SABR

Viola Thompson Griffin

This article was written by Nancy Snell Griffith.

Viola Thompson’s contribution to World War II was a rather unusual one. She didn’t do war work in a factory, or enlist in the armed services. Rather, she became a pitcher in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), and helped to keep the national pastime going during the war years. She was modest about her pioneering role, and didn’t talk about it for many years, but when asked later about her contribution to the war effort, she confessed she considered it a patriotic one. As she told Robert Carter in a 1995 interview “the players saw their role as patriotic. Before each game we would line up in a “V” for victory sign…and we played a lot of exhibition games for the soldier boys, and the sailors.”

The girls’ professional league was started in 1943 by Philip Wrigley, chewing-gum magnate and owner of the Chicago Cubs, as the All-American Girls Soft Ball League. The name of the league changed several times over the years. Today it is identified as the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, the title chosen by the Players’ Association when it was incorporated in 1987.

The organization was set up a little differently from the men’s leagues. The players were actually the property of the league itself rather than being owned by individual teams. While the league’s central office attempted to keep the rosters consistent from year to year, they were constantly adding new talent and moving players around to make sure the teams were equally talented and thus more competitive.

Viola Thompson, the daughter of Henry Justice and Mae Abercrombie Thompson, was born in Anderson in upstate South Carolina on January 2, 1922. She was part of a large family. She had six brothers, all but one of whom served in the military, and four sisters. Everyone played baseball or softball, several of the girls played tennis, some played basketball, and her brother, Carlisle, later became a Golden Gloves boxer. Fredda and Nanette were particularly good softball players, and played on adult teams even as girls. Fredda, who was competitive in other ways, was named Mrs. America in 1947.1

Viola told Ernie Trubiano that she started playing softball in the fourth grade, and continued to play at Anderson Girls High School. Then she pitched on both men’s and women’s softball teams in the Greenville textile leagues. She especially enjoyed playing on the men’s teams “because they were better players, and I didn’t feel I had to strike them out. Men accepted me as a member of the team.”2 In 1938 the Charleston News and Courier, commenting on her performance against a team from the American Tobacco Company, reported that “The little Anderson Portsider pitched with a snap throughout the contest…Her fast ball was too much for the American Tobacco girls and eight of them fanned the breeze.”3

By 1940, Viola had graduated from high school, and had moved to nearby Greenville, where she was the athletic director at Mills Mill and played on a textile league softball team. During 1943 and 1944, she and Elizabeth “Lib” Mahon were playing on the same team, and Mahon was approached by Jimmy Gaston, the president of the Greenville Spinners baseball team, about going north to play professional baseball. Viola’s family was not thrilled about this prospect: “they were concerned about me, afraid I’d get hurt or lost or something…I knew what I wanted to do. I loved to play ball, loved to, and I just wanted to go and try it.”4

In the spring of 1944, Mahon and Thompson travelled by train to LaSalle-Peru, Illinois for tryouts. They both remember this long train journey, the first of their lives. Viola admits to being both scared and excited. Mostly, though, she says that she would have been terribly embarrassed to fail and have to come back home.5 The rigorous tryouts lasted for ten days. Viola told Robert Carter that the tryouts were a real “eye-opener.” The other girls participating were from all over the U.S. and Canada. They were good athletes, knew a lot about baseball, and were full of self-confidence.

Both Thompson and Mahon were assigned to teams, Mahon to the Minneapolis Millerettes and Thompson to the Milwaukee Chicks as a left-handed pitcher. Her salary was $65 per week, and she considered this a tidy sum. The Chicks were managed by Hall-of-Famer Max Carey, a former star player for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Brooklyn Robins. Thompson had nothing but praise for Carey as a manager: “Max knew how to handle these girls. And he knew how to communicate with them, and he was just a wonderful teacher…he was a great base runner himself, so he taught the girls on our team how to run those bases…I was left-handed and he taught me a move to first base, to catch a runner off first, or to at least hold ‘em on first, hold ‘em close to first…this fella knew how to teach, and I’m so grateful for that, because that was my first year up there…He really believed in these girls.”6

While the girls might have been expected to play like men, they were expected to act like ladies. An unusual feature of their training was the charm schools they were required to attend. Here they were taught manners, how to dress and use make-up, and generally how to act in public. While at home, the girls stayed, often in groups of two or three, with local families. After the games, they were expected to dress, eat, and be back at their hotels or homes within two hours. Each team had a chaperone to enforce the rules.

