This Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of the inaugural game of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, aka the inspiration behind the classic A League of Their Own that starred Geena Davis, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, and Tom Hanks.
Here are some quick facts about the league and the movie.
1. The league started in Chicago
In 1943, then-Cubs owner and chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley created the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League after many Major League Baseball players joined the armed forces to fight in World War II. Chicago would serve as the league’s headquarters.
In A League of Their Own, Wrigley is replaced with the fictional character Walter Harvey, who is a chocolate bar tycoon instead of a chewing gum manufacturer.
2. League players were paid $45 to $85 a week
Today, that amounts to about $600 to more than $1,000 a week. Players signed contracts that forbid them from any other employment during the baseball season.
3. There were four teams originally
After an extensive scouting drive, 280 women were chosen as finalists and were invited to tryouts in Chicago in 1943. From there, 60 players, some as young as 15 years old, were picked and divided into four teams: the Rockford Peaches from Illinois, the South Bend Blue Sox from Indiana, and the Kenosha Comets and the Racine Belles from Wisconsin. The league would add and subtract teams over the course of its lifetime.
4. Players had to take beauty school classes
Wrigley hired Helena Rubinstein’s Beauty Salon to give nightly charm school classes to the players after baseball practice. Rubinstein built a cosmetics empire and was considered to be one of the wealthiest women at the time. One of her many catchphrases was: “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”
Players were given “beauty kits” and a guide on how to use them. This charm school guide also had instructions on etiquette, which had this to say about how to interact with fans:
There is an old saying that “the customer is always right.” This, in a sense, holds true of the baseball fan, who exercises the right to talk to you without knowing you, to shout at you from the stands and to voice his opinion, good or bad, of the play on the field. After all, he is your customer and he feels that you, as a player, and the team, belong to him.
5. No alcohol or cigarettes in public
League players had to follow a set rules of conduct. Among them? No drinking or smoking in public, though “limited portions” of “intoxicating drinks” were allowed with meals after a game.
Players were also forbidden to swear, had to wear lipstick, could not wear baseball uniform skirts that were shorter than 6 inches above the knees, and must “always appear in feminine attire when not actively engaged in practice or playing ball.”
But players learned to live with the rules, said Terry Donahue, who played for the Peoria Redwings from 1946 to 1949.
“I never ever heard anybody complain about riding those buses all night,” Donahue told WBEZ in 2003. “We’d put on our jeans and ride them but we could not get off that bus in jeans. We always had a skirt. We had to be seen in skirts.
“We were a glamour league. Mr. Wrigley wanted us to look like ladies, which we did, and we played ball like men. 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.”
6. The first championship wasn’t so peachy
In A League of Their Own, the final two teams to square off in the first championship were the Rockford Peaches and the Racine Belles. But in reality, the final two teams in the 1943 championship were the Kenosha Comets and the Racine Belles. In both the movie and the real world, however, the Belles ended up the winners.
But the Peaches would go on to win more championships than any other team in the league.
“Our coach wasn’t like the coach in the movie because he loved to teach women how to play ball,” said Barbara “Bobby” Thompson, an outfielder for the Peaches from 1951 to 1952, in a 2003 interview with WBEZ. “That’s why the Rockford Peaches won four championships in 12 years.”
7. Sometimes there was (almost) crying
Betty Francis, an outfielder who played with various teams from 1949 to 1954, fondly remembered playing in the league when she talked to WBEZ in 2003. But she also shared one of the worst moments: When she stepped up to bat during a playoff game, she knocked the ball back to the pitcher, a move that cost her team the game.
“Talk about crying in baseball — almost,” she said with a laugh. “Almost crying in baseball that time.”
8. Why’d it end?
The league hit its height in 1948, when it saw attendance peak at more than 900,000. But in the years afterward, that number began to drop when the league became decentralized and there were no concentrated efforts to publicize the games. Another widely considered factor in the demise of the league was the rise of televised major league games.
9. ‘A League of Their Own’ came out almost 26 YEARS AGO
Feel old yet? The film was released July 1, 1992. The actresses had to hone their baseball skills for the movie, and O’Donnell actually could throw two baseballs at once.
The film got no love from Chicago Tribune movie critic Dave Kehr when it was released. “A director who can lose Madonna in a crowd can’t be said to appreciate charisma,” he wrote.
But legendary Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert had this to say: “The movie has a real bittersweet charm. The baseball sequences, we’ve seen before. What’s fresh are the personalities of the players, the gradual unfolding of their coach and the way this early chapter of women’s liberation fit into the hidebound traditions of professional baseball. By the end, when the women get together again for their reunion, it’s touching, the way they have to admit that, whaddaya know, they really were pioneers.”
10. Amazon is reportedly developing a ‘League of Their Own’ series
And it’s going to be a comedy series co-written by Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Mozart in the Jungle‘s Will Graham. This isn’t the first attempt to adapt the movie into a TV series. CBS produced a series that lasted only three episodes before striking out in 1993.
Special thanks to WBEZ archivist Kristen Reid for tracking down player interviews with WBEZ from 2003.
Hunter Clauss is a digital editor at WBEZ. You can follow him at @whuntah.
Digital producer Gabrielle Wright contributed to this report. You can follow her at @GabiAWright.
Audio story by reporter Carrie Shepherd. You can follow her at @cshepherd.