A league of their own

When 90-year-old Helen Wyatt sits in the stands at Beyer Stadium, she is more than just a casual observer. When she cheers on the hometown Rockford Starfires, her connection with the team goes beyond that of any normal fan. Her very presence in the stands serves as a source of inspiration to the Starfires – women who play baseball on ground many of them consider sacred. After all, it was on this field that Wyatt and dozens of other women – the Rockford Peaches – played baseball as part of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), perhaps known best as “A League of Their Own.”

To Wyatt, memories flood back every time she sees the stadium as she recalls when she was on that field 70 years ago as Helen “Sis” Waddell, a member of the Rockford Peaches, the AAGPBL’s most dominant team and featured in the 1992 Penny Marshall-produced film about women’s professional baseball in the 1940s and 1950s. They are all good memories.

“It was a lot of fun,” she recalls. “We had great crowds – maybe 5,000 or so a night. I felt so lucky to be a part of it and they paid me about $75 a week. So many great times and great memories.”

The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League

“The league was a good morale boost in the middle of a tough time,” explains Laura Furman, curator of collections and education at Rockford’s Midway Village Museum. “The league was started in the middle of World War II to fill the gap when many of the men who played major and minor league baseball had been drafted.”

The brainchild of chewing gum magnate and Chicago Cubs owner Phillip Wrigley, the league started in 1943 with teams in four midwestern cities: Rockford; South Bend, Ind.; Kenosha, Wis. and Racine, Wis. Eventually, 10 cities had teams playing in the AAGPBL, which lasted through the 1954 season.

“Wrigley’s idea initially was to keep ballparks up and running. He just did it with the untapped resource of women and I think he was surprised to find some incredible athletes,” explains Anika Orrock, author of “The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League,” who researched and interviewed many of the women who played in the league.

The original goal of the league was to establish teams near large concentrations of potential fans who would be looking for entertainment.

“In the Midwest, you would have a guaranteed audience,” explains Frank Boring, a documentary filmmaker at Colorado State University. While on staff at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, Boring produced “A Team of Their Own: The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League,” a 2015 documentary. “People would get out of work at the factory, and there was no television and few could afford a radio. Everybody knew what baseball was and so they would go to these local games and gradually it just grew.”

Initially there was skepticism about women playing baseball, but using scouts and other connections around the country, Wrigley and league officials held try-outs to find the best female athletes.

“At first, talk was always about the players’ appearance; there was never really any talk about their playing abilities,” Orrock says. “It was treated like a novelty. Some of the players have even been quoted as saying, ‘They came to see the legs, but they stayed because we played damn good baseball.’ I love that because it is true.”

Left to right: Helen Nelson, Millie Warwidk, unknown, Betty Mozinski, Irene Rundki.

One story which Boring shares – while cautioning that he has not been able to verify its truthfulness – is that a pitcher in the AAGPBL actually struck out Babe Ruth in an exhibition game.

Furman adds, “These women were fabulous athletes. They were doing everything the men were doing and then some. By the time the league ended in 1954, they were playing a game that really was almost identical to what you would see in the major leagues, and they were out there doing it all in skirts.”

Skirts were part of a rather unique baseball uniform which included short sleeve dresses and makeup.

“When you first looked at the uniform, you’d say, ‘Oh, geez, I have to play in a skirt,’ but you know they were really comfortable,” recalls Shirley Burkovich, who is now 87 and lives in Cathedral City, Calif. “They were nice because they were one piece and you didn’t have to worry about your blouse coming out. The only problem was sliding because you were exposed from the hip down to the knee and when we slid on those dirty and rocky infields, we got a lot of strawberries (painful thigh bruises). You couldn’t even give one a chance to heal before you got another one.”

Players also were expected to be “ladies.” Women’s baseball historian Debra Shattuck Burton, an associate professor of history and leadership at John Witherspoon College in Rapid City, S.D., says in the early years of the league, spring training also included a “charm school” component for the players.

“Every team did have a chaperone and the girls were expected to always appear in public wearing makeup and dresses. They were not allowed to wear pants in public,” she says.

It didn’t matter to the players. They were glad to do whatever was asked of them.

“I enjoyed every minute of being in the league,” Burkovich says. “I never had any complaints. If they told me I had to ride the bus overnight and play a doubleheader the next day, I was good with it. I was just glad to be a part of it and to do something that I loved.”

Burkovich, who played in the league as a teenager during the AAGPBL’s final three seasons including one with the Peaches, was like most of the women in that she was thrilled to be playing baseball professionally.

“Oh my gosh, can you imagine it? Here I was at 16 years old and playing with all these other girls. It’s the first time I ever played with girls,” she says, recalling how she had grown up playing baseball with boys in backyards and empty lots, never thinking a thing of it. “Now to be playing with other girls and to have a uniform and a coach. It was fantastic,” she says.

Another former Peach, Sue Parsons Zipay, shares similar feelings and a similar background.

“I grew up with four brothers, and from the time I was able to walk, I was athletically inclined,” she recalls. “Baseball became a sport that I was involved in from age 5.”

Like many of the other players, Zipay tried softball in school, but it wasn’t the same. When the opportunity to play baseball with other women came along, it was a magical experience.

“I thought it must be a dream or something,” she says.

Burkovich adds, “It was the best time of my life. It’s something I’ll always remember. I was so interested in baseball and just to have that opportunity at that time back then when there was nothing for girls. We had the opportunity to be a part of baseball. It was great.”

