"Belles of the Ball Game": Women's Professional Baseball League Thrives in the 1940s
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“Belles of the Ball Game”: Women’s Professional Baseball League Thrives in the 1940s

The All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League lasted from 1943 to 1954. During its peak attendance year, the League attracted close to a million fans—three of whom wrote letters, included below, to correct factual misrepresentations about the objects of their affection printed in the following Collier’s article. The League inspired a hit motion picture of 1992 (A League of Their Own) and continues to hold interest for many, as demonstrated by numerous websites featuring leading players. Formed during World War II when major league owners feared that the military draft might lead to suspension of play, the All-American League thrived. In the early 1950s, however, it reproduced a pattern found elsewhere in American society: women encouraged to fill jobs (previously open only to men) during the war years faced restrictions as traditional norms were reestablished. The following look at the League from the perspective of its “harried” male managers, however, offers only minimal insight into the reasons for such high ticket sales and the devotion of fans cheering players who challenged the gender barriers of their day.

Belles of the Ball Game

You’ve got troubles? Listen, have you ever tried to manage a girls 'baseball team? A fellow named Dick Bass was managing the Fort Wayne Daisies last summer. Dick had his Daisies up there in first place in the All-American League, ahead of the Grand Rapids Chicks, the South Bend Blue Sox, the Rockford Peaches, the Racine Belles, the Kenosha Comets, the Peoria Redwings and the Muskegon Lassies, when two of his married regulars became acutely pregnant.

What that practically peerless leader, Leo Durocher of the New York Giants, would have done in Bass’s unprecedented managerial plight is debatable. Dick merely did the best he could. He placed the expectant mothers on the voluntary retired list and became engaged to his second baseman, who fell into a severe batting slump. The Daisies wilted—and Bass was fired just before the play-offs!

Then there was Chet Grant, the ex-Notre Dame backfield coach, who, after completing a two-year sentence as manager of the South Bend club, accepted a one-year contract from Kenosha for 1948. Over the winter, at the request of the league directors, Grant composed the Manual of Girls 'Baseball, a slick booklet which finally was published, somewhat unfortunately, on the same day Grant’s Comets plummeted into sixth place. On page 12 author-manager Grant had penned a hopeful chapter heading: Give The Manager A Chance. But, due to a lamentable typographical error, the heading read: Give The Manager A Change.

Grant got one at the end of the season. “I wrote the book,” Chet said, “and they threw it at me.”

The All-American League is the Little Big Horn of the managerial profession. Twenty-eight managers—17 of them former major-league stars—have resigned or quit since the league was organized six years ago. Obviously, there is not much future in managing a female ball club, but that’s no indictment of the sport. It’s testimonial.

“You’ve got to see those girls play to believe it,” admits a deposed manager. “They slide, steal bases, throw overhand and pitch curves—and the fans love it. That’s why so many of us get fired—every city wants a winner, or else! Talk about crowds—why, some towns draw four times their population every season. If the New York Yankees stirred up that kind of excitement, they’d draw 32,000,000 fans, instead of 2,000,000.”

Smart baseball men launched the All-American experiment. In 1943, Phil K. Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, and Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers 'thrifty genius, put up the cash and advice respectively to develop a stand-by attraction—just in case General Hershey ordered their 4F and superannuated males into war plants.

The All-American League was successful from the first pitch, but when the draft threat died, Wrigley wrote off his investment and civic leaders in the eight cities assumed control of the clubs on a nonprofit basis. All profits are contributed to community recreational programs.

Last season the All-Americans drew 910,000 paid admissions ($.75 grandstand; $1.25 box) over a 126-game schedule. They carried $85-$125 a week, boarded in private homes, and spurned slacks in public—a league rule. On the field they took orders from men. Off the field, they were counseled by women—vigilant team chaperons who know how to discourage bleacher wolves and dugout-door Johnnies.

Commissioner Max Carey, the ex-Pittsburgh outfielder who starred in the 1925 World Series, believes the girls have a major-league feature.

“Big-league ball parks are in use only 75 days or nights during the season,” Max argues. “As we develop more and better girl players, we’ll be able to move in while the home team is traveling and fill those vacant dates—the owners will operate their parks at a profit all summer long.”

Amazingly enough, the girls seem to run and throw as swiftly as men, but that is an optical illusion created by Carey.

“Actually,” Max admits, “girls are slower than men. But by putting our bases 72 feet apart, fixing our pitching distance at 50 feet and using a ball that’s not quite as lively as that big-league jack rabbit, our girls play baseball that looks as fast as a major-league game on a 90-foot diamond.”

Carey’s All-Americans come into baseball from all over the country and from all kinds of jobs. Most of them grew up in large families and learned how to swing a bat playing with their brothers.

When the season closes in September, Carey organizes all-star teams for barnstorming trips through Mexico, Central America, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Obviously, baseball is a great life for women, but it remains a precarious existence for the harried men who have to manage them.

Once Benny Meyer was photographed with his slick Grand Rapids Chicks—18 ballet-skirted, bare-thighed, pretty girls. Several days later, Meyer received a letter from his wife, down home in Arkansas. There was a newspaper clipping of the photograph and, for some reason, Mrs. Meyer had marked Benny with a large X.

Benny wired home: “Dear Ma. It ain’t the femininity that gets me. It’s the skill.”

[Letters to the Editor in Response to this article]:

Love Those Girls!

I was very happy to see the article Belles of the Ball Game (Aug. 13th). I am an ardent fan, so no article could have been more pleasing.

You stated that the girls come from all over the country, but you failed to mention that there are a number of girls from all parts of Canada.

You also stated that the girls have all sorts of jobs. Among them are: a registered nurse, a girl studying for her doctor’s degree, teachers, secretaries, restaurant and candy shop owners, and girls from many other fields. A good many of them are college students.

—Diane D., Muskegon, Mich.

Dancer at the Bat

In Belles of the Ball Game (Aug. 13th) you stated that the girl batting in the picture was Twila Shively. I’m a Peoria Redwing fan and I’m sure the player is Faye Dancer who used to play center field for the Redwings.

—SALLY K., Peoria, Ill.

. . . I think your picture shows Faye Dancer at bat, although you have this shot captioned Twila Shively. We know both players personally and are quite positive you have the wrong name under the picture.

—EDWARD B. H., Grand Rapids, Mich.

Source: Bill Fay, “Belles of the Ball Game,” Collier’s 13 August 1949, 44; “Letters,” 24 September 1949, 6; 1 October 1949, 6.