On September 16, 1946, in the final game of the season for the Racine, Wisconsin, Belles of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, Sophie Mary Kurys, a speedy 5'5" 120-pound infielder nicknamed the "Flint Flash," took a long lead off second base and looked in at the batter, Betty "Moe" Trezza. Sophie's Racine club had battled the Rockford, Illinois, Peaches in a scoreless tie until the fourteenth inning of the sixth game of the All-American League's 1946 Shaughnessy Playoffs.
Playing at Racine's ivy-covered, limestone-walled Horlick Field, Kurys, a right-handed hitter who had singled and stolen second for her fifth theft of the game, broke for third, while Trezza hit a sharp grounder through the right side of the drawn-in infield for her biggest base hit.
Kurys rounded third, flew toward home, and hook-slid past the plate, barely avoiding the catcher's tag to score the game-winning run. Sophie's hustle, intuitive feel for the game, and spirit helped make Racine the 1946 champions of the All-American League, a circuit immortalized by the 1992 movie A League of Their Own.
The All-American, as the girls and spectators commonly called it, was the historic first league for women playing professional baseball. Of the more than 600 players who graced the circuit, Sophie Kurys was one of the best.
Born in Flint, Michigan, on May 14, 1925, Sophie, one of five children, grew up in a working class family living on the city's north side. Her father was Ukrainian, her mother was Polish, and both were hard workers. An attractive, serious brunette with grayish-green eyes and a strong work ethic, Sophie liked all kinds of sports, including basketball, volleyball, baseball, track, bowling, and, years later, golf. She loved baseball, but she excelled at any competitive activity.
She attended All-Saints Catholic School, Emerson Junior High, and Flint Northern High School. In 1939, at age fourteen, Sophie, a versatile athlete, won the Mott Decathlon by racking up 4,693 points out of a possible 5,000. That summer she also played shortstop and third base on the state's championship fast-pitch softball team.
But times were tough in the Thirties, and Flint, one of Michigan's major centers of automobile manufacturing, was hard-hit by the Great Depression. Sophie worked part-time for the National Youth Administration. Later, she clerked in a business office and worked for a dry cleaning establishment.
"I left [school] when I was in the eleventh grade," Sophie recalled in a 1996 interview. "I know there was a guidance teacher who came to talk to my mother."
The counselor got Sophie a job cleaning a family's house from six in the morning until noon, after which she attended school from one until five o'clock. She couldn't handle the hours, so she found another job in order to continue helping her family financially.
By late 1942, with World War II causing a manpower drain and the Office of War Information saying that Major League Baseball might have to be canceled for the duration, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was created in Chicago. The project of Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley and his top associates, the idea was to field teams of young, attractive, and athletic girls who could play fast-pitch softball and, later, baseball. The All-American would be a patriotic alternative to men's baseball as well as a morale booster on the home front. The league's girls faced a nearly impossible ideal: they were expected to look and dress like women, but to play ball like men. Actually, most who competed in the All-American achieved considerable success. They proved women could play the national pastime with skill and femininity.
In April 1943, scout John Gottselig, later Racine's first manager, came to Flint, and Sophie tried out. She recalled, "I hadn't read the paper that day. I wasn't home, but a couple of the girls I played ball with tracked me down and asked me if I was going to the tryouts.
"I said, 'What tryouts?'
"They said, 'Well, there's a guy here from Chicago. They are going to start a women's league, and he's here to scout some of the girls.'
"I said, 'Scout?' I looked outside, and I said, 'It's snowing out there. We got snow flurries.' It was April.
"They said, 'Well, he's going to have us try out in a gymnasium,' which was Berston Field House, and it was close to my home.
"They said, 'Well, we'll pick you up.'
"So I said, 'O.K.' I had a skirt and sweater on. I got my glove, and we played catch, and we batted, and fielded some grounders on that hard floor."
