When Women Played Hardball, Susan E. Johnson. Seattle: Seal Press, 1994.
Summary: The story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a professional league of women playing hardball from 1943 to 1954 told through a game-by-game summary of the 1950 championship, stories about the league, and player narratives.
Women playing hardball at a professional level? Unheard of today, but a reality during the post-war years of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. You may remember hearing about this when the movie A League of Their Own came out back in 1992. The movie was a fictionalized account based on the league.
The league was the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which operated for twelve seasons from 1943 to 1954. The league began as a fast pitch softball league for the first few years, then transitioned to a hardball game, pitched overhand and with field dimensions closer to the men’s game. The league was the brainchild of Philip K. Wrigley, of the Chicago Cubs to fill the gap that World War 2 created as men entered the service. At its peak, the league consisted of eight teams in medium sized Midwestern cities. Originally, players were recruited in pools, then assigned to teams to create parity, making for a more competitive league. After 1950, management shifted from league management to team management, a move that contributed to the decline of the league. Altogether, roughly 600 women played on these teams.
One of the teams was the Rockford Peaches, who won a number of championships in the league’s early years under Manager Bill Allington. The author, Susan E. Johnson was ten years old in 1950 and idolized the players, avidly following that year’s championship series. In 1994 she turned those memories, accounts of that series, interviews of the players in later life, and discussion of various aspects of the experience of the women who played in this league.
The book is structured around the seven games of the series against the Fort Wayne Daisies. The Peaches had home field advantage. Each chapter has a game account, a player narrative, and discussion of some aspect of league life.
I would say that the game descriptions actually were the least interesting part of the book, although the series went to seven games. The stories of the players and discussions of league life elaborated a theme of a league where the players “looked like girls and played like men.” In the early years, new players went through charm school, wore skirts in public, could not cut their hair short, and sported uniforms that were one-piece tunic dresses with a skirt above the knees and shorts underneath, which could result in painful “strawberries” on the thighs from sliding into bases. Many of the women grew up as tomboys, playing with brothers and other boys, and in some places, in organized fast-pitch softball leagues. Woman after woman talked about plays they’d pulled off offensively or defensively, plays that reflect a high level of play. Not all were so fortunate, but those who played for Allington and several others, played for managers who really were dedicated to teaching the finer points of the game.
We also learn about life off the field. Chaperones both maintained discipline and were friends to the women. Some of the women were still in their teens when they started playing, and maintaining trust with parents was an important issue. Wrigley made to league worth it to the women. Earnings were between $45 and $85 a week for players, far more than they could earn in most jobs.
When the league ended in 1954 many of the women continued to find ways to compete. A touring team by Allington lasted a few years. Surprisingly, less than half married, unusual at a time when over 90 percent of women married. Some lived singly, some were in lesbian partnerships. Friends kept up with each other, and a newsletter and reunions and exhibition games began in the 1980’s. In 1988 the National Baseball Hall of Fame established an exhibit remembering women in baseball, including a ceremony many of the players attended, and described as one of their proudest moments–a recognition of the high level of competitive play their league had achieved. Then, the 1992 movie made them celebrities, something not altogether welcome for some.
I wish I could have seen these women play. They proved what women were capable of. Some baseball pros said that some could have played with the men and a few had invitations to do so. Sadly, there is no such league today, although this league helped make the case for women in sports. Baseball is a game that can be enjoyed no matter who is playing it. The physics of a curve ball is the same. A good drag bunt is the same no matter who is holding the bat. What it takes to execute a good double play or hit and run play does not vary by gender. In many sports, the level of team play is higher among women than in male leagues where individual superstars may dominate. That is what made this book a delight to read. It not only told the stories of some of the amazing women who made up this league, it celebrated the game–the joy of playing it well, and the joy of or reading of well-played games, no matter the gender of the players. And these women came to play!
[You can read more about The All-American Professional Baseball League at their website, including player search, league and team history, statistics, articles, and reunions]