One of the best baseball movies of all time is the 1992 hit “A League of Their Own,” a seriocomic look at life in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the wartime era. The state of Wisconsin was well-represented in the league.
Several Wisconsin cities, including Racine, Kenosha and Milwaukee, fielded teams in the AAGPBL, which lasted from 1943-54. Despite the novelty aspect of the league, interest was remarkably high, and many teams enjoyed strong attendance and ample media coverage.
With the country mired in World War II, Major League Baseball was suffering an enormous talent drain, as many superstars either enlisted or were drafted. Many minor leagues were disbanded due to a player shortage, and owners feared a sharp decline in attendance.
To remedy the situation, several Midwestern businessmen, led by Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley, conceived a girls’ softball league that would play in Major League parks to boost revenue. The idea evolved into the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and league scouts scoured the U.S. and Canada for the best available talent.
Ultimately, 280 players were chosen for the final tryouts in Chicago, a number that was trimmed to 60, the first women to play professional baseball in America.
Thirteen of the original players were from Wisconsin. Spring training was held at Wrigley Field in Chicago.
The women were dispersed onto 15-player rosters for each of the four teams in the league’s inaugural season, which featured the Rockford Peaches, Racine Belles, South Bend Blue Sox and Kenosha Comets. Player salaries were $45 to $85 per week for the 108-game season.
In keeping with customs of the era, players were expected to act like ladies and even dressed the part on the field, wearing short skirts with bare legs that were subject to cuts, bruises and scrapes. In the early years of the AAGPBL, players were required to attend charm school in the evenings, where they were instructed in proper etiquette, hygiene, manners and dress. A beauty kit with specific instructions on use was also provided for each player.
Attendance in the first year proved respectable, as some 176,612 fans showed up. Wrigley sold the league after the 1944 season to his advertising executive from Chicago, Arthur Meyercoff, who, not surprisingly, focused heavily on promotion during his six-year run.
Rockford and South Bend were the only two teams to play in all 12 of the league’s seasons, which were based mostly in the Midwest. In Wisconsin, Racine was in the league from 1943-50, when the Belles were shifted to Battle Creek, where they lasted for two seasons. Kenosha fielded the Comets from 1943-51, while in Milwaukee, the Chicks lasted only for the 1944 season before going to Grand Rapids, where they played until the demise of the league.
Other cities that hosted AAGPBL teams through the league’s existence included Peoria and Springfield, Ill.; Minneapolis; Muskegon and Kalamazoo, Mich.; and Chicago. Several ex-Major League Baseball stars served as managers at one time or another in the league, including Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx and Max Carey.
Interest in the league continued to rise, even after the war. A Fourth of July doubleheader in South Bend in 1946 attracted some 10,000 fans, and attendance topped out at 910,000 in 1948.
Following the 1950 season, the team directors bought the league from Meyercoff and eventually cut budgets for publicity, which helped doom the league along with a female talent drain and increasing entertainment options of the era, such as TV. The league folded following the 1954 season.
Interest in the AAGPBL has revived in recent years, partly due to the 1992 movie, starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks and Madonna. An exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Women in Baseball, was created in 1988 to recognize the players of the AAGPBL.