As much as we laud over baseball’s past, it’s a very myopic view. Until very recently, 100% of the historical context of baseball followed Major League Baseball, completely ignoring the unaffiliated leagues, particularly the Negro Leagues, but at the same time the All American Girls Professional Baseball League that existed from 1943-1954.
Of course, many now know of the league thanks to the fictional account in the movie A League of their Own, but while the the league itself got press and earned an official place in baseball’s Hall of Fame, little is known of the individuals who participated in the league. The Susan Johnson book When Women Played Hardball is a first step into learning about those women who played at the highest level of professional baseball for more than a decade.
Rather than a full history of the league, Johnson focuses on the specific, particularly the 1950 championship series between the Fort Wayne Daisies and the Rockford Peaches. Each chapter is specifically broken into three parts. The first section of each chapter is a recap of one game in the seven game championship series, largely made up of newspaper articles from the day following the game. The second part is a player profile, most of which have been supplemented greatly with interviews that the author had personally with those players and their teammates and the third part is a look into an individual aspect of the league.
For those with a more broad, historical mindset, it is this third part of each chapter that will be most interesting. Even if you aren’t, this is the most well written and the most important area of the book. It is here that seasons beyond 1950 are discussed, particularly the changes in the game over the years as the game transformed from essentially being fast pitch softball to a game nearly identical to Major League Baseball.
The individual topics discussed in these sections include how the league started, the expectations of the women off the field, the changes in rules over the years and the lives of these women after the league folded, but there are overarching themes that resonate through the entire book. Essentially, how women dealt with the negative stigma of being professional baseball players (from family, future employers and coworkers and life in general) and how important the game was not just to the players, but to the fans as well.
Reading this book in the 2010’s, more than 20 years after it was written and another decade after the league first began to make a resurgence in pop culture, it brings up a strong longing for what could have been. While the WNBA hasn’t been a huge marketing success, it has survived for years and given the quality of baseball that was being played in the AAGPBL, there’s a good chance that women’s baseball could have been even more so. There is nothing inherent in baseball that precludes women from playing and there’s nothing that would keep this league from being as entertaining as men’s baseball.
One of the issues with the league was that it was only successful early on in small cities and thus, never built up the fan base that it possibly could have. Because watching the games live was they only way to enjoy them at the time, they were forced into smaller urban areas like Fort Wayne, Racine and Kalamazoo all within a small distance of each other. The league couldn’t fill out ballparks in larger cities (as they found in a foray in Minneapolis), but in the modern game, attendance is less important than TV and radio rights. I’ve always found baseball to be a much faster, smoother and overall more entertaining game than softball and think the country missed out on a chance during this era to consolidate all genders into playing the same sport with the same equipment.
Back to the book, the player profiles are intimate and provide a look into the lives of these women that can’t be found elsewhere. By interviewing every player individually, most in person, Johnson got a view that has not been available of these athletes ever. If there is a flaw, it’s that she is too much of a fan and makes the story about herself from time to time rather than being specifically about the players. Even so, all the information that anyone could want about the individual players is including even if the setting is informal.
Another issue with the book are that the whole format seems forced, especially with almost no new information added about the 1950 series itself, just repostings of newpaper articles. This also pushed Johnson into only focusing on seven players for her profiles rather than doing as many as possible.
Overall, however, it was a unique look at a unique period in baseball history. Also, unlike the much more popular movie, this is the story of what actually happened. If you want to know more about the league, I’ve yet to find a better place to start. While we’ve talked some in the past year about women in the Major Leagues with the Fox tv show Pitch and the book Throw Like a Woman by Susan Petrone, the greatest chance of a woman playing with the men would be if a league similar to this one were to start and allow the development of young talent. With little chance of that on the horizon, as least we can see how it worked last time thanks to Susan Johnson.