Gloria Elliott (nee Cordes) was born on September 21, 1931.i Most girls her age came to womanhood during the post-World War II economic boom and taught or were secretaries; however, Cordes took a drastically different route. She became a bona-fide professional baseball player.
Growing up during World War II in blue-collar Staten Island, New York, Cordes loved the game of baseball. The eighth of 11 children, she constantly played “street ball” with her brothers and their friends. ii They basked in the glow of New York baseball during its Golden Age. They dreamed of playing forever.
As most teammates her age grew old enough to play baseball beyond street games, Cordes planned to continue as well. She wanted to play with her local church league, but was not allowed without permission from her local pastor. He eventually relented and allowed her (as well as another girl) to play. But the girls were allowed to play only if they played together. If the other girl did not show, Cordes was out of luck for the day.
Cordes then tried to play in the local Police Athletic League (PAL) as well. The PAL was quick to remind her of women’s established place in society. They shut down her hopes of playing organized ball completely. Nonetheless, she would not stay down for long.
Cordes found creative ways to play. Local guys who had played with her as a kid allowed Cordes to play on the field until infield practice was over. Once they realized how good she really was, they quickly reminded the coach that it wasn’t her place to play.
Cordes, who could take a punch with the best of them, found a mentor in George Bamberger, a fellow Staten Island resident about eight years her senior. Bamberger let her work out with him.iii Bamberger went on to play for three seasons with the New York Giants and the Baltimore Orioles, became the pitching coach for the Orioles and went on to manage the New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers.
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) was a woman’s professional baseball league that existed from 1943 to 1954. The league was originally designed to keep professional baseball in the public eye during the World War II years. Once the war was over and the league was no longer “needed,” it had to find creative ways to draw attention. One way the league did this was through traveling exhibitions. In 1949 the Springfield Sallies and Chicago Colleens came to New York to play an exhibition game and Cordes went to see it. The league’s procurement staff got the most out of the game by holding open tryouts simultaneously. Never one to miss an opportunity, Cordes ran down to the field when given the chance. She threw a couple of pitches and the next thing she recalled, there was an invitation in the mail to attend a tryout in the Midwest.iv
So how did the blue-collar Cordes family react to their daughter being invited to go halfway across the country to play professional baseball? Surprisingly. One of her brothers had an earlier tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals, but homesickness got the best of him. Her parents, forward thinkers for the time, could not be prouder of their 17-year-old daughter. She created this opportunity for herself and she was getting on that train.
The average household income in the United States by 1950 was $5,000. Women comprised no more than 30 percent of the work force. A fourth of those positions were clerical. If Cordes did not get on the train, she was looking at life as a secretary.
Cordes remembered in a conversation long after her retirement that a secretary in Manhattan, circa 1950, would make about $30 a week. By signing with the AAGPBL (becoming one of only 25 women in the league from New York state), Cordes made $50 a week. By the time the league folded, Cordes was 22 and getting $100 a week during the season, $4 a week more than the average household income. By putting their 17-year-old on that train at Grand Central Station, the Cordes family handed her more opportunity than any of the “Seven Sisters” elite colleges could have offered at the time.v
Cordes made her debut with the AAGPBL in 1950 and played until the league folded in 1954. Nicknamed Cordie, she played with the Muskegon and Kalamazoo Lassies as well as the Racine Belles. She was a pitcher who threw and batted right-handed. In 1951, as the league rebranded itself the American Girls’ Baseball League (AGBL),vi Cordie was rebranded a Battle Creek Belle for part of a season. She finished her career back with the Kalamazoo Lassies.
By professional pitching standards, Cordie was small. At the height of her pitching career, she was 5-feet-8 and weighed 135 pounds. She had a fastball, a curve, and a knuckleball in her arsenal. Among 21st-century players she may have been comparable to Tim Lincecum. Both made their careers being smaller in stature, having a multi-pitch repertoire and being multi-year all-stars. Both had at least three years of 12-plus wins. Both saw pretty ugly years as well.
Two of Cordie’s five seasons documented her pitching issues. In her first year, she won five games and lost 10. Her second year was worse: 3-15. One of her problems was that she was speeding through her warmup. Her manager at Battle Creek in 1951, former major leaguer (and future Hall of Famer) Dave Bancroft, helped her to slow down her warmup and improve her curveball. Even at her worst, Cordie was considered a valued prospect. While she was playing at Battle Creek, Max Carey, the manager of the Fort Wayne Daisies (and also a future Hall of Famer) once told her, “If they’re stupid enough to release you, I’ll pick you up.” (Cordie was actually traded later in that season to the Kalamazoo Lassies.)
