The All American Girls Professional Baseball League The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Before we told our daughters that they could be anyone, or anything they wanted to be, we told them that they could only be what was acceptable for women to be, and that they could only do things that were considered “ladylike.” It was at this time, when the nation was frenzied with the business of war, that the women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League decided that they could do and be whatever it was that they chose. These women broke free of the limitations that their family and society had set for them, and publicly broke into what had been an exclusively male sport up until that time. To understand the significance of the league (which will further be referred to as the AAGPBL) you must first have an understanding of the role of women in society at this time. Post World War II, women had a very slight role in anything not concerning domestic issues. Public figures and decision-makers were male, and very few women were involved in anything having to with business or politics.
Women were expected to be ladylike and well mannered at all times. Because of these factors it was rare to find a woman involved in any type of sport, especially those dominated by males. The start of the war era came on the heels of a decade when women had seemingly taken a step backward in social and economic progress. The depression of the 1930’s had devastated the American economy. Women, especially married women, had bore the largest share of the burden.
To help male workers get back on the job, national leaders called for married women in two-income families to give up their jobs. Several states had passed laws barring women from holding state jobs. World War II brought drastic changes to the American woman’s life. The sudden rush to go to war had left the nation with a shortage of “manpower.” In response to this the government launched an ambitious campaign to convince women to join the war effort. Suddenly women were being called from their kitchens to work in the factories, being told that it was their patriotic duty. The famous “Rosie the Riveter” image arose from this movement.
Rosie became a new image for women, being portrayed as strong, tough, and attractive. It was from this very image that the idea for the league was born. The league was the brainchild of Philip K. Wrigley, president of the Wrigley chewing gum company, and owner of the Chicago Cubs National League baseball team. Wrigley was concerned with the future of baseball. The major leagues had already lost more than half of their players to the military. The minor leagues were even harder hit.
By the start of the 1943 season, more than 3,000 minor leaguers had joined the service or the war effort. Only nine of the nations 26 minor leagues had enough men left to play. Aside from this reason, there was concern over the continuation of baseball by several public figures, including President Roosevelt. It was thought that because of the long hours and demanding work of the war effort that it was important for the American people to have a way to blow off steam. In the fall of 1942, Wrigley assigned a three-man team from the Cubs organization to look into developing a professional baseball league for women.
His theory was that if Rosie the Riveter could keep wartime factories going, maybe Rosie the Right Fielder could do the same for baseball. After receiving positive feedback for the idea of a women’s baseball league, Wrigley dispatched thirty of his baseball scouts to search the U.S. and Canada for top women ball players. When looking for players, scouts were instructed to look not only at ability and talent, but also for women with “high moral standing,” and femininity. Initial tryouts were held in a dozen major cities.
In May 1943 some 280 of them were invited to Wrigley Field in Chicago for the final selection process. In Chicago officials looked on as players were put through a series of tests and in the end 64 women were chosen to be the first members of the AAGPBL. At the start of the league there were notable differences in rules and regulations of the game in relation to men’s baseball. The circumference of the ball went from 12 inches in 1943 to 9-9 1/4 inches in 1954, which equals that of a major league baseball. Also over the course of the league the length of the base paths and the pitching distance increased by 20 feet each, leaving both a matter of inches in difference of men’s baseball.
Regulation pitching style began underhanded and progressed to overhand and sidearm, also the same as the major leagues. Another major difference was in the appearance of the players. It was thought by Wrigley and his staff to be very important that the appearance and behavior of the players project femininity, and that every player display ladylike conduct. In their efforts to control this, there were several guidelines and rules set forth by the league. As a means to design a more “feminine” uniform a committee designed a one-piece dress with a three-quarter length flared skirt and satin briefs underneath. These uniforms were praised as “dainty, pastel frocks,” but the players found them less than practical.
Pitchers had to pin their skirts down to avoid hitting them when they took their windmill windups, and base runners collected huge assortments of bruises and “strawberries” from sliding with bare legs. The women were also directed to be poised and “feminine” at all times. To assist players with this, strict rules of conduct were set, and team chaperones were on hand to enforce them with a watchful eye. Each girl attended regular classes at charm school, that is of course, after days filled with the business of spring training. Upon entering the league each girl was issued a handbook full of tips on beauty routines, physical fitness, clothing, and etiquette to keep on hand for quick reference.
Some players resented the fact that the emphasis on social behavior often took the spotlight away from their athletic ability. It inadvertently encouraged already skeptical sportswriters to publish throngs of sarcastic reports about “powder puff baseball” and the “carefully coiffured cuties” who played it. The league began with four teams: The Kenosha Comets, The Racine Belles, The Rockford Peaches, and The South Bend Blue Sox. At its height the league included twelve teams from different areas within the Midwest region. At the end of its twelve-year existence there were five teams active. The public’s initial response was one of skepticism, however, with it came curiosity.
The public viewed the league as a sort of novelty act. The curiosity drew people to the ball fields to see for themselves, and upon doing so the talent of the girls hooked the crowds. As the popularity of the game grew publicity became more widespread. People all over the country were reading about the “Belles of the Ball Game” and marveling at this Midwestern phenomenon. Even after the end of the war in 1945 the league’s success continued to grow. It was thought by most that the success would continue. However, the return of the men from war had also brought the return of major league baseball in full force.
Public interest in the league began to decrease, and eventually led to its fold. Aside from this there were several contributing factors in the downfall of the league. First, the individual owners did not have the financial resources to do things essential to keeping the teams afloat. Also, the recruitment of playing talent was slacking and there was no one to replace the veterans when they retired. Finally, Cutbacks in operational costs and continued cuts in publicity were further contributors to the failure of the league. After the dissipation of the league the girls took several different paths.
Some continued to play in amateur softball leagues, and even opted to take up other sports. Some married and raised families, while others went back to school. Money they had acquired from playing baseball often financed the changes in their lives. Many found it hard to return to fulfilling the ideal of the dependent, household wife and chose careers instead. Many of the players channeled their energy into “women’s jobs” such as teaching, secretarial work, factory work etc.
But the league also produced at least two medical doctors, three police officers, four military officers, five professional athletes in other sports, one mechanical engineer, and several business entrepreneurs. A major accomplishment of the women of the league was their success in getting a permanent “Women in Baseball” exhibit in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The exhibit includes a lifetime roster of players, and a variety of scrapbooks, letters, photographs, and other memorabilia. The women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League were truly ahead of their time. Their experiences in the league created women who were comfortable with the world and their place in it.
Suddenly they spoke with a newfound confidence. They carried themselves as if they were used to being treated with respect. The league had given the women the chance to test their physical and emotional limits, and in the process expand them. That set them apart from the women of their day. Many of them resisted the supporting role of wife and helpmate.
Those who married took an active part in providing for their families. Those who didn’t struck out on their own. Playing in the league gave these women the chance to get out of poverty, and out of the working class. The experience of being professional athletes gave many players the confidence to strive for better lives. The self-assurance that the women developed playing ball liberated them both socially and economically, while also liberating some of their fans by their example.
These women laid the groundwork for future women’s sports and professional women’s teams. They displayed an independence unheard of at that time, and they served as role models to their fans. For all of these reasons the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was a significant part of women’s history. Bibliography |Works Cited Browne, Lois. Girls of Summer. Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 1992.
Fincher, Jack. “Belles of the Ball Game.” Smithsonian. 20 (July, 1989):88-97. Gregorich, Barbara. Women at Play. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993.
Johnson, Susan E. When Women Played Hardball. Seattle: Seal Press, 1994. Macy, Sue. A Whole New Ball Game. New York: Henry Holt and Company Inc., 1993.
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