When Women Ruled Baseball
During World War II, America's most popular sport went to the girls. From 1943 to 1954, women played baseball in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). By 1954, a total of 10 teams were formed with close to 1 million fans watching them play. Some of these teams survived the entire 11-year period while others only lasted one or two seasons.
The Reason Women Stepped Up to the Plate
When the United States entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, just about every young, able-bodied man either joined or was drafted into the armed forces. Many joined because they thought it was the patriotic thing to do. Young men left by the thousands each week to fight overseas. To give an idea on the numbers, there were roughly 139,000 men in the US Army prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. By 1945, that number had grown to over 10 million.
With so many men gone, women eventually had to fill the jobs in offices and factories. They built planes, tanks, and supplies for the military. At the same time, sports such as football and baseball took a hit because of the lack of men available to play. Half of all major league baseball players had joined the war effort. Women started stepping up to the plate to keep baseball alive.
The Start of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League
It was difficult for women to play on professional sports teams in the 1940s. The opportunities weren’t there and men working in sports did not take them seriously. They got their break when President Franklin Roosevelt mentioned the idea of women playing baseball to some of Philip Wrigley’s colleagues. He told them, "Baseball is important for Americans, especially now. Times are tough, and we need something to cheer about.” Philip Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs and the Wrigley Company, turned that idea into reality by starting a women's baseball league. His idea was to keep baseball in the eye of the public by having women play in major league ballparks.
Wrigley started the league as the All-American Girls Softball League in the spring of 1943. More than 250 women met at Wrigley Field that May to try out for 60 spots on the four teams in the league. The women did not wear pants like in traditional uniforms. Instead, they wore a one-piece flared skirt uniform with long baseball stockings and a baseball cap. Mr. Wrigley wanted them to look like ladies but play like gentlemen. The name of the league was later changed to All-American Girls Baseball League and was changed again in 1950 to All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
The Rules Were Different From Softball
Most of the women who joined the AAGPBL were originally recruited from softball teams. There were differences in the rules between the two sports and the rules eventually changed from softball to baseball from 1943 to 1954. The ball size went from 12 inches down to nine inches during the period. The length between bases went from 65 feet to 85 feet in that same period. The pitching distance increased from 40 feet to 60 feet and the pitching style changed from underhand to overhand as well. All these changes were made to give the game a more professional appearance, especially for serious fans.
When the league was first formed, many ballpark owners did not want the women to play in their parks despite the fact that they were only used half of the time due to low attendance. Wrigley decided to have the women play in four non-major league parks close to the league headquarters in Chicago. Racine and Kenosha in Wisconsin were chosen, as well as Rockford, Illinois and South Bend, Indiana.
Each team had 15 players, a manager who was usually a former major league player, a business manager, and a chaperone since some of these players were as young as 15. The women on the teams were not allowed to have any other job when they joined the league. They were paid as much as $85 a week. That was a pretty good salary back in the 1940s, especially for women.
Acting Like Ladies, Playing Like Gentlemen
These women had to act like ladies. Wrigley made sure these girls did exactly that once they joined the league. He enrolled all of them in charm school to learn manners, proper etiquette, personal hygiene, and how to follow the dress code. They were also taught how to use a beauty kit to make themselves more attractive. This was one method used to attract men into watching women play baseball. Wrigley was a smart man. The first year of the league turned out to be a successful one due to a respectable attendance of more than 176,000 fans across 108 games. Attendance reached more than 450,000 in 1945 after the war ended and reached a peak of 910,000 fans in 1948 with 10 teams in the league. The popularity continued into 1954 when it became difficult to find talented players to fill the teams. In the end, the league gave 600 women the opportunity to play professional baseball at the same level as the men did between 1943 and 1954. They got to thrill the fans during the war and afterwards.
Originally, there were four teams in the league. That number grew to 10 when the AAGPBL folded in 1954. The names of the teams were colorful and feminine in nature. The initial four teams were the Kenosha Comets, Racine Belles, Rockford Peaches, and South Bend Blue Sox. Racine won the first championship in 1943. The names of the additional teams, with some name changes in some cases, were the Milwaukee Chicks, Minneapolis Millerettes, Fort Wayne Daisies, Grand Rapids Chicks, Peoria Redwings, Muskegon Lassies, Chicago Colleens, Springfield Sallies, and Kalamazoo Lassies.
A Little About Some of the Players
There were many outstanding players in the league. I will mention only four of them here.
- Dorothy “Dottie” Schroeder played shortstop on several teams and was the youngest player at 15. She was the most popular of all the players and was the only player to compete for all 12 seasons. She holds the all-time record for the most games played (1,249) and the most at-bats (4,129 times).
- Doris “Sammye” Sams was a tall player who stood at 5'9". She played as an outfielder and was a right-handed pitcher. She was voted as Player of the Year in 1947 and again in 1949. She was also selected for the All-Star game to play in two positions as a pitcher and outfielder. Sammye is the only player in the league to accomplish this feat.
- Hele Earlene “Beans” Risinger was a 6'1", right-handed pitcher from Oklahoma. She had the ability to deliver an overhand fastball called a nickel curve. With her pitching ability, the Grand Rapids Chicks won the championship in 1953. The trophy is on display today at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. She was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame in 1973 in Johnson County, Oklahoma.
- Jean Faut, who played for the South Bend Blue Sox, was considered to be one of the best players in the AAGPBL. She earned many accolades during her career as a pitcher. She led the league with the best ERA in 1950, 1952, and 1953. She pitched 12 shutout games in 1949 and was selected to the All-Star team four times in 1949, 1950, 1951, and 1953. Jean was voted as Player of the Year in 1951 and 1953. She earned a lifetime ERA of 1.23 with a win-loss record of 140-64.
Women played a crucial role during WWII for the United States. They kept morale high and kept the economy from hitting rock bottom by filling in jobs. They also kept America's pastime alive in the eyes of the fans until the boys came back home.
© 2011 Melvin Porter