Review: When Women Played Hardball

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]

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Penguins

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Stambaugh Stadium, Youngstown State. Photo by Jack Pearce [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr

The athletic teams at Youngstown State are the only collegiate team in the country whose nickname and mascots are Penguins. It’s an odd name for a team from Youngstown. Another area team’s name, The Scrappers, fits. But Penguins? Wherever did this come from?

It turns out that there are two versions of the story, both coming from the same basketball game in 1933–yes, the name goes that far back. Before then, Youngstown College, as it was then known, was called “Y College,” “YoCo,” “Wye Collegians,” or simply
“The Locals.” On the snowy evening of January 30, 1933, the YSU basketball team drove to West Liberty State Teachers College in West Virginia for a game, pulling their cars out of snow drifts on two occasions.

One version of the story has players coming up with the name in one of the cars during the trip. This had been a topic of conversation throughout that school year.

The more popular one, that I always heard, was that when the team arrived, to warm up they were stomping their feet and waving their arms, either in windmills to warm up for the game or just flapping their arms around. Whatever the case (and accounts differ here) the opposing team coach remarked that they “looked like a bunch of penguins.”

When the players returned, the student body unanimously accepted the name. It was announced formally in The Jambar in the December 15, 1933 issue before the first basketball game of the season against Slippery Rock.

There have been three live “Pete the Penguins” during the history of Youngstown. The first was brought back from Antarctica in 1939 and died in 1941, pursuing fish under the ice at Crandall Park pond. A second Pete, along with Patricia, his mate, were purchased shortly after, but died in 1942 of tuberculosis. The last Pete was acquired in 1968 and died in 1972–my freshman year, an event that seemed insignificant amid concerns about the Vietnam war and the re-election of Richard Nixon, and the pathetic football teams of that era under Dike Beede.

910 Airmen celebrate AF 60th b-day at YSU home opener

Pete and Penny Penguin, modified from a U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Bob Barko Jr.

The first student mascot, later revealed to be Vic Rubenstein, was chosen in 1964. His costume was a penguin head and a tuxedo he rented himself each weekend from Rondinelli Tuxedos. Rubenstein, who was a managing editor of The Jambar, only revealed his identity after the last game of 1965. Eventually there was the costume we know today. Then, in 1986 Pete was joined by Penny, who were married in a ceremony. Most mascots are bachelors (think Brutus Buckeye) so in this respect Youngstown State is also quite unique.

In 2004 penguin statues were decorated by local artist and placed around the Youngstown community and on campus. One was decorated to look like John Young, another to commemorate Ohio presidents. A number can be seen in locations in downtown Youngstown, at Southern Park Mall, and a number around campus, including one at University Plaza, greeting visitors to the university.

Youngstown State Penguin Statue

Penguin Statue at University Plaza. Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

I think most students of my era just thought it kind of odd. We would probably have laughed and mocked the idea of “fighting Penguins.” The change came in the Jim Tressel era of championship football teams where logos, and sports memorabilia and mascots became a much bigger thing. Now Pete and Penny are beloved symbols and “fighting Pete” adorns a gift we received, a set of Wendell August Forge coasters, and matching sweatshirts. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few “Penguins” around your house as well. As we say when we root for our Youngstown teams, Go Guins!

Sources:

Archives & Special Collections: History of YSU

Pete and Penny Penguin Mascots, YSU Sports

Premier Penguin, The Jambar, October 21, 2013.

Marah Morrison, The Story and Significance of Penguin StatuesThe Jambar, January 11, 2018.

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Review: Ultimate Cleveland Indians Time Machine Book

The Ultimate Cleveland

Ultimate Cleveland Indians Time Machine Book, Martin Gitlin. Lanham, MD: Lyons Press, 2019.

Summary: A collection of stories about baseball in Cleveland chronicling the up and down and strange history of the Indians (and their predecessor, the Spiders).

In 2016, my dream World Series happened. I had always wanted to see the Cleveland Indians play the Chicago Cubs. I was convinced that one of these star-crossed teams would have to win. Sadly, it wasn’t the Indians I had rooted for since childhood, even though they pulled out to a 3-1 lead and were on the edge of winning in the seventh game. This has been the life of an Indians fan. Now there is a book that collects all the strange stories of this franchise, a walk down memory lane for many of us, and a way for others to understand the unique pain of being a Tribe fan.

