What do Belles, Peaches, Chicks, and Lassies all have in common? They are all team names from the first women’s professional baseball league, active in the 1940s and 50s in the United States. This Sunday the DiMenna Children’s History Museum continues its summer family film series with A League of Their Own, where you can see a fictionalized account of these players and their lives playing in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. And just like the real movies – and baseball games – we’ll have popcorn for everyone!
World War II had started, and due to the concern that the men’s professional leagues might be suspended, baseball owners had to figure out how to keep the game in the public’s eye during the war. Philip Wrigley (of Wrigley bubble gum and Wrigley Field in Chicago fame) soon started the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which drew hundreds of young women from across the United States to play. Jane Stoll remembers travelling on a train for the first time, from Pennsylvania to Chicago. “I had never ridden on a train,” she says “I sat up all night in a Pullman car because I didn’t understand how that seat was gonna be my bed.”
As Ernie Capadino, the baseball scout in A League of Their Own asks a girl who hesitates on the train platform “Are you coming? See, how it works is, the train moves, not the station!”
The women played a hybrid of softball and hardball baseball, and the rules would often change year to year to make the game more challenging for the players. There were sold out games, fan appreciation nights, and team rivalries, just like today. The final game of the 1946 Championship Series between the Rockford Peaches and Racine Belles was a nail biter, with terrific hitting, pitching, stealing, and managing. Sophie Kurys scored the winning run, after making her way around the bases with a combination of stolen bases and running. Her season record for stolen bases was 201! For comparison, in today’s professional baseball leagues, a prolific base-stealer reaches just over 100 per season.
The characters in A League of Their Own are all composites, pulling from the many players and managers who populated the league. As one reporter covering an AAGPBL reunion put it, everyone raised their hands when asked “who was the inspiration for the movie’s Dottie Hinson?” The real 1946 Rockford Peaches included players such as Dorothy “Dottie” Green, Olive “Ollie” Little, Margaret “Mobile” Holgerson, and Ruby “Rebel” Heafner. Olive would get jars of olives brought to her by fans; Ruby was a star catcher; and Manager Bill Allington was famous for giving his players pop quizzes on the rules and history of baseball.
What A League of Their Own captures so well is the experience of the women, from the athleticism to the “charm” training. The women took classes on how to speak, walk, apply makeup, and conduct themselves, all provided by Helene Rubenstein. The uniform was a dress, and Philip Wrigley was adamant that there was a focus on femininity. For the players, this could sometimes prove challenging. As Lavonne (Pepper) Paire Davis put it, “It wasn’t easy to walk around in high heels with a book on your head when you had a charley horse.”
Watch the film and be inspired to dig back in this league, whose brief existence toppled so many barriers for women in sports and professional leagues. There were many other barriers, this league did not address – for instance, there were no African American players – and the league itself was short lived. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League ended in 1954 due to a looming recession, a reduced publicity budget, changes in how players were distributed throughout the league, and changes in the roles women played in their families after the war. Some of the players continued to tour with exposition-style games, but by the end of the 1950s the all-women games had all but stopped.
And after the movie, head to the DiMenna Children’s History Museum to meet Esteban Bellán, the first Latino player in the professional leagues. Find Esteban in his Haymakers Nine team card!
You can also put together your own historical Dream Team of male players and pit them against the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Nellie Fox, and Ray Dandridge are a few of the players from the 1950s – choose them and other contemporary players and test their stats against Brooklyn’s finest team!
Learn more about historical baseball! Join our July 24th Reading Into History book club when we discuss The Brooklyn Nine and meet vintage baseball league player Erik Miklich.
Quotes from AAGPBL players are from Jack Fincher’s July 1989 Smithsonian article “The ‘Belles of the Game’ were a hit with their fans”, pages 88-97.