Gottselig picked three of the girls, including Kurys, who was a shortstop, and sent them contracts. Sophie's sister and her brother, who was in the Army, both advised her to play. Her parents had mixed views: "My father, Anthony Kurys, was not keen on that. My mother was a strong supporter, 'For heaven's sake, go.' She knew how much I loved to play. When she backed me, of course, I went."
Reflecting on the league's first spring camp in Chicago, Kurys said, "We all tried out at Wrigley Field. They had big league managers, and they said at 'allocation day' they would pick the group that they thought would be good enough ballplayers to make the league. We stayed at the Belmont Hotel, which was just about three blocks from Wrigley Field. We walked to Wrigley Field, and we walked back."
In addition to being dressed in feminine attire such as a skirt and sweater or a dress when off the diamond, the girls were supposed to walk the hotel stairs as part of training. On the big day, Sophie recalled, the girls walked downstairs for the news. She saw her name on the chalkboard, listed under Racine.
"I said, 'Racine? God, where's Racine?' I never heard of Racine.
"So we left a little bit early, because it had been raining in Chicago. They decided that we would go to our respective hometowns and continue our training, and get familiar with the field. We went to Racine on the trains, these 'els.' There was a North Shore and a South Shore [train]. South Shore went to South Bend, and the North Shore went to Racine and Kenosha and Milwaukee. We took the train, and we were met by the people from the town, and the mayor. They had a rabbi from the Kiwanis Club meet us. Then we had lunch the next day at the Kiwanis to meet the town's people.
"They really treated us royally. We were a family, because we stayed in their homes. They had allocated two girls to a home. As it was, along with my roommate and I, these people had three boys. They would go to all the ball games. Of course, the boys would always give us tips on playing ball. 'Maddy' English and I stayed with the Thielens. They would go to the ball games. I think the tickets were about 75 cents. We were part of their entertainment, because I don't think TV had come into being yet.
"We really drew. First, they came out because they were curious, to see whether we could play ball. When they saw that we could, we drew very well, until the waning years. My last year in Racine was 1950. By then there was everything else to do, so I guess we weren't entertainment any more, or maybe not as much, anyhow."
Kurys, who turned eighteen one day later, signed a contract for $50 a week on May 13, 1943, according to the Flint Journal. Her departure--Sophie's first-ever trip outside the state of Michigan--would hurt the local Merchants and Mechanics Bank softball team. In the 1942 season, for example, she had averaged .415 for the CIO Autos team, also of Flint.
Due to the tryouts, the All-American League started late in 1943. The 108-game schedule ran from May 30 to August 29. Later, schedules would begin around May 20-22.
For the first season the league's official ball would be similar to a softball, that is, twelve inches in circumference. But over the years the All-American gradually reduced the size of the ball: 11 ½ inches in 1945-46, 11 inches in 1946-47, 10 3/8 inches in 1948, and, from mid-1949 through 1953, 10 inches. Players used the regulation-sized 9-inch baseball in 1954. Also, before the middle of the 1949 season, when a cork center was introduced, the All-American ball had a plastic center, making the pre-1949 years a "deadball" era.
Further, as compared to softball, the All-American used nine players, instead of ten; allowed the runner to take a lead off base and to steal; and permitted batters to hit with baseball bats; and the pitcher to begin with one foot, not both, on the pitching rubber. Also, the league moved the pitcher's mound moved back in increments from 40 feet to 60 feet. At the same time the basepaths were expanded, also in steps, from 65 in 1943 to 75 feet in 1953, adding 10 more to make 85 feet in 1954. Further, the AAGPBL required underhand pitching for the first three seasons, allowed underhand and sidearm in 1946, moved to sidearm for 1947, and switched to overhand in 1948.
Led by John Gottselig, a star left wing with the Chicago Blackhawks for seventeen seasons and a solid baseball manager, the Belles fielded a very good team. The scrappy Sophie mainly played second base. But she began in the outfield, because Claire Schillace, a regular flychaser from Chicago and one of the league's first four recruits, was a teacher who played on weekends until the school year ended. When the regular at second base suffered an injury, Kurys took over the position, and later she won the starting job.