In twenty-seven short, witty, and engaging chapters, Martin Gitlin tells the story of the high and low points of the franchise. We actually begin with the baseball team before the Indians, the Cleveland Spiders. For those of us who suffered the years of 100 loss teams and the race to the bottom, this team was even worse, chalking up a 20-134 season, the worst ever in major league baseball.

There are high points. The amazing pitching of Bob Feller. The Lou Boudreau-led teams including the 1948 World Series champions, the last time the franchise won a World Series. The Indians were the American League pathbreakers in knocking down racial barriers with Larry Doby on the playing field, and Frank Robinson as the first black manager in baseball. In 2017, they had the longest winning streak at 22 games since the New York Giants won 26 in 1916, propelling the Indians to a 100+ win season.

There are the heartbreaks. The meteoric career of Addie Joss that ended when he died of tubercular meningitis in 1911. The rise and fall of Herb Score, hit in the eye with a line drive never to be the same (although he became a consummate announcer of Indians games). The trade of popular Rocky Colavito and the “curse of Colavito” that followed. Thirty years of mediocre teams from the Sixties to through the Eighties. “Sudden Sam” McDowell who never realized his potential due to alcoholism, Tony Horton who broke down under the pressure to excel and had to leave baseball, and one-season wonder Joe Charbonneau. Saddest perhaps were the off-season deaths of Indians Steve Olin and Tim Crews from a freak boating accident in 1993.

And then there is the weird. The Cleveland Crybabies of 1940. Ten-cent beer night in 1974, and the riot that followed. Albert Belle’s corked bat and the shenanigans that surrounded it. The invasion of the midges against the Yankees. The demise of Chief Wahoo, the politically incorrect logo beloved by generations of Indians fans.

All this and more is captured by Gitlin in words and photographs. It brought back memories of seeing many of the players, living through the seasons of hope and disappointment, and yet never in a heavy-hearted fashion. It was a great read on the treadmill, would make a great gift to the Indians fan in your life, or to anyone who loves America’s pastime. And if your team is suffering through a mediocre season, this book will help you say with generations of Indians fans, “there’s always next year.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Tigerland

Tigerland

Tigerland: 1968-1969: A City Divided, A Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of HealingWil Haygood. New York: Knopf, (Forthcoming September 18), 2018.

Summary: The story of the 1968-69 East High School Tigers championship basketball and baseball teams at a black high school in segregated Columbus, Ohio during the tumultuous aftermath of the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’m a Columbus, Ohio transplant, and like many, know little of the city’s history, even sports history, beyond Ohio State football. But I love history, and sports, and so when Wil Haygood’s new book on the legendary East High School Tiger basketball and baseball teams came up for review, I snagged a copy.

Columbus, Ohio in 1968 had a segregated school system. And it was far from equal. Facilities, text books, and sports facilities at black East High School were inferior to other schools. The death of Martin Luther King, Jr. hit the community hard. King had preached regularly at Union Grove Baptist Church. What would happen among the students in the high school that was the centerpiece of that community?

This book tells the story of the leadership of three men at East High School. Jack Gibbs was the black principal of the school, Bob Hart, the white basketball coach, and Paul Pennell, the white baseball coach. All three were marked by a deep concern for their students and players, and their families. Gibbs tirelessly advocated for the school, and even found a way to transport families to the basketball championship against Canton McKinley. Both coaches recognized the raw talent of the black athletes and convinced them they could be champions.

The book also is a narrative of the championship season of each team, divided into Part One for the basketball team, and Part Two for the baseball team. Two of the basketball players, Eddie “the Rat” Ratleff and Bo Pete Lamar were later college All-Americans in the same year and Ratleff played on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. Personal stories of the players mix with game accounts leading up to the state championships for each team (Ratleff played on both). He tells us the story of the subsequent lives of a number of these figures–both good and painful.

Haygood, who has written biographies of Thurgood Marshall, Sammy Davis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and a family memoir on growing up in Columbus, brings his knowledge of the city and the history of race in the U.S. together in this work. He sets the story of the Tigers against backdrop of the racial segregation in the city, including the court ruling by Black judge Robert Duncan, upheld in the Supreme Court desegregating Columbus schools. He narrates a challenged, yet vibrant Black community centered around churches, the schools, and Mt Vernon Avenue businesses. He weaves enough of the national history in–from King to Jackie Robinson to give context.

