From 1943 to 1954, “America’s pastime” was a game played in skirts. At its peak in 1948, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) fielded ten teams in midwestern towns like Rockford, Illinois (Peaches); South Bend, Indiana (Blue Sox); Racine, Wisconsin (Belles); Grand Rapids, Michigan (Chicks); and Fort Wayne, Indiana (Daisies)—entertaining a million paying fans. Over time, the bases got longer and the mound higher. The play got better and the League evolved from underhand softball to overhand baseball. During its twelve-year existence, more than 600 woman athletes had the phrase “professional baseball player” attached to their names.
Before describing the League in greater detail, a dusting off of home plate is in order. My mother, Helen Callaghan Candaele, played centerfield for five seasons with the AAGPBL, first with the Minneapolis Millerettes and then with the Fort Wayne Daisies. Yet I didn’t know about her AAGPBL history until I was in my late twenties.
For many years my four brothers and I knew there was something a bit odd about my mother. Once a year our Little League Baseball program in Lompoc, California, put on a “Powder Puff” game, where the mothers took the field to provide comic entertainment for dads who watched from outside the fence. The 5'1" woman who cooked our meals and washed our dirty uniforms year in and year out could throw, swing, and catch not only like a man but like a man who knew how the game should be played—with the physical skills to accompany her baseball sense. Frankly, few men could match her. No one who watched from behind the backstop laughed. Helen Callaghan Candaele was no Powder Puff: sports writers had dubbed her the “feminine Ted Williams” just twenty years earlier.Show Full EssayHide Full Essay
Her five sons, self-absorbed and no doubt dreaming of the big leagues, never bothered to ask the basic question: “Mom, how the hell did you learn to throw and hit like that?” Shy and unwilling to talk about what was in part a painful past, my mother didn’t volunteer her biography. Her rules were clear: there is no whining in life or in baseball, and the past is past. Vivian Kellogg, a Daisy first baseman, summed up the historical disappearing act that was their league: “You see, when I quit and came home, I never said anything to anybody because nobody believed that there was a girls’ baseball team. So rather than be embarrassed by talking of something that it seems no one had ever heard of, I never said anything.”
Not until my brother Kelly began making a documentary about the League in 1987, a film called A League of Their Own (later translated into a feature film starring Tom Hanks and Madonna), did the AAGPBL find its slot in sports history. Until then, the League had a history but no historians. Outside of those who played and watched, the AAGPBL was a non-entity for forty years, with nothing of significance said or written about the women who demonstrated, vigorously and with considerable panache, that they could play ball.
Women had of course played baseball before the 1940s. A team at Vassar College first formed in 1866, and Bloomer Girls teams toured the country from the 1890s through the 1930s. One historian reports that three women played in the professional Negro Leagues: Toni Stone, Mamie Johnson, and Connie Morgan. (The AAGPBL was a lily-white affair.) Yet no women’s league before the AAGPBL had expected professional hardball and decently remunerated its players.
The League was the experiment of Philip Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs. In 1942 he looked at the future of professional baseball and found it bleak. Half the players in the majors were in military uniform, the farm system that groomed new players was decimated, and there was talk that the 1943 season would have to be cancelled. Who would watch professional baseball without Joe DiMaggio in Yankee pinstripes?
Wrigley approached Dodger owner Branch Ricky, and after making sure the women’s league would stay in the Midwest to be watched over from Chicago, the four-month opening season was secured for the summer of 1943.
But who would fill the fifteen spots for each team? And how would a women’s league be presented to a populace who Wrigley and friends felt might accept Rosie in the factory, but not Shirley at shortstop?
The solution combined paternalism, an appeal to civic duty during wartime, and a contradictory sexism that both mirrored the times and hinted at a more liberated future, summarized nicely in the management mantra: League members would “look like ladies and play like men.” Women could play to win, but not under conditions of their own choosing. Looking like ladies meant playing in tunic-like uniforms with short skirts. Sliding into second base with spikes high and bare thighs, well, that’s the very moment when contradictions in League ideology revealed themselves with a brutal clarity.