By early June, Sophie, writing letters to friends in Flint, commented that "everyone [in Racine] is friendly and their faces beam when they find we're members of the softball team. Our manager, Johnny Gottselig, is treated like a king." According to the Flint Journal, she said the "yellow and brown uniform is O.K.," and she particularly liked "the red fingertip jacket they furnish us."
Kurys enjoyed an outstanding season. In 106 games she hit .271 (tied for sixth best in the league), collected 104 hits, scored 60 runs, and batted in 59 runners. By comparison, Gladys Davis of Rockford, the only regular on any of the four teams to bat over .280, paced the All-American with a .332 average. Davis also amassed 116 hits, scored 78 runs, and produced 58 RBI.
At first the league was composed of four teams in mid-sized industrial cities near Chicago: the Racine Belles, the Rockford Peaches, the South Bend (Indiana) Blue Sox, and the Kenosha (Wisconsin) Comets. Kurys recalled the league's early playoffs (matching the first-half season winner versus the second-half winner) being called the "Scholarship Series," because part of the game receipts would be used to send a girl from the winning host city to college.
In an all-Wisconsin playoff that September, first-half winner Racine (20-15, 25-23, and 45-38 overall) beat second-half champ Kenosha (16-19, 33-21, and 49-40 overall) in three straight games. Kurys excelled, as she had all year. For the three-game series the Belles' cleanup hitter batted .300, while recording four assists and 14 putouts at second base.
"The strange part of it was that Kenosha's star pitcher was 'Nickie' Nicol Fox," Kurys recollected, adding that Nicol got married after the 1943 season. "We beat her the first game that she pitched, and then we never beat her again all year. And they would say, 'Well, Nicol is pitching tonight. All she has to do is put her glove down on the mound and the Belles are beaten.'
"In the playoffs, we beat her. I think we beat her two games, which was unusual. Because Nickie would knock our socks off every time she pitched. But we got our revenge in that series."
In 1944, when the league expanded to six teams by adding the Milwaukee Chicks and the Minneapolis Millerettes, Racine did not make the playoffs, finishing in fourth place in both halves of the season. But in 1945, when the league began the Shaughnessy Playoffs (first place versus third and second place versus fourth in a best-of-five playoff, and winner versus winner in the best-of-seven series), Racine placed fourth but lost to Fort Wayne in the semifinal round, three games to one.
Kurys returned to Flint during the offseason and worked at A.C. Sparkplug, a division of General Motors. On May 6, 1944, speaking to sportswriter John Steve of the Flint Journal before leaving for her second season, Sophie stated, "The game as we play it is a lot faster and more interesting than softball, because base runners are allowed to take leads off bases, and there are more stolen bases." She added that a Racine sportswriter who doubted the effectiveness of girls playing baseball took three at-bats against Belles' pitcher Mary Nesbitt, a southpaw whose repertoire featured a knuckleball. The writer, reported Kurys, struck out three straight times.
In 1944 Kurys hit .244 with seven doubles, three triples, and one home run. Also, she led the league in stolen bases, setting a new record of 166. It was her first of seven straight seasons to top the All-American in steals. Sophie also led the loop in most runs scored with 87, and she ranked second with 60 RBI. Further, she drew 69 walks and was hit by the pitcher seven times.
In 1945 the Belles got a new manager, Leo Murphy, who enjoyed a 25-year career in baseball. Murphy understood that Kurys, with her speed and daring, should bat in the leadoff position, thus giving her more opportunities to get on base, steal, and score. Sophie later remarked, "Johnny Gottselig had me all over the place. Leo Murphy got me to be the leadoff hitter."
