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Women’s baseball trailblazers reflect on the league, 75 years after its founding

“A League of Their Own” was just a story. The real story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was one of sacrifice and pure love of the game.

All-American Girl's Professional Baseball League
Sophie Kurys, star of the Racine Belles of the All-American Girl's Professional Baseball League, slides into the bag.
Bettmann Archive

When 16-year-old Shirley Burkovich joined the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, she thought she would play baseball for the rest of her life.

The league was in its fifth year of existence and Burkovich was a wide-eyed, if naive, teenager who had been offered the job of her dreams. The AAGPBL, founded in 1943, was still near its prime; based on ticket sales and attendance, 1948 was the height of the league’s popularity and success.

“When I went into the league, I thought that was going to be my career,” Burkovich says. “I planned on playing forever. I had no plans to do anything else. I made no arrangements for attending college to get a degree to do anything else.”

Three years later, she was working for the phone company.

Burkovich joined the league midway through its 12-year run. Sources estimate that 450 to 500 women played on teams based in 14 different cities over the league’s lifetime. But its decline was quick and sharp.

“When you plan something — when you plan a career and then have it just gone,” Burkovich trails off. “I know it was hard for a lot of the girls to have to give up something you loved. It was here and then all of a sudden it was gone.”

Burkovich may have been naive, but also she had been given an opportunity to do something no women have been given in this country since. Playing baseball was going to be her life, and there was no reason to believe otherwise.

Thanks to the movie “A League of Their Own,” the story of the AAGPBL is familiar to many. The movie tells a dramatized version of the real-life story of hundreds of women, those like Burkovich, who fought and struggled and broke barriers.

All-American Girls Professional Baseball League
Dorothy Harrell, star shortstop of the Chicago Collens, spears a line drive during spring training in 1948.
Bettmann Archive

But while “A League of Their Own” went on to achieve acclaim and success, ultimately it is just a story. The real story of the league — whose players association will celebrate the 75th anniversary of its first pitch on May 30, 2018 — was much different from fiction, and meant so much more.

Yes, the AAGPBL gave women opportunities they’d never had before, but it certainly wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t really a league of their own. The players themselves had little to no autonomy over their lives while they played. They experienced grueling conditions and demanding schedules and they didn’t complain because often, they said, they were just so happy to be doing something they loved.

The AAGPBL may have been the stuff of fantasies for players, but for the owners, it was a business venture, plain and simple. While the men were away at war, the baseball stadiums stood empty, and owners needed to make money somehow.

Though the league was the brainchild of Philip Wrigley, he was not the only owner of the AAGPBL. Chicago ad executive Arthur Meyerhoff took over the league from 1945 to 1951 before the teams became self-governed. During that time, the league itself owned the players. Players didn’t sign contracts with teams, but with the league, which meant that they could be traded and moved at will.

“Our league, they were the bosses,” said Viola Thompson Griffin, who played in the AAGPBL from 1944 to 1947. (She died on Dec. 31, 2017.) “We didn’t have any unions or any say in anything. The managers were former major league Hall of Famers that were teaching us. They took care of all the business. They told us what to do. You couldn’t and wouldn’t last long if you let what they said about you get to you. We stuck it out instead of going home.”

Conditions for the players were less than ideal on good days, and beyond difficult on bad days. While many of the players did earn more money playing in the league than many of them could have made in the “real world” during that time, they also worked incredibly hard to earn it. And according to Joyce Hill Westerman, who played in the league from 1945 to 1952, in the later seasons there were a few times when players didn’t know whether there would be enough money for them to get paid.

Westerman, who grew up on a farm in southeastern Wisconsin, had a long career in the AAGPBL compared to many of her teammates. And her childhood prepared her for the tough conditions of the league. Her parents lost their home during the Great Depression, and the family lived in a dilapidated house on land her uncle owned, where Westerman and her six siblings shared four rooms with their parents. There was no running water, no heat, no electricity, and no refrigeration, Westerman says. She was used to hard work, long hours, and doing whatever needed to be done.

Even with that upbringing, she remembers the summers playing baseball as long and arduous. Every player interviewed for this story talked about the demanding and seemingly never-ending schedule. Games were played six or seven days a week. Sundays and holidays were for double-headers. Players stayed with families or in rooming houses, traveled overnight on buses before playing in new towns the next day, played through injuries without team therapists or doctors, and had to do so with perfect hair and makeup, smiling, and in dresses.