These contradictions revealed themselves further in the selection and training process. Wrigley sent scouts to the softball leagues across the United States and Canada, seeking women with appropriate skills, demeanor, and looks, then brought them to camps for lessons in baseball and comportment. If the new left fielder’s baseball chops were in order yet she hadn’t found time to learn the finer points of drinking tea with an outstretched pinky, off to the Helena Rubenstein Charm School she went. If successful, she brought in eighty dollars a week (a lot of money for working women in 1943).
Complete with books balanced on the head while walking and fully enunciating “bounce the ball” as if in imitation of William F. Buckley Jr., charm school curriculum offered plenty of advice, head to toe. About teeth? Brush them. On using the mouth? Don’t talk too loud. About “A Woman’s Crowning Glory,” her hair? “Keep your hair as neat as possible, on or off the field.” Wrigley failed to see that he was dealing with professional ball players, not women who would be primping their curls in the middle of a double play. The charm school was chucked after the first few seasons.
And lest the ladies begin to act like their male counterparts who—decades before steroids and generalized decadence—could still behave like bands of Visigoths, League players were kept under strict observation and guidelines, with team chaperones attempting to enforce traditional gender roles. No smoking, no drinking, and “avoid pests and autograph hounds” (i.e., men) “gracefully . . . without hurting their feelings.”
The women played six days a week, with a doubleheader on Saturdays, exhibition games at army camps, and paid visits to veterans’ hospitals. Competing teams shaped a “V” for “Victory” down the first and third baselines prior to each game. With these appeals to civic patriotism, combined with a shortage of gas and the democratization of television a decade away, the Daisies, Belles, Peaches, and Chicks drew hundreds of thousands of fans out to watch stellar baseball.
Soon enough, the League outgrew the hybrid of baseball and softball, and inched closer to regulation hardball. The pitcher’s mound moved from forty to sixty feet from home plate, distance between bases grew, and the ball got smaller each year. As play became more ambitious, so did owners’ dreams for the League. Postseason play included tours to Cuba and South America, where film footage shows a polite but lively bunch of women enjoying El Malecon beaches in Havana.
However, the AAGPBL was unsustainable in postwar/Cold War America, and folded up the tent in 1954. Management miscalculations and the increasingly transient nature of American society were to blame. Another angle on the League’s demise is what Elaine Tyler May calls the “family fever” of the 1950s. Arising amidst the dangers, both real and manufactured, of the world outside our borders, a vigorous domestic ideology nudged and sometimes pushed women in the direction of domesticity and suburban isolation.
As a result, no one seemed to remember the League’s amazing twelve-year ride for over thirty years after its conclusion. As one former player put it, “In 1954, when the league ended, it fell off the face of the earth.” In my own family, my mother just “didn’t want to talk about it.” In today’s celebrity besotted culture, the “glory days” are all people want to talk about, even if the glory is nothing more than having been thrown off the island.
The women of the AAGPBL did not consciously set out to break taboos or overturn the worst stereotypes of gender difference. Nor were they part of a movement against the sexism and repression of women in almost every sector of American life during the ’40s and ’50s. For these ball-playing women, making good money and playing the game provided ample rewards.
But with hindsight and historical recovery, we can now see the contours of their achievement. As one historian of the League describes its pioneers, “they were not behind the scene, they were the scene.” And in the long revolution for women’s equality that stretches from the first Woman’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls in 1848 to the present, the AAGPBL finds its rightful place. Today, as I watch my three daughters choose whether to play volleyball, baseball, and/or soccer, or to pick up the cello bow in place of the bat, my mother and the women of the AAGPBL are present, responsible for the freer ground upon which today’s girls walk, run, swing, and play.
Kerry Candaele, whose mother played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, is a writer, musician, and filmmaker. His books include Bound for Glory: From the Great Migration to the Harlem Renaissance, 1910–1930 (1996) and Journeys with Beethoven: The Ninth, and Beyond (2012).
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