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Women Can Be Baseball Stars, Too

By Dorothy Seymour Mills, March 20, 2014
Babe Didrikson, great athlete of the 1930s, displays her pitching form.
(Courtesy of John Kovach)

When Americans speak of baseball stars, they are thinking only of men. But we have had women stars, too. And we’re still developing them.

Who are some of these stars? The name Babe Didrikson Zaharias comes up whenever superior athletes of the past are mentioned. She was named Woman Athlete of the Year six times. She broke Olympic records in several sports, won many gold medals and was elected to the National Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Some experts believe her to be the best athlete, male or female, ever developed in our country.

Babe could do anything in sports and do it well. When she was concentrating on baseball, she traveled with a professional team called the Babe Didrikson All-Stars. Once she pitched in an exhibition game for a big league team against another. If Didrikson had been allowed to sign with a major league team, she would have been a great baseball player.

Children have been baseball stars, too. One was Margaret Gisolo, a teen-ager who starred in American Legion baseball during the 1920s. She was the only girl on her club and its best player. While the team was advancing toward the state championship, nobody objected to her presence. But in the semifinal series, when she scored the winning run in the 12th inning, the losing team protested, claiming that the result didn’t count because girls weren’t allowed in the American Legion. 

The Legion’s state director appealed not to the head of the Legion but to Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Together they decided that since Legion rules didn’t specifically ban girls, she should be allowed to play. So her team won the state championship, and Gisolo starred in every game. Although the team lost the national tournament, Margaret played so well that she earned praise from the New York Times.

Margaret Gisolo, youth baseball star of the twenties, fields a ball. 
(Courtesy of John Kovach)

Then the American Legion showed its true colors, banning girls from the Legion’s youth baseball program. So in 1929, at 14, Gisolo joined a professional women’s traveling team and continued to play during high school. By the time she graduated in 1931, she had saved enough money to go to college, where she earned two degrees in physical education. When World War II began, Margaret joined the WAVES, then became a college teacher. Later she took up tennis and won gold medals. 

The American Legion failed to drop its ban on girls until 1975. Margaret Gisolo was one of the stars who should have been permitted to continue in youth baseball until she was ready for the minors or the majors.

A star athlete of the 1950s, Toni Stone, was often compared with Didrikson because she also was able to do almost anything in sports. In high school, she was tops in baseball, tennis, the high jump, golf, track, basketball, hockey, tennis, and ice skating. She loved baseball, but during her career she put up with many insults for playing a game dominated by males. Making things even more difficult, she was black. 

After school, Stone pitched for a professional team of black men. When she learned that the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) was looking for good players, she wrote asking for a tryout, but her letter wasn’t answered because the AAGBPL did not welcome black players.

But Toni got hired by black professional teams. Although fans shouted many insults at her because she was a female playing on a men’s team, she persevered. And like Lizzie Murphy, who played for years with a New England men’s traveling team, Toni managed to get along with the male players even while traveling on the team bus.

“Once you let the guys know that there isn’t going to be any monkey business, they soon give you their respect,” she said.

Toni Stone played with black male professional teams in the 1950s. 
Source: The Trading Card Database

After she left baseball to be married to an attorney, Stone was called back (at 32) by a famous black pro team, but she discovered that the owner saw her only as a drawing card and wanted her to appear on the field in shorts. She refused to dress in anything other than the team uniform. Some team members acted mean toward her, and one of them spiked her leg on purpose. The owner warned him not to try that again, pointing out he was paying "good money" for Toni’s services and that anyone who hurt her would be fired. 

When the owner sold her to another pro team, she wasn’t allowed to play regularly because her new owner saw her only as an attraction. She didn’t want to be merely a drawing card, so she quit baseball in 1954. But Stone was an accomplished player, one of many women who could have played in the white men’s major leagues.

Better-known women stars played in the AAGPBL in the 1940s and ‘50s. Have you ever looked at the baseball cards of these women? (Yes, they have cards.) And their stats are eye-openers. You can view them when you buy an APBA Game (a popular baseball board game) if you specify the version that includes the AAGPBL players. 

Or you could read about these women’s baseball accomplishments in books like Merrie Fidler’s history of the league, published by McFarland in 2006. There you’ll discover that women are not as weak as you thought. 

Doris Sams, for example, once threw a perfect game. A tall, strong woman, she also set batting records and in one season hit a dozen home runs. You also could learn about Sophie Kurys, the league’s best base-stealer. In one year, she stole successfully 201 times in 203 attempts.

 If they played today, the women of the AAGPBL probably would be too expert for the amateur leagues available to women, but they would certainly fit into the elite traveling teams of star players as well as the American national women’s team. And how they would love to bring women’s baseball to the Olympics.

This year I had the pleasure of addressing the annual reunion of about 200 AAGPBL players who are still alive. They impressed me greatly with their bearing, their manner, their appearance of strength and confidence. Playing pro baseball may have done that for them. When women succeed in their chosen fields, they exude fearlessness. Another trait easy to pick out was these women’s concern for others. Maybe that results from the experience of teamwork.

Being a baseball star does not automatically make a person into a hero, but it does make that person someone to be admired. Today several thousand women in leagues from Rhode Island to California are striving against steep odds to become stars. Maybe it’s heroic to reach the top levels of baseball when reaching that level is intentionally made as difficult as it has been for most American women. 

1950 photo of the Chicago Colleens of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
 

 

 

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