On Sunday, July 1, 1945, the Flint Journal reported that Sophie remained on the bench, having suffered a knee injury from her "too ambitious sliding." When she left Saturday's game, Sophie was hitting only .183 but ranked third in stolen bases with 22 in 28 games. Before the injury, she set a league record by playing 248 straight games, a streak that began early in the 1943 season.
Kurys rebounded in 1945. Overall, she averaged .239, tops for Racine and fifth-best among league regulars, with 74 of her 83 hits being singles. Also, she collected 69 walks, stole 115 bases, got hit by the pitcher five times, tallied 73 runs, and led all second basemen in fielding at .968. Still, the Belles dropped to fourth in the six-team loop with a 50-60 record.
Kurys produced a spectacular season in 1946, and, as a result, the league's eight managers voted her Player of the Year. The Flint native tied for second in hitting with a mark of .286, the best to date for a Racine player. Sophie also displayed power, slugging five doubles, six triples, and three homers. She also set five league records: most runs scored in a season, 117 (the second of six times she led the AAGPBL in that category); most stolen bases in a season, 201 (Thelma "Tiby" Eisen was a distant second with 128); most walks in a season, 93; most runs scored in a game, five; and best fielding percentage at second base, .973.
As a base runner, Sophie was fast, aggressive, and watchful of the pitcher's motion. An Olympic-quality athlete, she had the baseball instincts of a Ty Cobb or a Max Carey. In the end, she was the best base runner and one of the best run-producers in the league's history.
"It wasn't so much her speed," Madeline English observed in 1996. "Sophie read the pitchers and took advantage of their different deliveries, and she took advantage of every mistake they made."
Sophie also had a quick first step. "My big asset," she recalled, "was a fast get-away."
For Racine, however, the first postwar season came down to the Shaughnessy Series. The Belles won first place with a league-best 74-38 record, won the semifinal round of playoffs by defeating the South Bend Blue Sox in four games, and won the AAGPBL crown by defeating the 1945 champions, the Rockford Peaches, four games to two.
Throughout the playoffs Kurys was the biggest star. She led all players in hitting, stealing bases, and scoring runs. But her most famous feat climaxed the final game. Hurling for Rockford, Carolyn Morris pitched no-hit ball for nine innings, but she lost the no-hitter because her team failed to score. On the other hand, Racine ace Joanne Winter won her fourth game of the playoffs (third against Rockford), despite allowing 19 base runners--but Rockford's hitters stranded all of them.
Winter, a hard-throwing right-hander whose record was 33-10 in 1946, scattered 13 hits, walked four, and hit one batter, while another batter reached base on an infield error. However, Joanne was tough in the clutch, pitching out of one jam after another.
Sophie recollected, "Bill Allington, of Rockford, was classified as one of the smartest managers in our league. I think they had about four squeeze plays. But he tried them with the bases loaded, and they just kept bunting the ball right at Joanne, and she'd just flip it to the catcher, because she didn't have to tag the runner. It was a force at home. I think he tried that four times, and it didn't work. Credit Joanne for that."
Also, the Belles made some great catches, notably by left fielder Edythe "Edie" Perlick, right fielder Eleanor Dapkus, shortstop Moe Trezza, and first sacker "Marnie" Danhauser, who handled 22 chances flawlessly.
Sophie especially remembered Perlick's catch: "Rosie Gacioch was a fairly good hitter. She really nailed the ball, and I don't know, Edie, whatever sense she had, sixth sense, or whatever, she just seemed to take off at the crack of the bat. Right at the last second, she turned around and leaped and caught the ball! I can still see it, to this day. It was the most tremendous catch I've ever seen in my life, and it saved a home run."
In the bottom of the fourteenth frame, facing relief pitcher Millie Deegan (who came on in the twelfth), Winter fanned. Kurys singled through the left side. With Trezza at the plate, Sophie stole second. She led off second, and, as she later explained, "Betty hit to right field, through the infield. It was sharply hit, and Rosie Gacioch was playing shallow. I had started to steal third, and Leo Murphy, our manager, just kept waving me to go, winding his arm up, and 'Go! Go!' When I slid into home, I slid away from the tag. The throw was coming from right field. That was a close play, but I was safe, and we won the game."