She was a professional caliber pitcher, but Cordie was still a 17-year-old girl at the time of her tryout. She felt that her first season of her career was her low point because of her extreme homesickness. It is hard to imagine in this day and age, but this was her first real time away from home.
Although they had a roster of girls and young women, the managers of the AAGPBL did not treat their players any differently from more “traditional” (i.e. male) ballplayers of the time. Cordie credited her first host family, the Kravitzes of Kalamazoo, with helping her to not get on a train headed back home. The Kravitz family kept her busy as if she were one of their own. The players also kept an open-door policy in the hotels during tryouts as well as when they were on the road.vii Cordie felt that there was always someone she could commiserate with.
In her second season, Cordie was still somewhat homesick but settled in. Although her won-loss record was worse (she was playing for a bad team), her ERA improved. She was highly thought of during her five years in the AAGPBL. Former Rockford Peaches and Fort Wayne Daisies manager Bill Allington picked her for his Bill Allington All-Stars, a touring team that barnstormed the country playing mostly men’s teams. Besides two All Star appearances, her Kalamazoo Lassies team made the playoffs in 1953 and 1954, and won the league championship in 1954.viii
The AAGPBL folded after that 1954 season, and Cordie’s playing career ended. This grand experiment in professional women’s sports was running on fumes at this point. The teams drew well until 1953. At that point, games were still drawing over 1,000 spectators a night at minor-league ballparks. The league even attracted big names like Yankees announcer Mel Allen, who called Cordie’s championship game in 1953.
Who kept the AAGPBL going? Cordie said games were patronized by families and surprisingly teenage boys as well as college students. “The way [male fans] spoke to us, [they were there] to see our game,” she recalled. Former major leaguer Jim Kaat told her that his father used to take him to see the games. But after the league folded, Gloria Cordes went home to New York.
In her five-year career, Cordes never had an earned-run average over 3.63 (her first season). Her career best ERA was 1.98 in 1952. She had her best won-loss record that year, 16-8. She made the league All Star Team that year as well as in 1953. After her first two seasons (5-10 and 3-15), she went 16-8, 13-11, and 12-7, for a career record of 49 victories and 51 losses.
History has given a multitude of reasons why the league folded. The popularity of television and air conditioning were on the rise. The men were home from the war and major-league baseball was back in full force. Nonetheless, the league still drew for years after that. Its numbers did not just fall off a cliff. What went wrong? Cordie said a change from central ownership to individual ownership weakened the league. Suddenly teams were responsible for their own player procurement, upkeep, marketing, and publicity. This is a problem that has plagued the sport on a multitude of levels throughout its history. In the current era, minor-league teams outside of Organized Baseball fold often for some of the very same issues that plagued the AAGPBL in its final years. For example, as of 2012, CenturyLink Field at Skylands Park in Augusta, New Jersey, has hosted three professional baseball teams since its inception in 1994. All of them have folded or moved from this baseball friendly market for similar financial reasons.ix
Cordes Elliott did not feel the rules of deportment depicted in the movie A League of Their Own were repressive. She did not go to the charm school classes, which were dropped before she entered the league. The chaperone was not an oppressive schoolmarm either. Cordes Elliott described her as a “den mother,” who actually was a former player by the time Cordes Elliott was in the league. Regardless, Cordes Elliott was still required to follow the league’s “rules.” Looking back, she said she felt it was not as much about beauty, it was about not being masculine. The rules conformed to the social mores of the time. If she had not escaped her fate as a Manhattan secretary, she “couldn’t wear pants anyway.”
Cordes Elliott did not feel compelled to follow these rules blindly, either. For lack of a better word, she “skirted” some of the most famous rules. She especially did this when the rules were getting in the way of her game. A player was not supposed to keep her hair short, regardless of how hot it got. Cordes, however, figured out that if she kept her hair curly, it shortened her hair artificially and got it off her neck. She also converted the famous flared uniform skirt into a straight skirt (known today commonly as a pencil skirt). The flare was getting in the way of her windup.x For perspective, some women have trouble navigating their exit out of a car in a pencil skirt. Cordes Elliott pitched in hers.