The players dressed like ladies on the diamond, also. As Thompson told Trubiano, “We played in little short skirts, and always had strawberries on our legs because we didn’t have enough protection when sliding. We were girls, and they wanted us to look like girls. They didn’t want short hair; they wanted long hair to project femininity. We looked like girls, but played like men.” The skirts interfered with the pitcher’s motion, and the chaperones often pinned them back with large safety pins.

Viola was a left-handed pitcher whose father described her pitch as a “dipsy-doo.” She told Carter, “I don’t know what that means, but it had a little hop and a skip in it.”7 Carey taught her how to hold the ball on the seams or with two fingers, and to try to master a fastball and a change-of-pace. Viola was not the best or the strongest pitcher for the Chicks that year; Connie Wizniewski held that position, and she was backed up by Josephine Kabick. But she had great control and a competitive fire. She hated to lose, and couldn't sleep if she did.8 According to Thompson, catcher Dorothy “Mickey” Maguire really controlled the pitchers. She told Robert Carter that when she threw the ball and it wasn’t where Maguire wanted it, “She would haul off and throw that ball back to me and nearly knock me off the ground. I got the message right away of what she wanted.”9

Thompson won 15 and lost 23 for the Chicks in 1944, posting an ERA of 2.96. On July 2 she pitched a 5-hitter in a game against Minneapolis.10 In mid-July, in the first game of a doubleheader against Minneapolis, she gave up only four hits in seven innings to keep the Chicks in the running for the first half championship.11 The Kenosha Comets, however, ultimately won that title. By the middle of August, Milwaukee was leading the South Bend Blue Sox by one game for the second half title.12 On August 23, South Bend broke the Chicks’ 11-game winning streak by winning both games of a doubleheader, although Milwaukee remained in the lead.13 By the end of the second half of the season, however, Kenosha was chasing the Chicks for the championship. Milwaukee clinched the second-half title when they defeated the Comets on Max Carey Night on September 2. Thompson pitched a 5-hitter that night.14 They ended the regular season with a record of 70-45.

Milwaukee faced Kenosha in the league playoffs, and won the championship with a 3-0 shutout behind Connie Wisniewski in Game 7. Wisniewski was the star of the series for the Chicks, winning three games and losing only one, and pitching two three-hitters.15 Thompson and Jo Kabick, appearing in Game 5, were thrashed for nine runs to put Kenosha up by 3-2 in the series.

Lack of fan support and competition with the Brewers plagued the Chicks throughout the season. The Brewers had Borchert Field for most of the night games, so the Chicks were relegated to mostly afternoon games. They were often referred to in the press as the “Schnitts,” which means “small beer” in German and was a reference to their inferiority to the Brewers. Milwaukee and Minneapolis, unlike the other teams, were financed by Wrigley instead of local guarantors because he wanted to see how the teams would do in minor
league parks. It turned out that girls’ baseball was much more attractive in the smaller cities, where the players were treated like celebrities. So even though the Chicks led the league that year in runs scored (492), batting average (.207), stolen bases (739) and were tied for first in home runs (12), when the season ended the team was moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Viola loved the city of Grand Rapids as much as she had loved Milwaukee. But the team was supported much better by the local businessmen and fans, with no competition from a men’s minor league team, and everyone was very nice to all the girls. She doesn’t, however, remember any highlights from that season. She said that neither she nor the team turned in any outstanding performances. The season was a rather odd one for the Chicks. Although they began their league schedule at the end of May, their season home opener wasn’t until July 17. They were supposed to play in the new South High field in Grand Rapids, but the field was not completed until just before the opener. The fans certainly showed their appreciation that night however; 4500 turned out for the opening doubleheader.16

The starting pitchers in Grand Rapids were the same as they had been in Milwaukee: Connie Wisniewski, Jo Kabick and Thompson. The new team did not start off well; by the middle of July, the Chicks were in fourth place in the league, trailed only by Kenosha and Racine. Thompson, however, was performing well, pitching a one-hitter on July 13 and a five-hitter two days later. On July 19 she gave up only two unearned runs in a game against Racine.17

