Note: With major league players off to World WarII and minor league teams becoming non-existant, the time was ripe for women to play baseball. The fan base was ready and willing for this new sport.
All American Girls Professional Baseball League
By the fall of 1942, many minor league teams disbanded due to the war. Young men, 18 years of age and over, were being drafted into the armed services. The fear that this pattern would continue and that Major League Baseball Parks across the country were in danger of collapse is what prompted Philip K. Wrigley, the chewing-gum mogul who had inherited the Chicago Cubs’ Major League Baseball franchise from his father, to search for a possible solution to this dilemma. Wrigley asked Ken Sells, assistant to the Chicago Cubs’ General Manager to head a committee to come up with ideas. The committee recommended a girls’ softball league be established to be prepared to go into Major League parks should attendance fall due to franchises losing too many quality players to attract crowds.
With the dedication of a group of Midwestern businessmen and the financial support of Mr.Wrigley, the All-American Girls Softball League emerged in the spring of 1943. The League was formed as a non-profit organization. A board of trustees was formed which included Philip K. Wrigley; Branch Rickey, Brooklyn Dodgers President and General Manager; Paul V. Harper, Chicago attorney and trustee for the University of Chicago and Chicago Cubs attorney; and Ken Sells, who was named President of the League. Midway in the first season of play, the board of trustees changed the League’s name to All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBBL) to make it distinctive from the existing softball leagues and because the rules of play were those of Major League Baseball. However, the retention of shorter infield distances and underhand pitching caused some controversy in the media about “Baseball” in the League name. Thus, at the end of the 1943 season, the official League name was again changed to the more descriptive All-American Girls Professional Ball League (AAGPBL). This title was retained until the end of the 1945 season when All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBBL) was again adopted and retained through 1950. It was during this time period that overhand pitching and smaller ball sizes were adopted. When independent team owners purchased the League at the end of the 1950 season, the official League name was changed to the American Girls Baseball League (AGBL), but popularly it continued to be identified as the All-American League or the All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBBL). Through the organization of the Players’ Association in1986, and through their efforts to gain recognition by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, the league has now come to be recognized as what it was in actuality: the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).
The first major issue facing the trustees was to establish what game of ball was going to be played by the women and to define the rules for this new brand of ball. Chicago Cubs’ scout, Jack Sheehan, former player and part-time scout for the Cubs, and Vern Hernlund, supervisor of recreation for the Chicago Parks Department, worked with Ken Sells to write the new set of rules for the League. Since the only organized ball for women in the country was softball, they created a game which included both softball and baseball. There were semi-pro women’s softball teams of quality women players in Chicago and many other urban centers throughout the U.S. and Canada. The skill of these teams provided a logical basis for the use of a 12-inch softball and underhand pitching. They wanted, however, to liven up the game. In an effort to increase hitting and spotlight base running and fielding, they extended the length of softball’s base paths and pitching distance. They also incorporated men’s base running rules by allowing runners to lead off and steal bases. Softball at the time included 10 players. This new game would parallel men’s baseball in a number of players and types of equipment.
The second major issue facing the trustees was to find the talented women playing softball or baseball across the country. Jim Hamilton, 30-year veteran player, manager, owner, and Chicago Cubs’ scout was hired as the Head of Procurement to locate and sign women from all over the United States and Canada. In Canada, the driving force was Johnny Gottslieg, former defenseman for the Chicago Blackhawks National Hockey Team in the 1920s and 1930s.
Gottselig, a native of Regina, Sask., was managing the Blackhawks’ Kansas City farm team in 1942. He had many contacts among sporting figures in the provinces, one of whom was a Regina-based hockey scout named Hub Bishop. Bishop was responsible for signing Mary “Bonnie” Baker, All-Star catcher for the South Bend Blue Sox, and other highly skilled players from the many popular softball leagues which existed in Canada. Johnny Gottselig became the first manager of the Racine Belles in 1943 and managed his team to the first recognized World Championship of the newly organized AAGPBL. Wrigley already had an established recruitment network in place from his ownership of the Cubs and had sports connections throughout North America. Jim Hamilton, with several assistants, was responsible for procuring players from California to New York. Many players were screened from the Chicago Softball League and other existing softball leagues throughout the country. Bill Allington, former minor league player and then a coach in the California leagues, was also an active scout for the All-American League. Allington became the manager for the Rockford Peaches in the summer of 1944 and remained as a manager in the league throughout the league’s existence.
By sending out scouts and setting up try-outs in dozens of major cities, Wrigley attracted hundreds of women from all over America and Canada who were eager to play in this new professional league. Of these, only 280 were invited to the final try-outs in Chicago where 60 were chosen to become the first women to ever play professional baseball.
Wrigley originally envisioned that Major League baseball parks could profit from having the women play on the dates the men’s teams were scheduled to be on the road. He calculated this would maximize the use of the parks which were now only utilized 50% of the time. He approached other Major League owners, but the idea was not well received. Four non-Major League cities were selected that were in close proximity to the League headquarters in Chicago and close to each other. The cities chosen were Racine and Kenosha Wisconsin, Rockford, Illinois, and South Bend, Indiana. Arthur Meyerhoff, Wrigley’s advertising director, was given the responsibility of coordinating operations with city officials and civic leaders in the communities. A projected budget was developed. Wrigley agreed to fund half the cost of operating each team and all over-budget expenses. The host city directors agreed to pay the other half of projected operating costs.
Teams consisted of fifteen players, a manager (coach), a business manager, and a woman chaperone. It was believed that by acquiring notable men sports figures as managers for the girls’ teams, there would be greater curiosity and interest by the public. The first managers selected were 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.
Spring training was set for May 17, 1943, at Wrigley Field in Chicago. All the players stayed at the Belmont Hotel close to Wrigley Field. The final selection process began on the first day. League officials systematically scrutinized each player. They were tested on playing their field position, throwing, catching, running, sliding and hitting. At the end of the day, no one wanted to answer the phone for fear of being told they would have to pack and go home. Those who survived the cut were signed to professional league contracts which stated they were not to have any other employment during the baseball season. Salaries were high for many of these young players, some as young as 15. In many cases they were making more than their parents who had skilled occupations. Salaries ranged from $45 to $85 a week plus. Those who were signed not only had to be highly skilled players, they also had to comply with high moral standards and rules of conduct imposed by the League.
In addition, femininity was a high priority. Wrigley contracted with Helena Rubenstein’s Beauty Salon to meet with the players at spring training. After their daily practices, the women were required to attend Rubenstein’s evening charm school classes. The proper etiquette for every situation was taught, and every aspect of personal hygiene, mannerisms and dress code was presented to all the players. In an effort to make each player as physically attractive as possible, each player received a beauty kit and instructions on how to use it. (See Charm School and Rules of Conduct for details).
Mrs. Wrigley, Wrigley’s Art Designer, Otis Shepard, and Ann Harnett collaborated to design special uniforms for the League. Ann Harnett, Chicago softball star and the first girl to sign a contract with the league, became a model for the new uniforms. The one-piece short-skirted flared tunic was fashioned after the figure skating, field hockey, and tennis costumes of the period. Satin shorts, knee-high baseball socks and baseball hat completed the uniform. Each city had a different colored uniform and its own symbolic patch decorated the front of the uniform.
Next: The Charm School