Looking back, Westerman says she can’t understand how they weren’t all exhausted. It was hard work, but in the moment, they didn’t notice; they were just glad to be playing baseball.

“(We) would have played in the league for nothing if it had come to that, and I think that was true because we loved it so much. It was a dream come true,” Westerman says of her days in the league.

If the players were on the road, they’d start the day with breakfast and a team meeting to talk about their opponents. Each player and team’s experience was slightly different, but Griffin said they’d talk about pitcher and batter tendencies and go into detail about how to approach the evening’s game.

“Each team had their own rules,” Griffin said. “If we had a bad game, made a few mistakes or errors in the night game, the next morning we could pretty well be assured practice would be called. And we could practice one play until we got it perfect. That might be an hour, it might be 15 minutes. We had to know that play until it came automatic to us.

“We didn’t have all that much freedom, but we didn’t have time, anyway. (We were) practicing when we weren’t playing, but we played most every day. Sometimes we’d pray for rain because we didn’t have much time off.”

That schedule was compounded by a need to be “presentable,” according to Westerman — a concept she wasn’t all that familiar with. She’d wake up early to put pin curls in her hair then head to practice, where she’d become sweaty and unkempt. She’d return home and have to fix herself up all over again before heading to the game in the evening.

The women of the AAGPBL were required to look their best whether on or off the field, and received "charm school" training to teach them how to maintain a feminine look.
Bettmann Archive

“You had to love baseball to do all that,” says Westerman, who played in just a handful of games her first season. “A lot of girls would come and get discouraged and leave in a year or two.”

Westerman counts back into her memory, and estimates that at least 125 women — or about a quarter of all women who played in the league — played one year or less. (It’s nearly impossible to get an accurate number because the records from the league are incomplete.) Thinking back, Westerman wonders if playing as long as she did was her biggest accomplishment in the sport.

In the waning years, constant shuffling of teams and players seemed to signal that the league wasn’t quite as stable as it had been early on. When Meyeroff sold the league and the teams became self-governed in 1951, there was no longer centralized promotion or publicity. In addition, attendance dwindled in the post-war, bounce-back economy, as Americans turned their attention to their cars and televisions. The ballpark was no longer one of just a few entertainment options available to the public.

Burkovich and her fellow players noticed that the AAGPBL was in its final days, but didn’t want to talk about it. Talking about the league’s demise would have made it real.

“I could tell by my third season (1952) that the league wasn’t going anywhere,” Burkovich says. “It was getting harder and harder to draw people and you could just tell that the league was on the verge of something. I had an opportunity at that time to get a job and that had to be one of the biggest decisions I ever made in my life, up to this day, to decide whether to stick it out with the league or to take this job.”

For years after the league folded, the players lived in obscurity. Many didn’t even tell their families about the time they’d spent playing baseball.

“I didn’t talk about it because there wasn’t anybody to discuss it with that thought it was that good, or that big,” Griffin said. “They’d always say, ‘Oh, you mean softball.’ It wasn’t until the Hall of Fame [induction in 1988] until things sort of exploded for us and then the movie, of course, and then all of the sudden we were celebrities.”

This is where “A League of Their Own” made its most important contribution. The movie has been an integral part of shaping the way decades of young women see themselves and their opportunities, and it shined a spotlight on the women who played in the AAGPBL — many of whom’s stories had been unknown before it premiered.

However, at the time they played, not one of these women thought about breaking barriers. Baseball was as integral a part of their lives as breathing. Putting on a dress and playing baseball didn’t feel like a revolutionary act — it felt like fun. But 75 years later, it’s easy to see a direct line from the AAGPBL to increased participation in sports for girls and to Title IX. The women who played in the AAGPBL did something unprecedented and extraordinary, and they opened the door for the rest of us.

Westerman, particularly, seems unable to really synthesize what all the fuss is about. But her eyes still light up when talking about a particular teammate or roommate, and she still smiles brightly when recounting not only her experiences, but her awe at having, essentially, been in the right place at the right time.

“To start with, who would have ever dreamed they’d start a league,” Westerman says. “And all that evolved from that, it’s just unbelievable. What a great time to have lived.”