In 1940s, pros wore dresses, lipstick to play ball

Herald archives
League Stadium in Huntingburg was the location used as the home field for the Rockford Peaches in the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own.”

Guest columnist

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about major league baseball during World War II (1941 to 1945). Several people wrote me emails saying they were upset I didn’t mention the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), a women’s league that played from 1943 to 1954. One email’s subject line read “Shame on you.”

So I thought I should learn more about the AAGPBL. I read an interesting book about the league: “The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League” by Anika Orrock.

The AAGPBL was the idea of Philip Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs. Wrigley was afraid that the men’s major leagues would have to close down because so many of its players were serving in the military. He wanted something that would keep people in the nation thinking about baseball.

Wrigley came up with the idea of a women’s league. This was almost 80 years ago, long before the Women’s National Basketball Association and the National Women’s Soccer League — before there was much interest in women’s sports.

Hundreds of women attended tryouts across the country. Almost 300 were selected for a second tryout at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. Of those, 60 were chosen to play on the league’s original four teams: the Kenosha (Wisconsin) Comets; Racine (Wisconsin) Belles; Rockford (Illinois) Peaches; and South Bend (Indiana) Blue Sox.

At first the game the women played was closer to softball. The ball was the size of a softball, the pitcher threw underhand, and the diamond was a little bigger than a softball (or Little League) diamond. But over the years, the ball got smaller, the diamond got bigger, and the pitchers threw overhand. Soon the women were playing real hardball.

Some other things were different about the AAGPBL. The women wore uniforms that were dresses with shorts underneath. That made it tough to slide into a base in the dirt. Ouch!

The owners of the league also wanted the women to “act like ladies.” They hired Helena Rubinstein, whose company made women’s cosmetics, to conduct a “charm school” for the players during spring training to make sure they behaved properly.

The league required the players to wear lipstick (even during games!) and wear dresses when they traveled. In addition, the women couldn’t have very short hair. It may seem silly today, but women and girls in the 1940s and ‘50s were often judged on appearance more than they were on abilities.

The AAGPBL did well. More than 600 women played. At its height in 1948, the league included 10 teams, and more than 900,000 fans attended the games.

The AAGPBL was featured in the PG 1992 movie, “A League of Their Own.”

As Lavonne “Pepper” Paire, a star catcher in the AAGPBL, said later, “People may have come out the first time just for laughs ... but they kept coming back - and that was because we played good baseball.”


Fred Bowen can be reached on Twitter at @FredBowenBooks.

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