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The Real-Life Women’s Baseball League Behind ‘A League of Their Own’

Ellen Gutoskey
Marge Callaghan of the Fort Wayne Daisies slides into home plate during a 1948 game.
Marge Callaghan of the Fort Wayne Daisies slides into home plate during a 1948 game. / (Background) stevezmina1/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images; (Players) Department of Commerce Collection, World Digital Library,
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At the end of A League of Their Own, an aging Dottie Hinson (played by Lynn Cartwright) arrives in Cooperstown, New York, to visit a new Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit honoring the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She’s greeted on the baseball diamond by a number of her former teammates, most of whom were portrayed by career actors.

But the older version of superstitious back-up catcher Alice “Skeeter” Gaspers was brought to life by a bona-fide Rockford Peach: Shirley “Hustle” Burkovich. “Dottie, having you here is good luck,” she says.

Burkovich wasn’t the only AAGPBL player involved in the 1992 movie. Some briefly appeared on screen, while others—like Lavonne “Pepper” Paire Davis—served as consultants, sharing their memories with the filmmakers and even helping teach Geena Davis and company a trick or two. It’s thanks to Dolores “Pickles” Lee Dries, for example, that Rosie O’Donnell could so deftly toss two baseballs at once.

“[Director Penny Marshall] listened to a lot [of what] I had to say,” Paire Davis told The Diamond Angle. “They read my scrapbooks, heard my stories and songs—and the young girls became All-Americans.” She estimated that A League of Their Own captured somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the truth.

This year marks both the 30th anniversary of A League of Their Own's debut and the premiere of an Amazon TV series of the same name from co-creators Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham. Here’s a look at the history of the league—and a peek at how the show hopes to tell the other 20 percent of the story.

Rosie the Right Fielder

Kenosha Comets Players at Practice in 1943
Kenosha Comets Shirley Jamison (left) and Ann Harnett during practice in 1943. / Minnesota Historical Society/GettyImages

After the U.S. entered World War II in late 1941, baseball’s minor league slowly fell apart as many of its players joined or were drafted into the military. It seemed like the MLB might be moving in that direction, too. Troubled by the prospect of empty ballparks and profit droughts, Philip K. Wrigley—head of his father’s chewing gum empire and owner of the Chicago Cubs—enlisted a staffer from the general manager’s office to brainstorm ways of circumventing a business disaster.

The staffer, Ken Sells—likely the inspiration for David Strathairn’s character Ira Lowenstein in A League of Their Own—and his cohort suggested forming a professional women’s softball league. Wrigley approved, thinking the teams could start by filling gaps in the schedule when their MLB counterparts were at away games. If the men’s league shut down, the women’s league could keep the lights on.

Though Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and plenty of other MLB stars did leave to join the war effort, the league itself never stalled. But Wrigley, whose silver-screen counterpart is the fictional candy titan Walter Harvey (Garry Marshall), followed through with the plans to found a women’s league. Much like in the movie, scouts trawled the country (and Canada) for promising softball players in recreational leagues and selected 280 finalists to attend tryouts at Wrigley Field in May 1943. 

Other MLB owners didn’t approve of Wrigley’s park-sharing proposition, so the women got their own home bases in Midwestern cities not too far from Chicago. There were four teams that first year—the Racine Belles, Kenosha Comets, South Bend Blue Sox, and Rockford Peaches.

The game itself began as a baseball-softball hybrid, where softball’s 12-inch ball and underhand pitching style got crossed with certain baseball conventions like base-stealing. Over the course of its 12-year tenure, the league skewed closer to baseball: Balls got smaller, baselines and pitching distances got longer, and overhand pitching became the norm. The name of the league underwent adjustments, too, but the one that stuck was the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, or the AAGPBL.

What never changed was the expectation that, amid all the sweating, sliding, and sleeping on buses, these women would still present to the world as immaculate portraits of femininity. 

There’s No Wearing Pants in Women’s Baseball

AAGBBL player Alma Ziegler
Alma Ziegler of the Grand Rapids Chicks in 1949. / Transcendental Graphics/GettyImages

During spring training in 1943, the women were athletes by day and charm school students by night. Experts from cosmetics mogul Helena Rubinstein’s beauty salon taught them how to look and act like proper ladies, even supplying them with beauty kits that contained everything from lipstick to hair remover. The following year, Chicago’s Ruth Tiffany Charm School took over etiquette duties.

According to the official AAGPBL rules of conduct, “Lipstick should always be on,” and “boyish bobs” were banned. So were smoking, drinking, and wearing pants in public. Liquor and profanity were prohibited in private, too—and each team had a chaperone to enforce the many regulations. If a player flouted one, she incurred a $5 fine, which ballooned to $10 upon her second violation. The third strike would result in a suspension.

While nobody went so far as poisoning their chaperone, Grand Rapids Chicks pitcher Jeneane “Lefty” Lesko (neé DesCombes) told ABC News that “the gals did pull tricks on them, put salt in their beds and other stuff.” Paire Davis once rather gleefully confessed to sneaking a freshly caught fish into the bathtub of team chaperone Dorothy Hunter.

