When the United States entered World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt made it clear that he believed Major League Baseball should continue. But as thousands of minor league players and more than 500 major league players, including Joe DiMaggio, left their teams to serve in the military, Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley expressed concern over the future of the game. To ensure that baseball (and the income it made from it) would continue, the gum mogul founded what became the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1943.
Just as women working in factories were meant to be temporary, Wrigley viewed the Women’s League as another temporary wartime measure. But rather than decline, league attendance increased after the war, peaking in 1948 when more than 900,000 fans attended that season’s games. By that time, the league had grown from four teams to ten. He continued until 1954, playing a total of 12 seasons featuring over 500 players during his run.
Form a full league
Before World War II, many women played softball and baseball both recreationally and in tournaments, but there was no professional league comparable to the MLB. The sport was particularly popular in Arizona and California, and Wrigley may have come up with the idea of starting the league after seeing games there.
“He had a second home on Catalina Island in California and he noticed how enraged the fans were for women’s fastball softball,” said Carol Sheldon, All-American board member. Girls Professional Baseball League Players Association which has been inducted. at the Michigan USSSA Hall of Fame in 1995 and at the National Women’s Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003.
To find players for a women’s league, Wrigley sent scouts across the United States, Canada and Cuba. A total of 60 women were selected for the first 1943 season and were split between four teams: the South Bend Blue Sox, based in Indiana; the Rockford Peaches, based in Illinois; and the Kenosha Comets and the Racine Belles, both based in Wisconsin. Some of the early star players were Betsy “Sockum” Jochum, a pitcher for the Blue Sox, and Olive Little, who pitched the league’s first hitting player for the Peaches in 1943.
“The competition was extremely strong,” said Jean Faut, pitcher for the South Bend Blue Sox between 1946 and 1953 and the only league member to pitch two perfect games. “We had big league managers and they knew what they were talking about, and some of them are in the baseball hall of fame. So I enjoyed every minute.
Female uniforms meant slipping pants off
The women of the All-American League were professional athletes who set records and attracted crowds, but the standards of appearance and behavior were very different from those of the men in the MLB. All-American players were supposed to look “feminine” on and off the field. They couldn’t wear their hair too short, wear pants in public, or go to bars on the road. And all the teams had a female chaperone who traveled with them and was supposed to accompany the players on any date.
Philip Wrigley’s wife, Helen Blanche Atwater Wrigley, played a big role in shaping the image of women. She sent them to glamor school and came up with the idea for the above-knee dresses they wore as uniforms (the dresses have gotten shorter over the years). Without pants to protect their legs, players were constantly developing “burrs,” meaning marks and bruises, from sliding into the base.
This was not the only reason the uniform was difficult to wear. The fact that the dress was one piece instead of two meant that “every time you raised your arms, your whole uniform would fly off,” Lois Youngen explains. , who played in the league between 1951 and 1954 for the Kenosha Comets, Fort Wayne Daisies and South Bend Blue Sox, and was the receiver in one of Jean Faut’s perfect games.
The uniform belt, intended to emphasize the player’s waist, was also restrictive. “I was a catcher, so I always loosened my belt, and that was the only way I had enough room to lift my arms and throw to second base,” she said.
Still, Youngen says that “if you had to ask women, they would tell you that they would still rather play baseball in that uniform than eat.” That’s basically what the late Lavonne “Pepper” Pair, a catcher who played for several All-American teams starting in 1944, said when reflecting on her time in the league. According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, she added, “We put our hearts and souls in the league. We thought it was our job to do our best, because we were the All-American girls. We felt we were maintaining the morale of our country.
Playing ball after WWII
All-American teams were popular in the cities they represented and, in their first season, they drew more than 170,000 participants. Seeing its success, a few prominent Chicago men started the rival National Girls Baseball League in 1944. But by then, Philip Wrigley was no longer worried about the future of men’s baseball and was losing interest in the women’s league. At the end of that year’s season, he sold the league to its Chicago publicity manager, Arthur Meyerhoff. Under Meyerhoff’s leadership, the league expanded its number of teams in the league and increased publicity.
One way the league didn’t evolve was racial integration. When Wrigley started the league in 1943, he followed the MLB policy of not hiring black players. Yet after Jackie Robinson became the first black female player to join MLB in 1947, the Women’s League continued to exclude black women.
The late pitcher Granny “Peanut” Johnson said that when she tried to try for the league in the early 1950s, it turned her down because she was black. Banned from the women’s league, Johnson followed in the footsteps of Toni Stone, the first woman to join the black men’s leagues. Johnson became the second woman to play in these leagues, and one of only three women to do so (the third was Connie Morgan).
The All-American league ended in 1954, the same year as the National Girls Baseball League. Although the All-American League’s public memory faded over the following decades, it received renewed attention when the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum opened a permanent exhibit about it in 1988; and again in 1992, with the debut of the fictional film A league apart.
When asked about her time in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, Jean Faut echoed what many former players have said over and over again: “These years in the league have been the best years of my life.”