There is a tendency on the part of some to want to isolate sports from the issues of race in our country. There is also a tendency to focus our discourse on race at a national level and forget that real progress has to find expression in each of our local contexts. Heygood weaves sport and racial history together, as well as the challenges we face as a nation and the possibilities in our local communities. He makes us consider who will be the Jack Gibbs, the Bob Hart, the Paul Pennell of our day.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: The Heritage

the heritage

The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, and the Politics of PatriotismHoward Bryant. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.

Summary: An account of black athletes in professional sports, from the path-breakers whose very presence was political, to the athletes of the ’70’s onward whose success tempted them to just play the game, to the recent clash of patriotism and protest that has led to a new generation of athlete-activists.

When Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest of the numbers of blacks dying in police-involved shooting, his act was the latest of a long line of black athletes whose presence, and whose advocacy asserted that they were far more than mere bodies, employed for the pleasure of largely white audiences and the profit of white team owners. When Kaepernick could not get another position when his contract expired, he joined “the Heritage”–a long line of black athlete activists who could not settle for simply “playing the game” in the face of the injustices faced by his people, and often suffered the consequences from acting as people with voices and minds, and not merely bodies to be employed for sport.

Howard Bryant, a senior writer for ESPN, chronicles this history in The Heritage. He traces the beginnings of the Heritage in the lives of Paul Robeson, Jesse Owens (who went from US Olympic glory in Hitler’s Germany to poverty and bankruptcy), Jackie Robinson who broke the color barrier in baseball, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali who lost three years in the ring for his refusal to be drafted on religious principle, the 1968 raised fist protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Curt Flood, whose refusal to accept a trade led to free agency, but also resulted in his being blackballed from baseball.

Things changed in the 1970’s in what Bryant calls the “greenwashing” of professional athletes. Beginning with stars like O.J. Simpson, who received huge contracts and endorsement deals, a new generation of black athlete came on the scene who “just played the game” and took the money. Perhaps they invested it quietly in causes that uplifted the communities in which they played, or grew up. Bryant focuses on three as representative of this period: Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods, who in an interview described himself as “Cablinasian.”

In sports as so much of American life, everything changed on 9/11. The citizenship rite of the national anthem was replaced by elaborate patriotic displays: singing police officers, fly-overs and veterans salutes, huge flags on the fifty yard lines. First responders and those in the armed services became heroes who were recognized in some form at every game. A kind of undifferentiated hero worship failed to grapple with a more nuanced reality of some real heroes, many decent, hard-working people, and some bad apples–just like in most of society. Bryant also cites evidence that this was staged by the military, rather than being simply an honest, spontaneous gesture of sports team. Teams profited by tax money spent for these displays, which were seen as good recruiting tools. An American public indulged these displays, perhaps guilty over treatment of returning Vietnam vets and the fact that most of us were at the mall while a small percent were fighting our wars in far off places.

Bryant argues that this set up the clash between black athletes protesting injustices in policing, and a wider American public. What began as an effort to call attention to ways a country wasn’t living up to the values represented by the flag clashed with the patriotism displays that had become commonplace in the nearly twenty years since 9/11. Some efforts were effectual. When players at the University of Missouri threatened to refuse to play because of issues of systemic racism, a university president was ousted. LeBron James could wear “I can’t breathe” jerseys with impunity, being at the top of his game and flush with endorsement deals. But a quarterback at the end of his contract was blackballed because he took a knee, a respectful symbol of praying usually reserved for locker rooms or end zones and his action was characterized as unpatriotic and an insult to soldiers. People who wanted Kaepernick to just play the game failed to observe that the game itself had been co-opted for political purposes in an unqualified endorsement of both police and military (and unspoken in all this were the ongoing wars in which the military was engaged).

This is an uncomfortable book perhaps most of all because it raises the issue that black athletes’ value continues to be their bodies, and that while they may be rewarded well when they excel in physical feats, the powers that be will continue the attempt to silence them when they use their voices and minds to speak for those who do not share their fame and expose the ways as a nation we fail to live up to our principles.

