I will always remember the first time I sat down and watched A League of Their Own. It was a rainy summer day in 1998, I was six years old and my mom was trying her best to keep me entertained. And thanks to a movie that would remain one of my favorites into adulthood, I was fully entertained for at least two hours. While I could go on and tell you embarrassing stories of how six year old Chelsea was convinced she would be the next Dottie Henson, I’d rather spend this time telling you about the real story that inspired A League of Their Own.
As World War II broke out, baseball took a hot seat on the back burner. By 1942, most men, eighteen and older were being drafted into the armed services to fight for their country. Due to this, many feared the sport would collapse without the talent who kept fans coming to the ballpark, night after night. Without the professionals to play the game, how would baseball survive? The answer was plain and simple.
Phillip Wrigley, the chewing gum mogul searched for a solution. Wrigley asked Ken Sells, the assistant to the Chicago Cubs’ GM at the time, to form a committee and come up with a plan to keep the sport alive. The recommendation: establish a women’s softball league. Attract crowds, make money, and keep the spirit of baseball alive in a time when war left the world feeling a bit glum.
The All-American Girls Softball League began in the spring of 1943 as a non-profit organization. The board of trustees included Phillip Wrigley of the Chicago Cubs, Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Paul V. Harvey of the Chicago Cubs. Ken Sells, the man with the golden plan, would be named President of the League. The name of the league would be changed four times, officially recognized as what we all know it as, All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Four cities were chosen: Racine, Kenosha, Rockford, and South Bend. Each team consisted of fifteen players, a manager, a business manager, and a female chaperone. The first managers for the four teams were notable sports figures Johnny Gottselig of the Chicago Black Hawks, Bert Niehoff who played for the Cincinnati Reds (1913 – 1915), Philadelphia Phillies (1915 – 1917), St. Louis Cardinals (1918), and New York Giants (1918), Josh Billings who played for Cleveland Naps (1913 – 1918) and St. Louis Browns (1919 – 1923), and Eddie Stumpf who played for the Milwaukee Brewers and Columbus Senators (1916 – 1919). The idea was to have these notable figures as managers to spark more interest from the public.
Spring training began in 1943 at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. Each player would be evaluated on fielding at their position, throwing, catching, running, sliding, and hitting. The women who survived spring training were paid with professional contracts – some of these women were only fifteen years old at the time. Salaries often ranged from $45 to $85 a week. Each of the women selected were required to attend charm school held by Helena Rubenstein. They were taught proper etiquette, mannerisms, personal hygiene, and how to dress. The goal was to make each player as physically attractive as possible. No smoking, no drinking, and always wear lipstick, ladies! After all, in their minds, feminine professional athletes would sell more money.
The league would start play in the spring of 1943. South Bend would play against Rockford and Kenosha would play against Racine. Over the first season, a total of 108 would be played from May to September. At the end of the season, Kenosha would play Racine for the championship – Racine would take the win and become the first World Champions of the All-American Girls Baseball League. Racine would win the championship one more time in 1946 before moving to Michigan at the end of the 1950 season.
By 1944, Wrigley would lose interest in the league, realizing that baseball would survive the war. After the season, he would sell the league to his advertising executive, Arthur Meyerhoff. Sells would also resign. Under these changes, there would be a shift from the original vision of what the league would and could be. Meyerhoff began promoting in 1945 to ensure the league would have a future if or when the war ended. With many of the players having husbands and family members in the armed services, they began supporting the war effort more publicly. By the end of the 1945 season, attendance had reached approximately 450,313 up from the 176,612 in 1943. Things were looking up for the AAGPBL.
Over time, the league would undergo even more changes and things would take a turn. By the end of 1950, teams decided to purchase the league and run independently – unfortunately, this would cause the league to breakdown. By 1952, there would only be six teams remaining and by 1954, the season would end with five teams. The end was near and by this time, nothing could keep it going. Attendance was down and the finances just weren’t there. After 1955, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League would be just another notch in the history of sports.
Most forgot about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League until 1980, when June Peppas, a former pitcher, decided to get in touch with fellow teammates and opponents. The first reunion would be in Chicago, 1982. It wouldn’t be until 1986 when they would form the AAGPBL Players Association. Which you can apply for a membership here! (And personally, I really do hope they sung the song during the reunion like in A League of Their Own. )
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League will forever be a unique and iconic moment in the history of baseball. The women who never gave up with hard work and dedication despite living in the shadow of the talented men, heckling fans, and all other odds. Women in Baseball should never be forgotten.