Thompson appeared in 34 games for the Chicks in 1945, winning eleven and losing nineteen. Her ERA was 1.90 and her winning percentage was .367. While she gave up 91 runs, only 55 of those were earned. The Chicks ended the season with a 60-50 record, and they went into the playoffs in third place. They were beaten by the Rockford Peaches, who eventually won the title. One thing that Viola does remember about that season is the time that Gerald and Betty Ford came to a game; they later wrote letters to some of the girls expressing their appreciation.18

The teams of the AAGPBL continued their war efforts during this period. During late July they played a series of games at army camps and hospitals in the Chicago area. Among these was a game between Grand Rapids and Kenosha, played before 1500 wounded veterans at the Vaughn General Hospital on July 30.19

In the spring of 1946, after spring training in Pascagoula, Mississippi, Thompson was sent to the South Bend Blue Sox. She wasn’t happy about the change. She told Robert Carter: “Now that was one bad thing, I thought, for the girls…we’d take these transfers …personally… we all sorta belonged to a league and they could move us wherever and whenever they wanted to, we had no say about it.”20 According to Thompson, some girls were moved almost every year depending on which team happened to need a player in that particular position.

Thompson worked mostly as a starting pitcher for the Blue Sox, although she did make some relief appearances. She rejoined her old friend Lib Mahon, who had come to the Blue Sox in 1945. Although Viola wasn’t happy with the move, Dr. Harold T. Dailey, president of the team, called her “one of the nicest girls in the league.”21 That year the Blue Sox moved to their new field, Playland Park, from Bendix Field. As a result, attendance at their games that year was almost double that of 1945.

On opening day, Thompson pitched in a twelve-inning victory over Fort Wayne.22 On June 6, her effective “southpaw slants” helped South Bend, outhit 11 to 5, defeat Kenosha 5-3.23 She pitched effectively again on June 14, getting an 8-1 victory over the Fort Wayne Daisies.24

Thompson was less successful in early July, but by the twenty-first, she was the Blue Sox’ top pitcher, with a record of 9-4 and a winning percentage of .692. The remainder of the month was a bust, but on August 3 she turned in what sportswriter Jim Costin called “her finest pitching job of the season,” giving up only four hits to Fort Wayne, issuing no walks and retiring 14 straight batters during the last five innings.25 On August 10 she gave up only three hits and one walk in a 12-2 victory over Peoria.26

South Bend finished in third place that year with a 70-42 record. That allowed them to make the playoffs for the first time, but they lost to Racine in the first round. Thompson appeared in 31 games, posting a record of 15-6. She sported an ERA of 2.90 and a winning percentage of .714.

Viola was back with South Bend in 1947. The highlight of that season for her was spring training, which the league held in Havana, Cuba. She later told Robert Carter that the experience was a high point in her career: “Cuban people would come out by the hundreds, actually thousands to see us play and see us practice…we outdrew the Dodgers I believe.”27

The Blue Sox played exhibition games in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 13 and 14. According to the local newspaper, “those spectators who turn out expecting to see only glamor will be surprised…’Sure, the girls are attractive,’ says Leo Murphy, ex-big-league star from the golden ‘20s and manager of the Racine Belles. ‘But doggone it, they play a real heads-up game of baseball.’”28

Thompson had a difficult and disappointing season in 1947. The league introduced sidearm pitching that year, and by 1948, it had gone totally to overhand pitching. With the inauguration of overhand pitching, the pitching distance was lengthened from 43’ to 50’ and the ball was reduced in size from 11” to 10 3/8”. A number of the good underhand and sidearm pitchers couldn’t make the transition to overhand pitching and had little or no experience playing other positions. Some were recruited by a professional softball league in Chicago, and some returned home. Thompson told Trubiano: “It was real hard for me to go from underhanded to sidearm and overhand pitching. Most of our pitchers had to move to other positions and the outfielders who had stronger arms switched to pitching.” Viola served the 1947 Blue Sox as a relief pitcher and base coach. She was, however, valuable to the team because as a left-hander, she was good at preparing her teammates to face left-handed pitching.29

In the end, Viola made only one regular-season appearance for the Blue Sox that year, a relief appearance on June 14 against Kenosha. She came into the game in the seventh inning, and “was wild and ineffective,” giving up five runs and four hits in the 1 1/3 innings that she pitched.30 On June 17, she was traded to the Fort Wayne Daisies for rookie pitcher Mary Feralla.31 South Bend finished the season with a record of 57-54 and lost to the Grand Rapids Chicks in the first round of the playoffs.

