Boundary Breakers, Freedom Fighters, Sheroes and Female Firsts
The All-American Girls Baseball League
For the briefest time in the 1940s, women had a “league of their own.” And while it was not intended to be a serious sports league so much as a marketing package, the All-Girls Baseball League stormed the field and made it their own. The league was the brainchild of chewing gum magnate Phillip K. Wrigley, whose empire had afforded him the purchase of the Chicago Cubs. He came up with the concept of putting a bunch of sexy girls out on the field in short skirts and full makeup to entertain a baseball-starved population whose national pastime was put on hold as baseball players turned fighting men.
He was right—the gals did draw crowds, enough to field teams in several mid-sized Midwestern cities. (At the height of its popularity, the league was drawing a million paying customers per 120 game season.) A savvy businessman catering to what he believed were the tastes of baseball fans, Wrigley had strict guidelines for his “girls”—impeccable appearance and maintenance, no short hair, no pants on or off the playing field. Pulchritude and “charm” were absolute requirements for players. Arthur Meyerhoff, chairman of the league, aptly characterized it as: “Baseball, traditionally a man’s game, played by feminine type girls with masculine skill.” For Meyerhoff, “feminine type” was serious business, and he kept a hawkeye on his teams for the slightest sign of lesbianism. He also sent his sandlot- and cornfield-trained players to charm school to keep them on their girlish toes. Although the rules seemed stringent, the players were eager to join these new teams called the Daisies, the Lassies, the Peaches, and the Belles because it was their only chance to play baseball professionally. Pepper Pair put it best in the book she and the other AAGBL players are profiled in, “You have to understand that we’d rather play ball than eat, and where else could we go and get paid $100 a week to play ball?” After the war, men returned home and major league baseball was revived. However the All-Girls league hung on, even spawning the rival National Girl’s Baseball League. With more opportunity for everyone, teams suddenly had to pay more money to their best players in order to hang on to them, and both leagues attracted players from all around the US and Canada.
Penny Marshall’s wonderful film, A League of Their Own, did a credible job portraying the hardship and hilarity of professional women athletes trying to abide by the rules and display feminine “charm” while playing topnotch baseball. Ironically, the television boom of the fifties eroded the audience for the AAGBL as well as many other semi-pro sports. The death blow to the women’s baseball leagues came, however, with the creation of the boys-only Little League. Girls no longer had a way to develop their skills in their youth and were back to sandlots and cornfields, and the AAGBL died in 1954.
“The fans thought we were the best thing that ever came down the pike.”
— Player Mary Pratt
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.