A league of their own

As the war came to an end, times were changing across the country. Major League Baseball was in full swing again. Thanks to new roads and modern cars, Americans were venturing farther from home, and when they did stay at home, many were turning their attention to entertainment now coming to them – television.

“Unfortunately, this led to the league losing momentum and lower attendance,” Midway Village Museum’s Furman says.

Following the close of the 1954 season, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League ceased operations and many people forgot all about it and the women who played that national pastime.

“Most of us didn’t talk about playing,” Burkovich says. “Because when we did and said, ‘I played professional baseball,’ people would say, ‘Oh, it was softball.’ They just didn’t know.”

There were a few efforts to keep history and memories of the league alive. Shattuck says she first learned of the league through a public television documentary. Television actress turned movie-producer Penny Marshall also saw the documentary. It piqued her interest.

“She began talking to many of us girls and said she was interested in turning our story into a movie,” Burkovich recalls.

Marshall’s 1992 film, “A League of Their Own,” starred Tom Hanks, Geena Davis and Madonna. While former players and historians remind viewers that much of what happened on the big screen was fictionalized, the film is mostly accurate.

The film also turned AAGPBL alumnae into celebrities.

“Before that, nobody knew about our league unless you lived in one of the cities with a team,” Burkovich, who makes an appearance in the film, says. “But boy, when the movie came out, I tell you what, everybody wanted to know about us.”

As Parsons says, “The only people that knew about me playing before was my family and it wasn’t a big deal. When the film came out and it was like, ‘Oh my gosh. Everybody was interested and that’s the way it has been ever since.”

“There’s no crying in baseball!”

While many of the former players of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League say the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own,” is fairly accurate, the team’s manager says the film’s iconic line – “There’s no crying in baseball!” – is not completely truthful.

“Oh, yes, there were tears,” says former Rockford Peach Shirley Burkovich. “There were two kinds of tears. There were emotional ones like after a tough loss or when we were all recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame and there were ‘hurt’ tears from pain of hard slides and more.”

Turns out, there is crying in baseball.

The film has become iconic.

“I guarantee you if you turn on cable TV right now and flip through the channels you’re going to find it,” explains Kat Williams, professor of women’s sport history at Marshall University and president of the International Women’s Baseball Center. “I mean it is on everywhere. When softball teams and baseball teams are traveling, odds are they are showing it on the bus.”

“A League of Their Own” is still the highest grossing baseball movie of all time, ranking ahead of classic films including “Field of Dreams,” “Bull Durham” and “The Natural.” Many consider the film a national treasure. As such, it was added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 2012.

“‘A League of Their Own’ met many criteria of the National Film Registry and drew our attention given its direction by a woman, the fascinating history of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and its deft examination of the changing roles of women during World War II and the early post-war era,” explains Steve Leggett, coordinator of the National Film Preservation Board with the Library of Congress.

The impact and popularity of the film has never waned.

“As much as there was a flurry of interest when the movie came out almost 30 years ago, we still get calls from school kids every single year doing history projects about the league and its players, requesting information from the museum,” Furman says, adding that the Midway Village Museum has an extensive collection of Rockford Peaches artifacts and an on-going exhibit about the team.

A living piece of Rockford history

The Rockford Peaches were arguably the best team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

“The Peaches were the stand-out team,” Williams explains. “They won more league championships than any other team, winning in 1945, 1948, 1949 and 1950. They had some of the best players in the league. I guess you could compare them to the New York Yankees or Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine of the 1970s.”

Williams continues, “The Peaches were successful because Rockford made them successful. Rockford at this time was the cradle of baseball.”

The Peaches’ home field, Beyer Stadium, is still in use today, serving as home of the city’s current women’s team the Starfires. Efforts are underway to restore and renovate Beyer Stadium to look much like it did when Waddell, Parsons and Burkovich played there. The location serves as a venue for frequent reunions and events honoring the Peaches.

The original ticket booth is still there,” Williams adds. “The stadium is on the National Register of Historic Places. This is just one of those locations where people can go to touch it and be part of history.”

Because of its stature in the AAGPBL, the International Women’s Baseball Center (IWBC), a not-for-profit organization protecting, preserving and promoting all aspects of women’s baseball, calls Rockford home. The organization hopes to have a full facility located across from the stadium soon, as well as a series of monuments honoring important women in baseball. Penny Marshall was the first to be enshrined.

“They (the IWBC) have done a great job of preserving and telling the story of women in baseball as well as that of the Rockford Peaches,” explains John Groh, president/CEO of the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There’s a great sense of pride that we take in the Rockford Peaches and I think their story and their legacy in our community is well noted and will continue to be celebrated and protected.”

The legacy

The Rockford Peaches and other women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League continue to have an impact on baseball.

“I think that in the case of any athlete – male or female – who has a passion for a particular sport should be given the opportunity to excel at it,” filmmaker Boring says. “They not only proved it at a time when baseball was a man’s sport but proved for all time that they could be as good as the men.”

The IWBC’s Williams puts it this way: “The number of women and girls in the game today has really grown and it is thanks to the women of the AAGPBL. Today’s players stand on the shoulders of those women from the 1940s and ‘50s. Those women who played then will tell you that the best thing about what they did was to set the stage for the other generations coming along.”

Williams’ organization and many of the former players are doing all they can to ensure the legacy of the AAGPBL and the Peaches.

“That’s what we’re striving for now,” former Peach Burkovich says. “We’re out and about promoting girls and women’s baseball. We’re trying to get them a league of their own.”

All black and white photos are courtesy of Midway Village Museum. To view more photos visit midwayvillage.com