It also raises the issue of the ways we’ve changed as a country since 9/11. A simple citizenship rite at the beginning of a game has become wrapped in a celebration of both safety and military forces, and the use of their power to keep a fearful nation safe. Instead of celebrating the shared liberties of an empowered people, we’ve come to celebrate the power of the state. We’ve traded “peanuts and cracker jacks” for “shock and awe.”

I suspect I’ve probably made some people mad simply because I reviewed this book and haven’t done the white thing of pushing back with all that is wrong with it. I guess I’ve come to a place where I want to understand why a talented quarterback chooses to throw it all away by a simple gesture (actually unnoticed for several games) that for the life of me looks like prayer. I find myself wondering why such a humble gesture is so threatening that despite the fact that no law was broken, a combination of media, public opinion and even presidential power was brought to bear to suppress it. I find myself wondering what this gesture threatens. I wonder…

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Tennis Dreams

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Tennis rackets of our youth, Bob Trube, 2018, all rights reserved

I think many of us in Youngstown grew up dreaming of being sports heroes. A pro football running back. A major league pitcher (I did have dreams of becoming the next Sam McDowell at one time).  A boxer. And not a few Youngstowners went on to become those heroes. George Shuba, Dave Dravecky, Ray Mancini, Kelly Pavlick, and Matt Cavanaugh, just to name a few, as well as legendary coaching families like the Stoops or the Pelinis. And I know a number of you could add to the list–it’s a long list!

I wasn’t big enough for football. Couldn’t hit well enough for baseball. But for a while I had dreams of tennis fame. It all started out at the tennis courts at Borts Field. In the beginning I was borrowing a racket and knocking the ball around with some friends, both guys and girls. Borts had two courts. One was concrete. The other was clay. Not groomed clay. Rough clay. Balls would take all kinds of crazy bounces that would keep you on your toes. Sometimes, that’s where you played if the court was occupied.

I had some friends who played on the Chaney tennis team, and in retrospect, I think they used me to train on! I played the most with Tom, who introduced me to the tennis coach, Mr. Wendle. He taught me how to hold a racket, and how to come over a ball on a forehand or backhand stroke to give it spin, which often kept it in the court and made it harder to hit. I played with Tom a lot, either at Rocky Ridge, or at the courts at Volney Rogers park. I always loved those because the trees provided some shade.

The tennis dreams started when I began beating Tom, and some of the other guys on the team. Not all the time, but enough that it made me think I could be good at this game. It was suggested I try out for the team. For a while, I’d read everything I could get my hands on by tennis pros. I’d religiously watch the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, and dream of being Rod Laver or John Newcombe, who seemed to be the big tennis names until Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, and John McEnroe came along. I paid attention to strategy, and when did you lob, or try a drop shot. I worked on my serves and tried for a smoking first serve, a twisting, hard to get to second serve.

All this was back in the days of wood rackets like those in the picture. Some of the pros were just starting to use aluminum alloy rackets. There was still a debate then of which was better and how the ball came off the rackets differently. In the end, the light weight composites won out and our wood rackets became antiques.

Actually, my tennis dreams got relegated to the closet long before the wood rackets. College dreams meant getting a job and working rather than playing on the tennis team. While I had those moments on the court where I surprised myself, the reality is that I was a bit flat-footed and not that quick on my feet. The stars started playing ten years before I did, and were coached by pros for much of that time. Still, I wonder. I came across a Vindicator article about Mr. Wendle and discovered his teams were undefeated in City Series play from 1965 to 1981. I was at Chaney from 1970-72. Maybe I wasn’t that bad. I’ll never know.

For a while, tennis was something I continued to play for fun. When I was dating my wife, she lived across from Ipes Field, and we would go over to their courts and play sometimes. After marriage, with busy work schedules, I played less frequently, and realized that the tennis player I remembered in my head wasn’t the guy on the court. Eventually, the rackets gathered dust in the closet. My wife said she was keeping them for a decoration.

For some reason we’re still keeping them for a decoration. Today, that is the extent of my tennis dreams. Except for the memories of the exciting rally, the impossible shot, or winning a hard fought, back and forth match. Those are the only tennis dreams I have these days.