12.30.2008

Rose Played Hardball: We Look at the AAGPBL.

You are invited to continue commenting on the New Year's questions because everyone is enjoying reading your answers. We've learned a lot about you that we didn't know.


But we also promised our A-B-C posts, and so here is A:

You voted for a story about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

First we need to look back a little further.

DC's crack research team has found that when tracing the history of women in baseball, it's probably best to start not with the AAGPBL but with...Amelia Bloomer, the temperance and women's rights advocate who designed the loose-fitting, Turkish-style trousers

that carried her name and made sports a lot more practical for women athletes.

"The costume of women should be suited to her wants and necessities," she said. "It should conduce at once to her health, comfort, and usefulness; and, while it should not fail also to conduce to her personal adornment, it should make that end of secondary importance."

By the 1890s, scores of 'Bloomer Girls' baseball teams were formed around the country. Although that idealized image above is nice and fluffy, the reality had to be more like this:


The Bloomer Girls era lasted from the 1890s until 1934 as the teams barnstormed across America, challenging local town, semi-pro, and minor league men's teams to play,

and in fact Rogers Hornsby got his start

on a Bloomer Girls team.

However, an increasing number of minor league teams consisting of MALES ONLY were formed to provide experience for men to make their way to the majors. By the 1930s public opinion was such that women had inferior abilities when it came to sports, and women's professional baseball vanished as the last of the Bloomer Girls teams disbanded in 1934.

What if you had been signed to a Bloomer Girl team in 1934 and you really wanted to play? Sixteen years old when her mom died, Rose Gacioch got a job in a corrugating plant in Wheeling, West Virginia. She also joined the Little Cardinals, the local boy's baseball team. When the company president saw her play one day, he asked Maud Nelson, manager of the All-Star Ranger [Bloomer] Girls, if she'd watch Rose try out. Nelson signed Rose for the Rangers. But the Rangers disbanded that same year.

What's a girl to do? Rose, like many women players of the time, reluctantly switched to softball and played that game in obscurity for years. Then, in 1943, with many major league players off at war, Philip K. Wrigley joined other baseball executives to organize what was then called the American Girls Softball League in an effort to keep baseball in the public eye. Rose tried out for a place in the League, which initially consisted of four teams--the Kenosha Comets, the Racine Belles, the Rockford Peaches, and the South Bend Blue Sox. Initial tryouts were held at Wrigley Field.

At age 28, Rose made the cut for the South Bend Blue Sox. She played for the Blue Sox in 1944 for manager Bert Niehoff. In 1945, against Niehoff's advice to the team owner, Rose--tough talking and interested in anything but a ladylike image--was traded to the Rockford Peaches.

She proceeded to lead the league in 1946, with nine triples. In 1948, Peaches manager Bill Allington moved her from the outfield to the pitcher's mound. Her record was 14-5 that season. Rose is second from left in the team picture near the top of the page.

She is second from left, back row in the 1951 photo above; fourth from left, back row in the 1953 photo below. Her best year with the Peaches was 1951, when she went 20-7, becoming the league's only 20-game winner. She pitched a no-hitter in 1953 and was voted to the AAGBL All-Star team in 1952, 1953, and 1954. Rose Gacioch stayed with the Peaches until the league disbanded in 1954, and she retired from baseball at the age of 39. She appears in every one of the team photographs that I can find of the Rockford Peaches.

Who was the most famous AAGPBL player? Probably Dottie Wiltse,

who, during her six-year career, pitched in 223 games with a 117-76 record, 1205 strikeouts, and an earned run average of 1.83.


The League's inaugural season in 1943 was so successful that two additional teams were added for 1944. By 1949, the League had eight home teams and two touring teams of rookie players. The Peaches won four league championships (1945, 1948, 1949, 1950). The Milwaukee/Grand Rapids Chicks won three (1944 in Milwaukee, 1947 and 1953 in Grand Rapids). The Racine Belles won in 1943 and 1946 and the South Bend Blue Sox in 1951 and 1952.

On June 23, 1952, organized baseball formally banned women from the minor leagues. The League that Rose and Dottie--and many other women yearning for something a little different--played for folded in 1954. The Kalamazoo Lassies (is that the best team name ever?) won in the league's final season (1954).

In the years that the league existed, its style evolved from softball to baseball-like softball, to baseball, eventually becoming the All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBL). The base paths became longer, the ball got smaller, and by 1954, women were playing straight baseball.

The League ball was 12 inches in circumference, the size of a regulation softball (regulation baseballs are 9 1/4 inches). The pitcher's mound was forty feet from home plate, closer even than in regulation softball and much closer than the baseball distance of 60 feet, 6 inches. Pitchers threw underhand windmill, like in softball, and the distance between bases was 65 feet, five feet longer than in softball, but 25 feet shorter than in baseball.

Over the history of the league, the rules were modified to resemble baseball. The ball shrank from season to season until it was regulation baseball size, the mound was moved back to 60 feet, the basepaths were extended to 85 feet (still five feet shorter than in regulation baseball), and overhand pitching was allowed.

According to Women at Play by Barbara Gregorich, "They were equal to the game . . . more serious than the skirts they were required to wear, more intelligent than the various board of directors who would not let them become managers." (Gregorich's book covers the history of women being paid for playing baseball, including Jackie Mitchell, who struck out Ruth and Lou Gehrig back-to-back in a 1931 exhibition.)

Here are some player names from the AAGPBL:


Charlotte Armstrong
Bonnie Baker
Mary Baskovich
Jaynne Bittner
Helen Callaghan
Faye Dancer
Millie Deegan
Maddy English
Rose Gacioch
Fran Janssen
Dorothy Kamenshek
Olive Little
Doris Meuller
Beans Risinger
Dr. Mary Roundtree
Adele Stahley
Betty Trezza
Jean Weaver
Betty Whiting
Dottie Wiltse

The reason Dinged Corners loves baseball is Rose Gacioch

and Dottie and Betty and Adele and the women and men who have long brought to the base paths and green fields a spirit and a joy that we feel lucky and enriched to share.

Various state historical societies are the sources for otherwise uncredited photos in this post. A favorite site of ours is The Girls of Summer by Ellen Klages at Science of Baseball. The Diamond Angle, an "Eclectic Baseball Magazine," features excellent interviews with many of the players. This poem by Rossey Weeks, Rockford Peach catcher, is a favorite. The Wisconsin Historical Society has wonderful artifacts--including baseball cards--that you can view here. The AAGPBL baseball card license is held by Larry Fritsch. Boston Bloomers cards: luckeycards.com. Rogers Hornsby card: baseballcardslive. For teachers, Women's History: Dirt on Their Skirts at the Baseball Hall of Fame education site is a fine resource for lesson plans. The AAGPBL artifacts photo at the top of this post is by Dave Jordano.

Next ABC post: your vote for the letter B: The Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book.

6 comments:

Rod said...

I have signed cards of three of the women of the AAGBL in my Oregonian collection, Charlene Prior, Mary Lou Douglas and Lois Youngen

dinged corners said...

Rod, that's excellent. Did you meet the players? Actually I'll contact you through email.

ernest said...

Great write up. Thank you for posting it.

kimaloo said...

Thanks for this awesome post! History and baseball... two of my favorite things!~

mab said...

Terrific post ~ thanks!

capewood said...

Great post. The other day I posted a 1911 T206 card I recently found on eBay of Hooks Wiltse. I wonder if he's any relation to Dottie Wiltse? The timing would be about right for him to be her father. He'd have been44 the year she was born. Probably no relation.