is here to stay, the athletes who brought it to life are not. For the past two decades fans of the AAGPBA have been lamenting the loss of some of the best of the best.

Take Jo Winter, righty sidearmer who won 33 games in a single season. Dorothy Ferguson, a spray hitter who could play five positions. And a 17-year-old pitching phenom named Jackie Mitchell who in a scrimmage game struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Back to back. Seven pitches.

Sadly in February there came word that two more League icons had passed, Sophie Kurys and Lavonne Paire-David. Kurys was the best base runner this side of Rickey Henderson. At her peak, she led the league in most stolen bases, walks and runs scored. All Lavonne “Pepper” Paire-Davis did was catch and hit her way to five AAGPBA championships in ten years, making her the winningest player in the history of the League.

And as was the case with their male counterparts in the storied Negro Leagues, these women excelled despite off-field ridicule and harassment, including that leveled by owners and managers. With good reason we’ve begun mining the Negro Leagues for athlete-heroes, lauding them for their contributions to the dismantlement of American racism. Even non-fans of the game recognize the talents, courage and legacy of the African American players who endured all manner of bigotry, on-field and off-.

As we mark the 70th anniversary of the AAGPBA, we should do no less for the athletes who helped clear the way not just for a fairer shake but for a better nation.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Eugene, Ore. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2013

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