It came and it went. It burst onto the scene in part due to WWII, and 11 years later faded away into relative obscurity…that is until a Hollywood movie in 1992 helped bring the fading memories back into focus.
That movie, A League of Their Own, was about incredibly athletic women, pioneers in their time, who played professional baseball in the 1940s and ’50s. Here are a few facts most fans don’t know about that time, the league, and the players.
When did the league start up and stop?
The first season of play was 1943, the last in 1954. Nearly 600 women played during the 12-year span of the league. They were recruited from all over the country by professional baseball scouts.
The league was the brainchild of Phillip Wrigley, then owner of the Chicago Cubs. By the end of 1942, WWII had been going on for close to a year and it had affected Minor League and Major League Baseball players who were either enlisting or being drafted. Wrigley was worried that the attendance would suffer for Major League teams, so he gave an assistant the assignment of coming up with an idea to keep fans coming to the ballpark during the war. That assistant, a man named Ken Sells, recommended a girls softball league. Wrigley okayed the idea and sold a few fellow owners and businessmen the idea. He also funded much of the league in the beginning.
Tryouts for the inaugural season were held May 17, 1943, at Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs. The invited players were tested on throwing, catching, hitting and playing at their position. Those who were selected signed professional league contracts.
What was the league named?
It is routinely referred to now as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, or AAGPBL. But in reality, that name was in effect for only a few years.
It was first established by Mr. Wrigley as the AAGSB (All-American Girls Softball League); however, it was changed that very same year (’43) to the All-American Girls Baseball League. It was renamed again to the AAGPBL for the ’49-’50 seasons. In the final three years, the league was called the American Girls Baseball League.
What were the team names and where were they located?
Nearly all the teams were in the Midwest. The very first season of play (1944), there were only four teams; by 1951 there were 11 teams (the most ever) and in 1954 (the last year) there were five. Here’s a list of all the teams that were in the league at various times:
• Battle Creek Belles
• Chicago Colleens
• Fort Wayne Daisies
• Grand Rapid Chicks
• Kalamazoo Lassies
• Kenosha Comets
• Milwaukee Chicks
• Minneapolis Millerettes
• Muskegon Lassies
• Peoria Redwings
• Racine Belles
• Rockford Peaches
• South Bend Blue Sox
• Springfield Sallies
In the movie A League of Their Own, the Racine Belles and the Rockford Peaches were the two featured teams.
Evolving from softball to baseball.
There was a reason the league was referred to as a softball league in the beginning: they weren’t using a hardball or pitching overhand. For the first few years, the teams used a softball, and pitchers threw fast-underhand or used a side-arm delivery. The ball was a regulation softball, the pitcher’s mound was 40 feet from home plate—not 60 feet as in the Majors—and shorter even than a regulation softball diamond. However, they did throw from a pitching mound. And instead of being 90 feet apart, the bases were 65 feet apart, which is just five feet longer than in softball.
Then starting in 1948, the League switched to overhand pitching, and the game resembled regulation baseball more than ever—and the name was changed to the AAGBBL…the All-American Girls Baseball League.
That’s because the ladies quickly and clearly proved adept at playing at the highest level, so the game was modified to meet their impressive skills. By 1948 the ball had become smaller, and pitchers were throwing overhand from a mound that had been pushed back by 10 feet. When the final season came around, the ladies were using a regulation baseball, pitching from a mound 60 feet away, and the bases were close to what they were in the Majors.
So although it never exactly replicated regulation baseball, it evolved in that short span of years and resembled a Major League game on the field in the end. And by all accounts, it was exciting.
There’s an exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame featuring the league.
The special exhibit is called Women in Baseball, so of course the AAGPBL and players are featured prominently, along with other women and organizations that were baseball related. The Women in Baseball exhibit opened in November 1988 and drew a great turnout, including former league players who came from across the country to the event.
There is crying in baseball.
The league had pretty much faded into obscurity until the exhibit opened on that emotional day. The museum’s former chief curator at the time, Ted Spencer, described the setting: “The place was packed and the (former players) were singing the League song all weekend. When the exhibit opened, the ladies were crying and flash bulbs were going off. It was an outpouring of emotion that was never seen before and never since at the Hall of Fame.”
Inspiration for the movie.
One special attendee at the 1988 Women in Baseball unveiling was baseball fan and movie director Penny Marshall. She had seen a documentary about the forgotten league called “A League of Their Own,” by Kelly Candaele. He was the son of Helen Callaghan, one of the league’s best hitters. At the exhibit’s unveiling, Marshall met with and talked to several of the former players and was excited to hear about their experiences and memories. (Kelly Candaele would be a cowriter for the movie’s screenplay.)
Baseball Hall of Fame members Max Carey and home-run-hitting Jimmie Foxx, who played for the Cubs, managed teams in the AAGPBL. It’s widely assumed that Foxx was the inspiration for the Jimmie Dugan character, manager of the Rockford Peaches, played by Tom Hanks. The fictional Dugan had played for the Cubs and hit 58 home runs in 1932. In ’32, the very real Jimmie Foxx hit 58 homers for Philadelphia.
There’s plenty of information online today.
Interest in the league grew tremendously thanks to the Hall of Fame exhibit and the movie. Today you can easily learn more about the players and their impact on women in sports.
There is also an official website for the AAGPBL with information, pictures, interviews and more. You can find it at www.aagpbl.org.