Back in the 1940s, when men headed off to fight in World War II, Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley created something totally new: The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Teams stretched across the Midwest, from Racine, Wis., to Kalamazoo. At its peak, the league brought in almost one million fans per year. It also inspired the 1992 movie, “A League of Their Own”, best-known for the now-famous line, "There's no crying in baseball!"
A team from Grand Valley State University interviewed more than 40 women who played in the league. They worked with Western Michigan University history professor Janet Coryell to create the documentary A Team of Their Own, which will be shown at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum on April 9th. WMUK talked with Coryell about the documentary.
WMUK: Considering you study women's history, this must have been a really exciting topic for you.
JANET CORYELL: My entire career, what I’ve looked at, I’ve looked at women who’ve done something that society told them they shouldn’t be doing. Because I want to know why and how they manage to do it anyway. So my original work when I first started was women involved in partisan politics in the 19th century. And these women didn’t want to vote, they just wanted to play! They wanted to be part of the political system. And I thought that was really interesting. They werne't suffragists. They just wanted to be politicos, into that partisan system.
Well this is another group of women like that. They just want to play ball! They don’t care that society says, Oh, that’s a man’s game. You can’t do it. You’ll lose your femininity. You won't be a woman anymore. They loved this game!
WMUK: And while this was professional baseball, the documentary goes into ways the league's organizers made it different to appeal to more fans. Can you talk about that?
CORYELL: Well, for starters, (AAGPBL founder) Philip Wrigley was very concerned that people come and watch these women play, but that they were still perceived as ladies. What he was very worried about was the competitive nature of ball would be something, that if women would get into that competition, somehow they wouldn’t be feminine anymore. And so one of the things he did was he made them wear skirts. He made them play in dresses.
Most softball teams played in shorts or long pants. And they didn’t usually slide. But in baseball, you slid! So these women were wearing dresses when they slid, which was not good for the legs or knees or any part of their anatomy. That was one thing he did to draw the fans in. Because you’ll see pretty girls in skirts playing ball! It attracted a lot of men. And the women basically put up with it, because they wanted to play baseball so badly.
So I found it very interesting to listen to what was clearly a passion to them. Especially the ones who went on in women’s education, sports education, because they were so passionate about getting kids to move and involved in sports. All the girls! They were teachers, a lot of them, afterwards.
WMUK: And this was such a unique opportunity for these women, too.
CORYELL: I mean, I can’t imagine what it must have been like. To be 15, 16 years old. And to be recruited by Philip Wrigley's managers to come and play professional baseball that you got paid for! That was the best part for these girls. They were getting paid and were getting really good money in those days. They made more than their fathers were making. That must have been mind-blowing.
And, of course, in those days, you didn’t have lots of the programs to give scholarships for young women. And you didn’t have sports scholarships for these women. So if you go to college, how will you pay for it? A lot of these women, they made enough money in their playing careers to save up and go to college when they were done.
Coryell also reflected on what this league meant for women in sports, even decades later. She specifically cites the importance of this league when lawmakers wrote Title IX legislation in the 1970s.
CORYELL: If you’re going to find a way to explain why it is you want do something under Title IX, why it is that women need the money to play their sports, too, which is really what a lot of Title IX is all about -- one thing you do is you look at the history of women in sports.
That was what was so interesting about this particular topic. Which I did not know! Women played baseball from the beginning of baseball. They played it from the 19th century on. There’s a group of women’s baseball players called the New York Giantesses. I have their picture. It's wonderful.
But also you can find articles in the paper from the late 19th and 20th centuries where it talks about the women’s ball club coming to town. So if you're going to say, Look, we want money for women to play. And legislators say, Oh, women don’t care about sports. You say, Yeah they do! Here’s an example. Here's another example. Here's another example. So it builds your case that women have always been athletic, interested in sports, competitive, even if they’re not supposed to be. So in that sense, there is a correlation.
WMUK: Looking back now, how far do you think we’ve come in terms of women in sports?
CORYELL: I think that women in sports still have to fight against this idea that there’s something kind of odd about them. It’s much, much, much less than it was. Women take pride in their ability now. They have a lot of reinforcement around them. They see the value of sport. Women are sports figures. But they still get paid less than men, don’t they? Because didn’t someone sue the other day?
WMUK: Yeah, the U.S. women's soccer team.
CORYELL: The U.S. women's soccer team gets paid less than men. Now why is that? It’s not fair. So you still fight those battles. And those, I think, we’ll still fight those for a long time.
But the days of Billy Jean King having to beat Bobby Riggs to be taken serious as a tennis player, those are long gone. Which is a good thing. And I think the more women who get involved in sports, the better off we are as a country, frankly. Because it's good for us to have women in sports. It's good for us to see women doing stuff they want to do because they care about. And not worry about what some clown thinks they should or shouldn't be doing as a woman.