Despite press reports that she had been traded to the Daisies, Viola actually went directly to the Chicago Bluebirds of the National Girls’ Baseball League.32 The NGBL, founded in 1944, consisted of professional teams from the Chicago area and played traditional softball, with underhand pitching and shorter base paths. Thompson pitched six games for the Bluebirds in 1947, with a record of 3-1 and an ERA of 0.88.33

In April 1948, Thompson and four other players were traded by the Bluebirds to the Rockola Chicks of the NGBL for Alma Wilson.34 She appeared in 29 games for the Chicks, and posted a record of 7-14. She spent the 1949 season with the same team, which had been sold and was now named the Rockolas. She appeared in 12 games, the last in July, and had a 2-5 record.35 There she was known for her “sizzling fast ball.” At that time the Rockolas had a 28-15 record and trailed the leading Bluebirds by only one game.36

Thompson didn’t enjoy the Chicago leagues as much as she had the AAGPBL. The players were more on their own, and no longer living with local families. In addition, she was almost 28 years old, and had a boyfriend, Claude Griffin, at home. She thought it was time for her to settle down and start a family. So when the 1949 season ended, she returned to South Carolina and got married. She and Claude eventually
had two daughters, Claudia and Carol.37 Claude, who had attended Clemson University, worked all his life for Plantation Pipeline. Viola began to work at the Essex Manufacturing Company near Belton five or six years after the children were born.38

While she never really forgot about her experiences in professional baseball, she felt that no one really wanted to hear about them, so she refrained from talking about it over the years. She also failed to keep in touch with any of her former teammates: “After that last game there, after that league broke up I don’t think any of the girls, maybe for a year or two after that they might have corresponded…but then I just think everybody just got caught up in what they were doin’…it really died. It just disappeared from the face of the earth as if it never happened.”39 This all changed when the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown decided to honor the women of the AAGPBL in 1988.40.

Initially, Viola was reluctant to attend the celebration in Cooperstown. As she told Robert Carter: “I was emotionally upset by it. I didn’t know if I wanted to go back in my memory and drag all this stuff up or not. I was surprised by how emotional I got about it…I just thought ya know, that’s in my past. Long, long ago past, let’s don’t bring it up.”41 But she remembers the other former players being out of their minds with joy to have their accomplishments recognized, and to have people know that what they did was important.42

In 1993 she received the Order of the Palmetto from the Governor of South Carolina, and the General Assembly honored her for her pioneering role in women’s baseball, and for her work as an advisor on the film A League of Their Own. Because of union rules, she was unable to procure a speaking part in the film, but clips from her playing days were included with the credits. She and Claude were both unpaid extras, and she still feels a little bitter that that’s all they were allowed to do.43 In 1997 she was inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame.

Griffin summed up her experience in her interview with Robert Carter: “I’m glad I was part of it. I appreciate being part of it. I feel lucky that I was part of it. I think going into all these different cities and meeting all these different type people and getting to travel places I probably would never have been able to do.”44 Even now, she recalls every year as having been exciting.

Viola’s husband, Claude Griffin, died in 1996. Viola herself is over 90 years old and still lives in Belton, South Carolina, near one of her daughters, and not far from her four grandchildren. Despite her early reluctance to relive her playing days, she told Carter she was proud of the publicity, and happy to talk with young girls about what the players accomplished.

 

Acknowledgements

I especially want to thank Viola Thompson Griffin for allowing me to interview her for this article. My thanks also to Kevin Wadzinski at the Saint Joseph County Public Library in South Bend for all the wonderful newspaper accounts from the 1946 and 1947 South Bend Tribune, and Wanda Schlotter, a researcher at the Western Michigan Genealogical Society, for helping me with my research at the Grand Rapids Public Library.

 

Sources

Ancestry.com (census information, Anderson City Directory, some newspaper articles).