Speaking in 1996, Moe Trezza described that same play: "With Sophie on base, Rockford became very tense. Sophie was great at working the pitchers. Deegan, the Rockford pitcher, tried to keep Sophie close to first base. Sophie's speed and keen instinct allowed her to steal second. I can't remember what the count one me was. Sophie had a big lead off second. Leo Murphy, our manager, gave me the hit sign.
"The ball came in and I could see Sophie going as I swung, like a hit-and-run. Being a late swinger, I usually hit through the middle or to the right side of the field. As I ran to first, I saw the ball go through the infield, so I never saw Sophie slide across home plate. The screams of the fans told me once again, Sophie came through for Racine. The team jumped on Sophie and I got lost in the crowd. I do remember a fan on the first base line, shaking my hand. He put a five dollar bill in it and before I realized what he did, he disappeared."
The 5,630 fans who paid to see that playoff finale certainly got their money's worth. They also boosted Racine's attendance to 102,413 for the year, setting a new franchise record.
Voted Player of the Year for 1946, Kurys contributed four more outstanding seasons. In addition, she made the AAGPBL All-Star team from 1946 through 1949. Always a strong hitter, in 1950 she belted seven home runs to tie for the circuit's lead with Rockford's Eleanor Callow, the All-American's career home run leader. The Belles remained strong for two years, but they never again won a championship.
Racine posted records of 65-47 in 1947, finishing third out of eight teams; 76-49 in 1948, which was good enough to win that season's five-team Western Division; 45-65 in 1949, ranking seventh of the eight teams; and finally, 50-60 in 1950, good for sixth place. The franchise moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, for the 1951 season.
In mid-July 1950, before a Racine-Kenosha contest, the Belles sponsored a "Sophie Kurys Night" to honor one of the All-American League's greatest players. Already the league's career stolen base leader, at that point Sophie had 1,033 steals, and she was still going strong.
Kurys' lifetime stats for the All-American League can be seen in the table below, with boldface representing categories in which she led the AAGPBL in a given season, and an asterisk (*) showing all-time league records. Not only did she pace the league in hits six times, collecting 688 over her nine-year career, but she set a career stolen base record of 1,114, topping the circuit from 1944 through 1950, all the while sliding in a dress!
Asked about the honor of being selected Player of the Year in 1946, the modest Kurys replied, "I didn't have a clue that I was going to be picked. Don Black, who was our PR man in Racine, wrote me a letter and asked me to give some kind of history of my playing days in Flint. I thought it was just for the Yearbook. He worked for Western Printing, and Western Printing wrote the Dell Books. He wrote the 'Flint Flash' stuff.
"That would have been a clue that I was being considered, but I never thought about it. Then when I was picked, well, I have a little bit of pride about that, because it was the managers that did the picking, and most of them were major league managers."
Due mainly to decreasing fan turnout (the league's attendance peaked at just under one million in the 1948 season), Racine lost the franchise. But Sophie and Joanne Winter switched to professional fast-pitch softball in Chicago, where they sparked the Admiral Music Maids to the championship of the National Women's Softball League.
Kurys made a brief comeback with the All-American in 1952, partly because the softball team wouldn't pay the salary she desired. But the owner changed his mind after Sophie hit .318 during 17 games in Battle Creek, and she played two more years for the Music Maids. She played her final season of fast-pitch softball in 1955.
Having worked in the offseason at Racine's Apex Machine Producing Company, a manufacturer of automotive and airplane parts, Sophie continued in the business, became a partner, and finally retired in 1972. Later, she completed her GED and attended a community college on a golf scholarship. The retired businesswoman enjoyed a new career competing in golf.