“All of a sudden, we heard a scream, and she came running out into the hall all wet, with no towel, robe or anything,” Davis, who was fined $25 for the prank, recalled.

The flouncy, belted tunics seen onscreen pretty faithfully mirrored the players’ actual uniforms, which were unsurprisingly tough to play in. “We were a glamour league. Mr. Wrigley wanted us to look like ladies, which we did, and we played ball like men,” former Peoria Redwing Terry Donahue told WBEZ in 2003. “This one-piece skirt we had with 6 inches above our knees was really not very good for our knees for sliding. But that’s the way it was.”

In short, being a member of the AAGPBL was far from a walk in the ballpark. The players—some of whom were only teenagers—juggled exhausting schedules with even more exhausting societal standards. The salaries did help soften the blow: In the beginning, weekly paychecks generally fell between $45 to $85, meaning certain young women were out-earning their parents. 

The league didn’t plummet in popularity after World War II ended. In fact, its best season in terms of attendance was 1948; roughly 910,000 fans showed up to support a total of 10 teams. At that point, the entire AAGPBL was still owned and controlled by a single organization, which helped maintain central business strategies. That quickly unraveled once executives opted to start running each team individually in 1950, and the league suffered as a whole. The rise of televised MLB games didn’t help matters, either. By 1954, the AAGPBL had dwindled to five teams—and the following season never happened at all.

From “All the Way” Faye to “All the Way” Mae 

1945 Rockford Peaches
The 1945 Rockford Peaches. / Transcendental Graphics/GettyImages

It didn’t take long for the AAGPBL to fade from the public consciousness; some former players didn’t even bother mentioning it to their children. Helen Candaele, who played in the league for five seasons in the 1940s, wasn’t one of them.

In 1987, her son Kelly and producer Kim Wilson Southerland drew from Helen’s memories to create a short documentary about the AAGPBL. They called it A League of Their Own, and director Penny Marshall happened to catch it on TV.

Though Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel penned the eventual screenplay for Marshall’s fictional flick, they worked off an idea pitched by the two documentarians. The story revolved around the rivalry between a pair of sisters who both played in the league, inspired by Helen and her own older sister, Margaret. 

That’s not to say Dottie (Geena Davis) and her kid sister Kit (Lori Petty) were actually based on Helen and Margaret or any other specific players. But people have often drawn comparisons between Dottie and Rockford Peach Dorothy “Dottie” Kamenshek, who is widely considered one of the best—if not the best—player in the history of the league. Paire Davis has also been cited as an inspiration for Dottie.

Madonna’s “All the Way” Mae Mordabito shares more than a nickname with “All the Way” Faye Dancer. “I was forever having fun, raising my skirt up for the fans, doing the splits and handstands when the games got quiet,” Dancer said in a 1992 interview. She also earned a reputation for innovative pranks, like covering lightbulbs in Limburger cheese in order to stink up her chaperone’s room.

baseball player Jimmie Foxx in uniform
Jimmie Foxx during his playing days. / George Rinhart/GettyImages

Tom Hanks’s Jimmy Dugan was very loosely based on Jimmie Foxx, a 1951 Baseball Hall of Famer who managed the Fort Wayne Daisies the following year. Though Foxx’s struggles with alcoholism and injury had spelled an early end for his baseball career, he had little else in common with the boorish, loud-mouthed Dugan.

“It turned out that he was a prince of a guy,” Ganz told Rolling Stone. “The ladies all spoke glowingly of him.”

Redefining “All-American Girls”

Toni Stone circa 1950
Indianapolis Clowns shortstop Toni Stone jumping for a ball circa 1950. / Transcendental Graphics/GettyImages

The original AAGPBL victory song, co-written by Paire Davis and Nalda “Bird” Phillips, received a single edit for the film: Irishmen became Irish ones. That line—“We’ve got Canadians, Irish ones, and Swedes”—reflected the overwhelming whiteness of a league established when baseball, like everything else, was still segregated. This, too, the filmmakers opted not to rewrite, only alluding to Black women baseball players with one fleeting scene in which a Black woman (played by softballer DeLisa Chinn-Tyler) rockets an errant ball straight over Dottie’s head to Ellen Sue.

Black women didn’t get their own baseball league, but three women—Toni Stone, Mamie Johnson, and Connie Morgan—did play in the men’s Negro Leagues. Their stories serve as the basis for Max, Chanté Adams’s character in the upcoming TV series. The show will also focus on the experiences of the league’s LGBTQIA+ players, some of whom kept that part of their identity a secret.

“I’m 95 now, and I’m finally thinking maybe I should come out,” AAGPBL alum Maybelle Blair, who consulted on the series, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Maybelle Blair
Maybelle Blair at a screening of Amazon's 'A League of Their Own' in Rockford, Illinois. / Daniel Boczarski/GettyImages

The first episode of A League of Their Own hits Prime Video on August 12.

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