Carter, Robert. Oral History Interview Abstract and Transcription with Viola “Tommy” (Thompson) Griffin, March 8, 1995. Available online at http://minds.wisconsin.edu/handle/1793/38219.

Griffith, Nancy Snell. Telephone interview with Viola Griffin, March 1, 2012.

Trubiano, Ernie. “Griffin Feels Fortunate to have been Pioneer.” The State (Columbia SC), April 27, 1997, C1.

“Viola Griffin (Thompson).” Official Website of the AAGPBL: http://www.aagpbl.org/index.cfm/profiles/griffin-viola-thompson/330

 

Notes

1 Nancy Griffith. Telephone interview with Viola Thompson Griffin, March 1, 2012.

2 Ernie Trubiano. “Griffin Feels Fortunate to have been Pioneer.” The State (Columbia SC), April 27, 1997, C1.

3 “Local Softballers Beaten by Anderson/” Charleston News and Courier, September 3, 1938, 6.

4 Carter, 17.

5 Griffith, March 1, 2012.

6 Carter, 19.

7 Carter, 23.

8 Griffith, March 1, 2012.

9 Carter, 31.

10 Stoney McGlynn. “Chicks blast Lakers Twice.” Milwaukee Sentinel, July 3, 1944, 7.

11 “Schnitts Split a Double bill.” Milwaukee Journal, July 12, 1944, 32.

12 “Schnitts Hold League Lead, Split with South Bend.” Milwaukee Journal, Aug. 14, 1944, 5

13 “Milwaukee Girls Drop Two Games.” Milwaukee Journal, Aug. 23, 1944, 2.

14 “Schnitts Edge Out Kenosha, Win Title.” Milwaukee Journal, Sept. 3, 1944, 5.

15 “Chicks Grab Girls’ Crown.” Milwaukee Sentinel, Sept. 18, 1944, 10.

1616 Gordon Reid. “Season’s Biggest Crowd Sees Chicks Lose Twice to Racine.” Grand Rapids Press, July 18, 1945, 12

17 “Chicks Shut Out Kenosha in Twin Bill.” Grand Rapids Herald, July 14, 1945, 8; “Chicks Split with Racine.” Grand Rapids Herald, July 16, 1945, 6.

18 Griffith, March 1, 2012.

19 “Chicks Bow to Kenosha in Exhibition Contest.” Grand Rapids Herald, July 31, 1945, 8.

20 Carter, 26.

21 Merrie A. Fidler. The Origins and History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Jefferson, NC, McFarland, 2006,73.

22 “Blue Sox Win Opener.” South Bend Tribune, May 29, 1946.

23 “Blue Sox Win over Comets.” South Bend Tribune, June 8, 1946.

24 “Blue Sox Take Two Games.” South Bend Tribune, June 15, 1946.

25 Jim Costin. “Blue Sox Beat Daisies in Opener 10-1.” South Bend Tribune, August 4, 1946, Sec. 3, p. 1.

26 Jim Costin. “Blue Sox’ 17 Hits Beat Peoria 12-2.” South Bend Tribune, August 11, 1946, sec. 3, p. 1.

27 Carter, 25.

28
Something New’s to be Added, Girls to Play Baseball Here.” Charleston (S.C.) News and Courier, May 4, 1947, 7.

29South Bend Blue Sox 1947 Yearbook. Courtesy of the Grand Rapids Public Museum All-American Girls Baseball League Collection.

30 Jim Costin. “Blue Sox, Kenosha Divide.” South Bend Tribune, June 15, 1947.

31 “Blue Sox and Comets Open Play Tonight.” South Bend Tribune, June 18, 1947.

32 Griffith, March 1, 2012.

33 Information provided by William E. McMahon

34 “Alma Wilson Goes to Bluebirds in Five for One Swap.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Apr. 8, 1948, C4.

35 Information provided by William E. McMahon.

36 Chicago Daily Tribune July 8, 1949, B3.

37 Griffith, March 1, 2012.

38 Griffith, March 1, 2012.

39 Carter, 29.

40 Griffith, March 1, 2012.

41 Carter, 35.

42 Griffith, March 1, 2012.

43 Griffith, March 1, 2012.

44 Carter, 34.

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