When the United States entered World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt made it clear that he thought Major League Baseball should continue. But as thousands of minor league players and over 500 major league players—including Joe DiMaggio—left their teams to serve in the military, Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley became concerned about the game’s future. To ensure that baseball (and the revenue he earned from it) would continue, the chewing gum magnate founded what became known as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1943.
Just as women working in factories was supposed to be temporary, Wrigley thought of the women’s league as another temporary wartime measure. But rather than tapering off, the league’s attendance grew after the war, peaking in 1948 when over 900,000 fans attended that season’s games. By then, the league had expanded from four teams to ten. It continued until 1954, playing a total of 12 seasons showcasing more than 500 players during its run.
Forming a League of Their Own
Before World War II, lots of women played softball and baseball recreationally and in tournaments, but there was no professional league comparable to the MLB. The sport was especially popular in Arizona and California, and Wrigley may have gotten the idea to start the league after seeing games there.
“He had a second home on Catalina Island out in California and he noticed how rabid the fans were for the women’s fast-pitch softball,” says Carol Sheldon, a board member for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Players Association who was inducted into the Michigan USSSA Hall of Fame in 1995 and the National Women's Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003.
To find players for a women’s league, Wrigley sent scouts out across the United States, Canada and Cuba. A total of 60 women made the cut for the first 1943 season, and were divided among four teams: the South Bend Blue Sox, based in Indiana; the Rockford Peaches, based in Illinois; and the Kenosha Comets and the Racine Belles, both based in Wisconsin. Some of the earliest star players were Betsy “Sockum” Jochum, a pitcher for the Blue Sox, and Olive Little, who pitched the league’s first no-hitter for the Peaches in 1943.
“The competition was extremely strong,” says Jean Faut, a pitcher for the South Bend Blue Sox between 1946 and 1953 and the only member of the league to pitch two perfect games. “We had major-league managers and they knew what they were talking about, and some of them are in the baseball hall of fame. So I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Feminine Uniforms Meant Sliding Without Pants
The women in the All-American league were professional athletes who set records and drew crowds, but the standards for their appearance and behavior were very different from those for men in the MLB. All-American players were supposed to look “feminine” on and off the field. They couldn’t wear their hair too short, wear pants in public or go to bars while on the road. And all the teams had a female chaperone who traveled with them and was supposed to accompany players on any dates.
Philip Wrigley’s wife, Helen Blanche Atwater Wrigley, played a large role in shaping the women's images. She sent them to charm school and came up with the idea for the above-the-knee dresses they wore as uniforms (the dresses became shorter over the years). Without pants to protect their legs, players constantly developed “strawberries”—i.e. welts and bruises—from sliding into base.
This wasn’t the only reason the uniform was tough to play in. The fact that the dress was one piece instead of two meant that “every time you raised your arms up, your whole uniform came up in the air,” says Lois Youngen, who played in the league between 1951 and 1954 for the Kenosha Comets, the Fort Wayne Daisies and the South Bend Blue Sox, and was the catcher for one of Jean Faut’s perfect games.
The uniform’s belt, meant to highlight player’s waistlines, was also restrictive. “I was a catcher, so I would always unloosen my belt, and that was the only way I had enough room to lift my arms to throw to second base,” she says.
Still, Youngen says that “if you were to ask the women, they would tell you they’d still rather play baseball in that uniform than eat.” That’s basically what the late Lavonne “Pepper” Paire, a catcher who played for multiple All-American teams starting in 1944, said when reflecting on her time in the league. According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, she added: “We put our hearts and souls into the league. We thought it was our job to do our best, because we were the All-American girls. We felt like we were keeping up our country’s morale.”
Playing Ball After World War II
The All-American teams were popular in the cities they represented, and during their first season they drew over 170,000 attendees. Seeing its success, a few prominent men in Chicago started the rival National Girls Baseball League in 1944. But by then, Philip Wrigley was no longer worried about the future of men’s baseball, and was losing interest in the women’s league. At the end of that year’s season, he sold the league to his Chicago advertising executive, Arthur Meyerhoff. Under Meyerhoff’s leadership, the league expanded its number of teams in the league and ramped up publicity.
One way in which the league didn’t evolve was racial integration. When Wrigley started the league in 1943, it followed the MLB’s policy of not hiring Black players. Yet after Jackie Robinson became the first Black player to join the MLB in 1947, the women’s league continued to exclude Black women.
The late pitcher Mamie “Peanut” Johnson said that when she attempted to try out for the league in the early 1950s, it turned her away because she was Black. Barred from the women’s league, Johnson followed in the steps of Toni Stone, the first woman to join the Black men’s leagues. Johnson became the second woman to play in these leagues, and one of only three women to do so (the third was Connie Morgan).
The All-American league ended in 1954, the same year as the National Girls Baseball League. Although public memory of the All-American league faded over the next few decades, it received renewed attention when the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum opened a permanent exhibit about it in 1988; and again in 1992, with the debut of the fictionalized movie A League of Their Own.
When asked about her time in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, Jean Faut echoes what many of the former players have said over and over: “Those years in the league were the greatest years of my life.”