"Not only was Sophie a super player and the master of the slide," Edie (Perlick) Keating recalled, "but she was also a great friend. I believe our team was the only one which had most of the same players for our eight years in the league. We all liked each other and became lasting friends."
"Sophie isn't upbeat, just down-to-earth and very family-oriented," Maddy English recalled about her former roommate. "She always worked hard at baseball, and she sent money to her family. She's a real person. There's nothing phony about her."
"Sophie Kurys was a tense and serious player who gave the team spark and inspiration," Moe Trezza recollected.
In 1986 Ms. Kurys was proud to be inducted into the Greater Flint Area Sports Hall of Fame. She was more pleased in 1988 when the National Baseball Hall of Fame opened a permanent display on Women in Baseball. An advocate for women's opportunities in sports, Sophie was impressed to see women accomplish so much in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
Writing for the Fourth Edition of Total Baseball in 1995, Barbara Gregorich and Debra A. Shattuck selected Kurys as one of the top twenty players in the history of the All-American League. Observed Gregorich and Shattuck about the All-Star second sacker: "Sophie Kurys was nothing short of sensational in getting on base, stealing bases, and scoring runs."
When A League of Their Own hit silver screens across America in 1992, players like Kurys were interviewed and asked to compare the movie to their league. Sophie liked the movie, wrote Carol Azizian of the Flint Journal on July 3, 1992. The former Racine star said actresses like Geena Davis, who portrayed Dottie Hinson, and Lori Petty, who played her younger sister Kit Keller, did fine jobs. As for ball playing, Sophie said the actresses did "an adequate job. If you've never seen us play, you wouldn't be able to compare. We were super good ballplayers."
Comical scenes in the movie (like the "charm school") showed the girls sipping tea, putting on makeup, and walking with books on their heads to learn proper posture, all of which contained some truth. Also, like the movie, the Belles used to pull pranks on the manager, Sophie said, recalling one instance where they hid his pants in the chaperone's locker. But the girls didn't carouse and drink at all-night bars, as some Peaches' players did on the big screen. "None of us [Belles] drank in 1943. We didn't know anything about that stuff." A few years down the road, she added, "we would have a beer after the game."
Just as in A League of Their Own, the "girls of summer" were still getting together for reunions. They rehash old stories, catch up on news, play a game of golf, and enjoy a banquet. "Baseball has been very good to me," Sophie Kurys concluded in 1992. "I don't know where I'd be today if I didn't play ball."
Note: Jim Sargent has done extensive research on the AAGPBL, and is working on a history of the South Bend Blue Sox and a biography of longtime AAGPBL star Jean Faut.
This is an expanded version of my article, "The Flint Flash: The Premier Basestealer of the All-American Girls Baseball League," in Oldtyme Baseball News, volume 8, issue 4 (1997), pp. 30-31. I first interviewed Sophie Kurys by telephone on July 19, 1996. Her statistics come from the summary sheet prepared on a yearly cumulative basis for the All-American League by the Howe Bureau, copy in AAGPBL Files in Northern Indiana Center for History, South Bend, Indiana. See chapter on "Sophie Kurys" in Barbara Gregorich, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993), pp. 122-130. The newspaper story about the All-American League's championship game between Racine and Rockford on September 16, 1946, appeared in the Racine Journal-Times, September 17, 1946, copy in Kurys File at National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York. The librarian for the Flint Journal sent me the newspaper's clipping file on Kurys. The Journal's articles are identified in the text, including Carol Azizian's interview story, "Recalling Her Real 'League,'" July 3, 1992. Also, I received detailed letters about Kurys and the AAGPBL from Betty "Moe" Trezza and Edie (Perlick) Keating, both in November 1996, and I interviewed Madeline "Maddy" English by telephone in November 1996. Last but not least, the AAGPBL web site provides a wealth of information about teams, players, and more; see http://www.aagpbl.org/