As the United States became involved in World War II, professional baseball had a bit of a problem. As star players enlisted with the armed forces, and as wartime rationing cut into Americans' leisure time, both major- and minor-league baseball clubs were not performing well. Many minor-league teams went out of business (they had a double-whammy, as their best players were promoted to the major-league level), and some major-league teams were in danger of doing the same. Simply stated, clubs needed more revenue.

In the fall of 1942, as these financial difficulties were becoming apparent, Chicago Cubs general manager Ken Sells had a neat idea. Baseball teams spend half their time on the road; if he could find another tenant to split the use of his Wrigley Field, he'd make a lot more money.

And who would play for these new teams? Doesn't take a genius to figure that out; after all, who was working in factories now?

Maybe You Got Next, but We Had Then: The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League

Getting started

Before the players even took the field, the league had plenty of name recognition. Among the AAGPBL's original board of trustees were Sells; Chicago Cubs owner Phillip K. Wrigley; and Branch Rickey, owner and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. This was not a seat-of-their-pants startup. Comparing it to the two American women's basketball leagues that originated in the 1990s, the AAGPBL was much more like the NBA-funded WNBA than the renegade (and quickly defunct) ABL.

The first order of business was finding players and devising a rule book. The only organized baseball-like game for women in the U.S. was softball, so the 1943 version of the AAGPBL (at first named the All-American Girls Base Ball Leage) was really just a variant of softball. The ball was 12 inches in circumference, like a softball, and pitching was underhand. However, the distances between bases was increased, and runners were allowed to take leads. Also, only nine fielders played at a time, instead of the normal 10 in women's softball at the time.

To find players, scouts looked all over the United States and Canada. Players who were thought to have potential were brought to regional tryouts, and the 280 best players from those sessions came to Wrigley Field in Chicago for a final weeding-out session. Just 60 made the final cut, enough for four teams of 15 players each. Players were paid well — between $45 to $85 a week.

The original teams were:

Other than the 15 players and the field manager, teams also consisted of a business manager and a female chaperone. Yes, a chaperone ...

Don't forget the skin astringent!

It was no secret that players were expected to look pretty and be wholesome. Wrigley made sure that the owner of a beauty salon met with players during spring training, and players received beauty kits and were required to attend evening classes after practices. Here's some highlights from the Charm School Guide:

  • "After the Game"
    1. Shower well and soap the skin.
    2. Dry thoroughly to avoid chapping or chafing.
    3. Apply cleansing cream to face — remove with tissue.
    4. Wash face with soap and water.
    5. Apply skin astringent.
    6. Apply rouge moderately but carefully.
    7. Apply lipstick with moderate taste.
    8. Apply eye make-up if considered desirable.
    9. Apply powder.
    10. Check all cuts, abrasions or minor injuries.
  • SPEECH. "You know she is a lady as soon as she opens her mouth." The first requirement for charm of speech is a pleasing voice. A low voice, instead of a high-pitched voice, is always most pleasing. Making yourself heard is also most desirable. Speak out clearly and enunciate properly. Be careful with the use of slang and the slurring of words in your contacts and conversations with the public. (Underlined as in original)
  • HAIR (...) One of the most noticeable attributes of a girl is her hair, woman's crowning glory. No matter the features, the clothes, the inner charm or personality — they can all suffer beneath a sloppy or stringy coiffure.

And so on. Other rules forbade players from wearing shorts or slacks in public, from not wearing lipstick, and from changing one's place of residence without notifying the chaperone.

Not that the chaperone was always successful ...

In 1948 we had ten cities in the league, and I had a boyfriend in every one of them. The boys used to wait for us after the game. We called them "Clubhouse Clydes" or "Locker Room Lennys." They'd line up outside after a game, and you'd manage to slip them a phone number. We had a chaperone, but there was only one of her and 15 of us.
— former player Lavone "Pepper" Paire Davis

One more thing: Just as in the 1992 movie, "A League of Their Own," the players' game uniforms featured skirts that ended just above the knee. I can't imagine sliding in those things.

Look who's got an audience!

Outside observers weren't optimistic about this new league — Girls? Playing baseball? — but it was a strong success in its first year. The 1943 season drew 176,612 fans, more than 1,000 per game. Wartime rationing contributed to the league's success, as people were forced to spend leisure time close to home. Also, the league was gung-ho for the war effort, with teams playing exhibition games to support the Red Cross and Armed Forces and would often visit veterans' hospitals.

This led to quick expansion of the AAGPBL with new teams in Minneapolis (the Milleretes) and Milwaukee (the Chicks). Moreover, big-name managers entered the league, Hall of Famers like Dave Bancroft, Max Carey and Jimmie Foxx. The Chicks and the Milleretes moved to new cities within a year — it was hard to get media coverage in big cities — but the league was a success.

That didn't mean Wrigley was interested in it. The war was ending soon, and men's Major League Baseball was not in great danger of going under. He sold the AAGPBL to advertising executive Arthur Meyerhoff, and Sells resigned as league president. Under Meyerhoff, the Chicks moved to Grand Rapids, Mich., and the Milleretes went to Fort Wayne, Ind. Moreover, he discontinued the charm school and gradually changed the rules so that the game was more similar to baseball than to softball. Attendance didn't suffer; it went up to 450,313 in 1945.

After the war

In the first few years after the war, things couldn't be better in the AAGPBL. In 1947, spring training was held in Havana; average crowds at AAGPBL games were two to three thousand; and attendance peaked in 1948 with 910,000 fans.

But then attendance started to slip. Possible reasons were the decentralization of the league — host cities took over the teams in 1951, which led to squabbling — and the rise of televised baseball in the 1950s, which helped kill off many men's minor-league teams. By 1954, there were only five teams left in the league: Fort Wayne, Ind.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; South Bend; Grand Rapids; and Rockford.

Still, it is hard to call the league anything but a success. Look at it this way — about 600 women got the chance to play professional baseball more than 20 years before the NCAA would recognize women's sports and 50 years before the WNBA. In 1997, 43 years after the league closed, 120 former players turned up for a league reunion in Myrtle Beach, about a quarter of the surviving players. Baseball must have been awfully important to them.

Season-by-season batting average leaders
1943 - Gladys "Terrie" Davis (.332)
1944 - Betsy Jochum (.296)
1945 - Mary Crews (.319)
1946 - Dorothy Kamenshek (.316)
1947 - Dorothy Kamenshek (.306)
1948 - Audrey Wagner (.312)
1949 - Jean Faut (.291)
1950 - Betty Foss (.346)
1951 - Betty Foss (.368)
1952 - Joanne Weaver (.344)
1953 - Joanne Weaver (.346)
1954 - Joanne Weaver (.429)

Career RBI leaders
Dorothy "Dot" Schroeder (431)
Inez Voyce (422)
Eleanor Callow (407)
Elizabeth "Lib" Mahon (400)
La Vonne "Pepper" Paire (400)
Edythe "Edie" Perlick (392)
Doris Satterfield (366)
Rose Gacioch (352)
Jo Lenard (351)
Eleanor Dapkus (316)
Jane "Jeep" Stoll (312)
Betty Weaver (312)
Dorothy "Snooky" Harrell (306)
Wilma Briggs (301)

Source: Mainly, http://www.aagpbl.org/ — an excellent web site. Also, http://baseballguru.com/bbfl.html has some interesting articles.

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