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The Real Story Behind “A League of Their Own”

After doing some digging into "A League of Their Own", I was entirely blown away by what these incredible women accomplished in the 1940s and ‘50s.

By Shandi PacePublished 2 years ago 5 min read
Top Story - April 2022

I’ve been intrigued with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) ever since I watched A League of Their Own for the first time a couple of years ago. As the history lover that I am, I decided to do some more digging. I was entirely blown away by what these incredible women accomplished in the 1940s and ‘50s.

The AAGPBL was founded in 1943 by Philip K. Wrigley after many minor league teams had disbanded due to the ongoing war in Europe and Asia. Most young men age 18 or older were being drafted into the armed forces to serve their country. Wrigley had cash to burn from his chewing gum fame and a newfound interest in baseball after inheriting the Chicago Cubs Major League Baseball franchise from his father. To improve his cash flow, Wrigley knew he needed to find something to fill the empty seats.

Wrigley enlisted the help of Ken Sells, the assistant to the Chicago Cubs’ General Manager, to head a board to come up with adequate ideas. The group landed on the concept of a girls’ softball league to play in MLB parks since they were struggling with low attendance from losing too many quality ball players to attract regular crowds during World War II.

In the spring of 1943, the All-American Girls Softball League was formed as a non-profit organization. Wrigley provided financial support, and the league had the backing of a group of businessmen from the Midwest. Halfway through the first season, the league’s name changed to the All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBBL). This change was to differentiate between other softball leagues since the rules in the AAGBBL were the same as in MLB.

At the end of the first season, the league’s name changed again, this time to the All-American Girls Professional Ball League. With a handful of other name changes throughout its history, the women’s league has officially become known as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).

Issues Getting Started

Two major problems needed to be addressed before the AAGPBL could begin: establishing a set of rules and finding the right women to play. Sells, Jack Sheehan, a former player and part-time scout for the Chicago Cubs, and Vern Hernlund, a recreation supervisor for the Chicago Parks Department, worked together to create an original set of rules for the new league.

At the time, the only organized ball league for women in the United States was softball. To make the game more exciting, the organizers incorporated elements from both softball and baseball. The women’s league would still use a 12-inch softball and underhand pitching but extend the length of the softball’s base paths and pitching distance. Men’s base running rules, the number of players on the field and types of equipment were also included.

The other road bump was finding the right women to play for this new league. Jim Hamilton was hired as the Head of Procurement to find and sign women from across North America. Hamilton and his team were responsible for signing players in the United States, many of those from the Chicago Softball League, along with other softball leagues from around the county.

To tackle signing Canadian players, former defenseman from the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks, Johnny Gottselig, was hired. He had several connections across Canada, including Hub Bishop, who was responsible for signing Mary “Bonnie” Baker. Baker was the catcher many believe Geena Davis’ character in A League of Their Own, Dottie Hinson, was based on. Hundreds of women attended tryouts, with 280 invited to the last round of tryouts in the Windy City. Sixty players made the final cut to become the first women to ever play professional baseball.

AAGPBL Team Formation

Originally, Philip Wrigley envisioned filling Major League parks with the women’s league when the men’s teams were on the road. This move would have maximized the park’s revenues, but it wasn’t well-received by other owners. Instead, four non-Major League cities were chosen: Racine and Kenosha, Wisconsin, Rockford, Illinois, and South Bend, Indiana. These cities were ideal since they were close to the league headquarters and within a reasonable distance from one another. Each team consisted of 15 players, a manager, a business manager and a woman chaperone. To generate more public interest, each of the managers chosen played Major League Baseball at one time. Salaries ranged from $45 to $85 a week, which was quite high for many of the younger players.

As the League was entirely female-driven, it was imperative they highlighted the femininity of its players. Helena Rubenstein’s Beauty Salon was contracted to meet with the players after their daily practices so they could attend evening charm school classes. Proper etiquette and personal hygiene, dress code and mannerisms were some of the topics discussed. Each player also received a beauty kit that included instructions on how to use it.

AAGPBL All-Star Game, 1943.

Helen Wrigley, Wrigley’s Art Designer, Otis Shepard and Ann Harnett came together to design unique uniforms that matched the styles of the times. It was imperative that these uniforms still allowed for additional room so the players could freely move around the field. Ann Harnett was the first player to sign a contract with the AAGPBL and became the model for these uniforms. The design was simple: a one-piece flared tunic similar to figure skating and tennis uniforms of that era. They also came with satin shorts, knee-high socks and a baseball hat. Each city had its own designated colour and a decorative patch to round out the design.

Inaugural Season – 1943

On May 30, 1943, the inaugural season of the AAGPBL would begin. The first set of games would see the South Bend Blue Sox play in Rockford against the Rockford Peaches and the Racine Belles take on the Kenosha Comets at home. A total of 108 games were played throughout this season, which lasted from mid-May to the first of September. To determine the League Champion, the top teams competed in a series of playoff games. In 1943, the Kenosha Comets played a five-game series against the Racine Belles for the World Championship. Racine pulled off the win to become the first-ever World Champions of the All-American Girls Baseball League.

The enthusiasm for the women’s league was met very well by fans. With the ongoing war, many Americans were keen to stay close to home to help conserve gasoline and tires. An inexpensive and local form of family entertainment was to visit a ball game. Crowds were always entranced by the high-speed play of the women’s game that rivalled the men’s at the time.

Over the nine years that the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League lasted, it gave 600 women the opportunity to play professional baseball for the first time ever. Between 1943 and 1954, five teams had the chance to become World Champions in a sport they loved: the Racine Belles (2), Milwaukee/Grand Rapids Chicks (3), Rockford Peaches (4), South Bend Blue Sox (2) and Kalamazoo Lassies (1). The AAGPBL was truly an incredible moment, in not only women’s baseball history, but in America’s baseball history.

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About the Creator

Shandi Pace

History lover, music nerd and sports fanatic. | Instagram & Twitter: @shandipace, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/shandipace

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Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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  1. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

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    Shandi PaceWritten by Shandi Pace

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