I don’t know what it is that interests me about the AAGPBL, maybe it’s the fact that as a young boy I was shown the film A League Of Their Own. It was my first introduction to baseball, and definitely my first introduction to the history of the game.
Ever since those early days I have watched the film many times with a passing interest. As you can see by my earlier blog posts I’m a keen spectator of history, but until now I have never thought to look in more detail. Even though I have never looked at the Girls Professional league before I did learn one thing very early, a very frustrated Tom Hanks yelled, "There's no crying! There's no crying in baseball!"
Let's look back to the year 1942, the world was shoulder deep in a global conflict, men were needed. The Americans had joined the war and men from the baseball diamond were being sent to the European battlefields to preserve democracy.
With the lack of male players to play the games the clubs faced crisis, major league ballparks were faced with years of abandonment and this is where the Chicago Cubs connection is established.
Phillip K. Wrigley a chewing gum merchant, the son of William Wrigley Jr. and owner of our beloved Cubs. Phillip K. Wrigley was given the job of finding a solution to this developing problem. Phillip enlisted the help of Ken Sells who was assistant to the Cubs General manager, Ken Sells along with others made the suggestion of a girls baseball league to be established.
In the spring of 1943, the League was formed and trials were held at historic Wrigley field. The official name at the establishment was not the baseball league but a softball league, this was due to underhand pitching, a larger ball and shorter distances from the pitching mound to the plate being forty feet instead of sixty. When the name of the league was changed to baseball the disgruntled media were not impressed so the owners were forced to change the name simply to, All American Girls Professional Ball League.
The Chicago Cubs not only financed and help establish the league, but they also played a prominent role in establishing the rules of the league. Jack Sheehan a scout and past player of the Cubs worked with Ken Sells and Vern Hernlund to establish the set of rules by which the ladies would play by. As the only form of the game for women at the time was softball, Jack Sheehan tried to encompass aspects of both Softball and Baseball into the game.
There were already established female softball teams in urban centres around the United States and Canada with players of a high quality. So it seemed logical to Jack Sheehan that they should keep aspects of the game, they stayed with the twelve inch softball and the underhand pitching but, they decided that they would lengthen the base paths and encompass professional baseball running game, leading off and stealing bases. Softball had ten players but it was decided that they would go with the conventional baseball rules of just nine players.
Jim Hamilton, 30-year veteran player, manager, owner and Chicago Cubs', scout was given the task of finding the players that were to make up the league, he would travel all across the United States trying to find capable women to play the game that would draw the crowds. Phillip K. Wrigley already had scouting networks placed all over the country thanks to his ownership of the Chicago Cubs.
Hundreds of women flocked to regional try outs to try to prove to scouts that they had what it took to play in the first professional girls baseball league. Of the hundreds that tried out for the teams only 280 were invited to Wrigley field for the final tryouts, and of these 280 only sixty made the cut.
Phillip K. Wrigley envisioned making money from the league, he approached other major league owners about the possibility that the women’s league would play in the major league parks while the major league team was away. We must remember that during these years, teams did not just disappear, but most of the big names were fighting in the war. He argues that this would maximise profit and maximise the use of ballparks that by this time were only being used fifty percent.
Despite what seems to me to be a logical suggestion my Mr Wrigley it was not received well by other major league owners so four non-major league cities were approached instead. The cities chosen were Racine and Kenosha Wisconsin, Rockford, Illinois, and South Bend, Indiana, a budget was drawn up and Phillip K. Wrigley agreed to sign up to paying half the budget for each team, with the city of the teams completing the payment on the other half.
There were 4 teams consisting of 15 players to a team, a team manager, a business manager and a female chaperon. On top of this the managers were one of the most important decisions that the owners had, some thought that the league was not enough to bring the crowds, and so high profile managers were thought to be a priceless way to attract crowd attention. .Johnny Gottselig; Bert Niehoff, former Major League player and minor league manager; Josh Billings, former Major League player; and Eddie Stumpf, former Milwaukee Brewers catcher were the first managers selected.
Spring training was scheduled for May 17th, 1943, at Wrigley field, and players were scrutinized much like they are today. Scouts say that a player is assessed based on speed, hitting, hitting for power and range well scouts in 1943, were assessing the girls on similar criteria, the girls were accessed on playing their position, running, catching and sliding as well as obviously hitting.
The girls that were successful were signed to pro contracts and were obliged to not take any other employment during the season, the wages were good and some players earned more than there parents.
Like the film a league of their own it was true that every lady who played in the league had to be just that. A lady. There were moral standards and rules of conduct that every player had to adhere to.
All players after training had to attend evening etiquette classes, at Helena Rubenstein's Beauty Salon. They were taught the right etiquette for every situation and were given a beauty kit and instructions on how to use it.
Mrs Wrigley, Wrigley’s art designer, and Ann Harnett combined to design uniforms for the new league. Ann Harnett would become a model of these uniforms, she would also be the first player to sign a professional contract. The costume was designed in coherence with the hockey and tennis costumes of the time.