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Women's Baseball during World War II


Springfield Sallies
While the young men fought on the battlefield, young women took their place on the ball fields.
Pictured here are members of the Springfield Sallies, one of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League teams.

Adam Peterik
Geneva Community High School, Geneva

America was in the middle of World War II. Baseball was at risk because, as citizens saw generously paid athletes "swatting balls while their loved ones were dying on foreign shores," interest declined and criticism went up, wrote historian Lois Browne. She also concluded that "war and baseball fished in the same stream. Both demanded the young and vigorous." Could baseball survive when all of its players were needed in combat?

Pearl Harbor had been attacked on December 7, 1941, and tensions grew. Americans everywhere prepared for shortages in food, clothing, gas, and many other daily items. "Citizens wondered if there would be enough to eat when soldiers needed food, or if there would be a way to travel when army tanks needed gasoline," wrote one historian.

During all this chaos Philip K. Wrigley wondered about baseball. Wrigley was the owner of the Chicago Cubs and a chewing gum factory. What would happen to him when guns were needed more than gum, and his players were needed for war? Many men and women worried. Everyone worked to help in the war effort. Wrigley pitched in, too. He directed his gum-tree tappers to tap rubber trees for the war. He stopped wrapping his gum in foil and sent free gum to the soldiers.

Baseball was a bigger challenge. The president of the professional league wanted it to end because he thought that interest was gone and the league would lose money, but President Roosevelt convinced him otherwise. Roosevelt fought unemployment during the Depression by creating jobs. Now the war brought new jobs. Working men left to serve just when factories needed them for war production. Many of the workers who replaced them were women. During the war, women were building tanks, airplanes, trucks, and ships.

Wrigley believed these women could help more by playing baseball. Wrigley believed that baseball's survival depended on women during the war. "By 1942, when Wrigley was forming his professional women's league, the sight of a woman wearing pants was no longer offensive, as it had been. . . . But women who competed were still frowned upon," claimed historian Diane Helmer. Wrigley

52 ILLINOIS HISTORY / APRIL 1995


wanted women playing hardball instead of softball. But, could women play hardball? Since softball was popular and available to women, Wrigley and his advisors invented a mix of the two. Underhand pitches of a 12-inch ball and 65-foot base path stayed the same, but runners were allowed to steal a base and lead off.

Overall, the game was similar to the baseball game played in the 1800s. The girls were to wear skirts to look like ladies and were to play exhibition games for soldiers at training camps, and visit military hospitals. They were to sell war bonds and teach young children to play baseball. Additionally, Wrigley paid them well. He invested $100,000 of his own money to start the league, with $22,500 going to each of four first-year teams. The $10,000 left was used to run the league office in Chicago. As a result of the travel restrictions the cities had to be close to each other. Thus, four cities were chosen: South Bend, Indiana; Kenosha and Racine, Wisconsin; and Rockford, Illinois.
Illinois soldiers prepared for war, even as they marched in Springfield's annual Armistice Day parade, marking the end of World War 1.
Armistice Day Parade
During the war, families were given just three gallons of gas a week and the government allowed extra gas for people car-pooling to work. In 1943 cars could travel forty miles on three gallons of gas. Wrigley's plan was coming together; all Wrigley needed now were players.

Wrigley's recruiters tried to find women in high schools, village churches, organized sports, and industrial leagues in the U.S. and Canada. The most promising place was the Girls Athletic Association (GAA). Here were found many talented players and coaches. These players tried out for the first time from May 17 to May 26, 1943. At last, on May 26 the team rosters were announced and play began the next summer after spring training.

Home cities of the teams supported their team and got involved. Some even provided a home for these girls. During the war, many sacrifices were made and life was not fun. Men and women who stayed home waited by the mail box for a letter to arrive confirming their loved ones were still alive. Baseball had become a big part of the war effort because it kept people interested in daily activities. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) provided a means of escape from war worries and concerns. Of course, the girls never forgot about the troops. For example, in their pre-game, they would line up in a "V" formation for victory in a show of support for the troops overseas.

Then, in 1945 when the war finally ended, things changed for the worse. By 1948 the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League had reached its high point, and pitchers adopted overhand motions. The players who could not or would not throw overhand quit the league. New teams in Chicago (Colleens) and Springfield (Sallies) were formed but each failed by the end of 1948. Recruiting procedures declined greatly and so did attendance. As a result of post-war layoffs, unemployment rose and women could not find jobs in the winter. The league tried to expand, but, as a result of players having to leave and the lack of new players arriving, expansion failed. Many teams went into debt, and from 1949 to 1951 the league dwindled to nothing.

Men's baseball, though, went on. Merrie Fidler, one of the players, organized information on the girls league and said, "I didn't realize at the time I was being a pioneer. I was just doing my thesis." The players she met were also pioneers who had not considered themselves as such; they had just been playing the game they loved. As another woman said, "We were just kids then, and all we wanted to do was play baseball."—[From Lois Browne, Girls of Summer; Baseball (Videocassette, Ken Burns Production); Barbara Gregorich, Women at Play; Diana Helmer, Belles of the Ballpark; Susan Johnson, When Women Played Hardball; Michael Kiefer, "Hardball," Women's Sports and Fitness (Ap. 1992); Sue Macy, A Whole New Ball Game; Andrew Tilin, "A League of Their Own," Women's Sports and Fitness (Dec. 1991); David Quentin Voigt, American Baseball.]

Merrie Fidler, who wrote the master’ s thesis, “The Development and Decline of the All-American Girls Baseball League, 1943-1954," did not play in the All American Girls Baseball League but was, she says, “raised as a devoted baseball fan.” In 1976, in pursuit of a master’s degree in sport history, she organized information on the girls’ league, saying, “I didn’t realize at the time that my thesis research would have any far reaching effects. I was just captivated with the professional quality of the league and the extent of the publicity attendant to it." She offers the following comments:

* Except for pitching style and shorter base paths and pitching distance (40 feet), the rules of the All-American Girls game paralleled those of men's major league baseball.

*The Girls Athletic Association (GAA) was a school-based competition for girls and women that was opposed to “athletics for the few,” to girls and women having men coaches, and to the professionalizing of girls’ and women’s sports. P.K. Wrigley's scouts did not recruit from the GAA, but rather were most successful in finding qualified players in urban amateur and semi-professional softball leagues.

*The All-American Girls Baseball League was not renamed the All-American Girls Professional League until the 1980s.

* Many teams went into debt, and from 1951–1954 spectator interest in the league declined. The league did not resume operations after the 1954 season.

ILLINOIS HISTORY / APRIL 1995 53


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