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‘More than ordinary baseball’: The inspiration for ‘A League of Their Own’ turns 75

The 1944 Milwaukee Chicks pitching staff poses with manager Max Carey in this file photo. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via AP)

Both ballclubs stood on the base paths as Jesse I. Pavey, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., stepped to the mound May 30, 1943, for the All-American Girls Softball League’s ceremonial first pitch. It reportedly was wild.

So were the 12 years of women’s professional softball and baseball that succeeded it and inspired the film, “A League of Their Own,” starting with the first three games played on the last day of May.

The Peaches of Rockford, Ill., had come 180 miles east to face the South Bend Blue Sox and inaugurate another professional American sport in the name of “patriotism,” “healthful recreation” and “wholesome, exciting entertainment,” according to game programs.

Major League Baseball parks sat empty during World War II, and Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley devised a plan to fill them, and boost domestic morale. He drafted a team of baseball advisers to modify existing women’s fast-pitch softball rules — a smaller ball, longer base paths, stolen bases — and fronted the money for four teams in the industrial Midwest that would play a 108-game schedule at local high school fields and municipal stadiums in 1943. (The league’s name was changed to the All-American Girls Baseball League midway through the first season, and then again to add “Professional” to the name at the end of that same year.)

If the first season was a success, the league would expand and start to fill minor and major league parks. (It was, and it did.) In the meantime, he’d pay young women between $45 and $85 a week — more than a factory girl could make, and almost as much as a minor leaguer, according to the Miami News — to play ball during the day and take “charm school” classes in the evenings.

The first games 75 years ago were all he could have desired and more.

“A group of girls invaded the male stronghold of professional baseball Sunday night and proved there’s more to the ‘powder-puff’ brand of the game than meets the eye — but what meets the eye is nice, too,” the United Press news wire service reported.

South Bend and Rockford were tied at 3 through five innings when a pitchers’ duel broke out that held the crowd on edge.

Margie Peters pitched into the 13th inning for the Peaches when South Bend’s Lois Florreich smacked a double into left field and came home when “Lillian Jackson let the ball roll through a pair of shapely legs” for a 4-3 win, wrote the United Press news wire service.

The late game was even more dramatic.

Rockford rattled off a four-run rally in the top of the eighth inning to go up a run, but the Blue Sox countered with four runs of their own in the bottom half of the frame to pull out a 12-9 barnburner.

In Kenosha, Wis., the hometown Shamrocks beat the visiting Racine (Wis.) Belles, 8-6, the same day.

Racine evened the series with a 6-3 rain-shortened win the next night. Mary Nesbitt threw five innings of one-hit ball for the Belles.

Second baseman Charlotte Smith, who was 2 for 2 at the plate the night before, was perfect again in four at-bats Monday, including a double and scoring the game-winning run. She hit .316 that year in 53 games, according to the league website’s historical archive.

South Bend won the regular season pennant with a 58-50 record, but Racine won the playoff championship after a best of five series.

“It was more than ordinary baseball,” the UP wrote after the first games in South Bend. “It was a new career for career girls and another milestone for the national pastime.”

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