This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
A League of Their Own was the popular 1992 Penny Marshall movie, basically a comedy, based on the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. While the history of the league was portrayed at least somewhat accurately via the film's storyline and a few of the characters came through with at least a semblance of similarity to the real people, one thing that the movie lacked was a recreation of the extraordinary athleticism of those women ball players. There were scenes of their having to go to charm school to learn ladylike posture by walking with books balanced on their heads. They had to sign an agreement never to appear in public without lipstick. And those scenes were authentic. But the power of their bats, their hard-hitting slides into third base, their incredible throws from center field into home were not even hinted at.
This week the women of that famous time were feted at a black-tie dinner in New York, the honorees of Billie Jean King's Women's Sports Foundation. No less than Christiane Amanpour gave them their Lifetime Achievement Award and that was a singular moment unto itself. To have this real-deal war correspondent vividly tell the story of World War II, young male ball players going off to Europe and Philip Wrigley signing on this group of women to fill America's ball parks and lift collective spirits during tough times…Amanpour was spell-binding as she unraveled the story.
The jumbotron screen above the stage accompanied Amanpour's words with the action that evidently made the league successful from 1943 all the way through 1954. At first, the whole concept seemed a novelty act of sorts but Wrigley, who had inherited the Chicago Cubs from his father, and one of his partners in the League, Branch Ricky, who was the then-President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, knew the fans would never sustain a league unless the play and the players were legitimate. Many of the managers were men who had starred in the Major Leagues themselves. They coached 600 women over the course of the League's existence and the bottom line was that it was the high caliber of play that became the draw for the fans and the foundation for the League's success.
The reason so many talented and skilled women were readily on hand to show their stuff in the '40 and ‘50's was that both softball and baseball had deep roots among women athletes since early that century. That was true in Canada and in Cuba as well.
There was a phenom pitcher named Jackie Mitchell, for instance, who signed a contract with the Chattanooga Lookouts back in 1931. She was only 17. The Yankees were playing an exhibition game during spring training that year and Jackie was invited to take the mound against them for a few innings. She struck out first Babe Ruth and then Lou Gehrig and the two famous Yankees were duly impressed by their compliments after the game.
In the 40's and 50's, players such as pitcher Caroline Morris of the Rockford Peaches and catcher Bonnie Baker of the South Bend Blue Sox were national celebrities, appearing on covers and full-page spreads in Life Magazine. The League peaked in attendance during the 1948 season when a total of 910,000 paid fans came out to see the likes of the Kalamazoo Lassies and the Kenosha Comets over the summer.
When six of those yesteryear stars strode out on stage at the dinner on Tuesday night, the standing ovation was thunderous. Many of us cried. There was a picture of each in her hey day right above on the big screen. All lithe and athletic and strong. Soon they'll all be gone so it's both important and moving to tell their history while at least some of them can help us relive it, moment by moment, pitch by pitch.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Banner image: The 2008 Womens USA Softball at the 29th annual Salute to Women in Sports Awards on October 14, 2008 in New York City. Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for WSF