After her baseball career ended, Cordes met and married Edward Elliott, a member of the New York Police Department and a former batting practice pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers. She became a homemaker and community activist. The couple had one child, a son who died in his youth. Like other alumnae of the AAGPBL, she was an adviser on A League of Their Own. She is a member of the AAGPBL Alumni Association. She was inducted into the Staten Island Hall of Fame in 1997. At 80, she continued to speak at local schools, giving motivational speeches to students, especially girls. In July 2012 she received the Bobby Thompson award for service to her sport as well as to the borough of Staten Island.xi Even though she would never take credit, she also inspired women for generations to come. Asked what the high point of her career was, she replied, “The whole five years I played.” When asked if she would do it all over again, Gloria Cordes Elliott responded simply. “You bet.”xii
How does Gloria Cordes Elliot see her legacy and contribution to the national pastime? She actually does not see herself as a great feminist story, a common point of view for most women of her generation. She felt, “It’s just something I did.” Perhaps it was the forward thinking of her baseball mentors, first Bamberger, then Bancroft. Perhaps it was her family who indoctrinated her with their point of view? Simply put, if Cordes Elliott had the ability to play professional baseball, why shouldn’t she?
Leslie A. Heaphy and Mel Anthony May, Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2006).
Joe Moszczynski, “Dreams unfulfilled: Frankford's Skylands Park to remain vacant this summer,” Star-Ledger, Newark, New Jersey, March 11, 2012.
Joe Moszczynski, “Future of Skylands Park in Sussex County is uncertain as ballpark's lease expiration nears,” Star-Ledger, Newark, New Jersey, January 23, 2011.
Cormac Gordon, “Mac's Layup Drill: Gloria Cordes Elliott, Bill Welsh at head of class,” http://www.silive.com.
Diane Lore, “Baseball legend visits fifth-grade class at OLQP School,” http://www.silive.com.
AAGPBL official league site (Gloria Elliott [Cordes] Player Profile Page, league history), http://www.aagpbl.org
Staten Island Sports Hall of Fame, http://www.sisportshalloffame.org
“1950,” US Bureau of Labor Statistics pdf: http://www.bls.gov/opub/uscs/1950.pdf
“Women’s Work: The Feminization and Shifting Meanings of Clerical Work,” http://faculty.washington.edu/england/womenwork.pdf.
Baseball-reference.com. (players’ records)
AAGPBL Baseball Card, Gloria Cordes (Larry Fritsch Cards, 1995), Card No. 44.
Earle E. McCammon, Letter to Rosemary Stevenson, 1954.
Gloria Cordes Elliott, interview at her home in Staten Island, New York, 2002.
i AAGPBL Baseball Card, Gloria Cordes (Larry Fritsch Cards, 1995), Card No. 44. These cards are considered the official baseball card of the AAGPBL – Players Association.
ii In the 21st century, street ball, or streetball, is the common moniker for basketball played on an outdoor urban court. In Cordes’ youth, it was a reference to stick ball, a street game related to baseball and popularized in the Northeastern United States during the first half of the 20th century.
iii Gloria Cordes Elliott, Interview at her home in Staten Island, New York, 2002.
iv Gloria Cordes Elliott, interview at her home in Staten Island, New York, 2002. As Elliott tells the story, she saw this exhibition game at Gabe Stadium on Staten Island. According to Leslie A. Heaphy and Mel Anthony May in their, Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2006), this exhibition game was played at Yankee Stadium. Looking at the evidence, I feel that the game at Gabe Stadium may have led to the tryout at Yankee Stadium.
v Annual household income in 1950 from http://www.bls.gov/opub/uscs/1950.pdf. Numbers corroborated with percentages of women in the clerical workforce taken from census numbers in “Women’s Work: The Feminization and Shifting Meanings of Clerical Work,” http://faculty.washington.edu/england/womenwork.pdf. Confirmation of the amount of New Yorkers in the league taken from Heaphy and May, Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball.
vi The league rebranded itself several times throughout its history. In 2012 the league’s alumni association was using All American Girls Professional Baseball League as the official name of the league, especially throughout the retelling of its history.
vii This might be considered odd by today’s standards. Nonetheless, there was a different definition of safety for women in mid-20th-century America.
viii Gloria Cordes Elliott, interview at her home in Staten Island, New York, 2002. Unlike in the movie A League of Their Own, Elliott said that the girls did not live together. They lived in the private residences of local host families, not much different than what many players in the lower minor leagues do today.
ix Joe Moszczynski, “Future of Skylands Park in Sussex County is uncertain as ballpark's lease expiration nears,” Star-Ledger, Newark, New Jersey, January 23, 2011; Joe Moszczynski, “Dreams unfulfilled: Frankford’s Skylands Park to remain vacant this summer,” Star-Ledger, March 11, 2012.
x Gloria Cordes Elliott, interview at her home in Staten Island, New York, 2002. Corroborated with Earle E. McCammon, Letter to Rosemary Stevenson, 1954.
xi Cormac Gordon, “Mac's Layup Drill: Gloria Cordes Elliott, Bill Welsh at head of class,” http://www.silive.com; Diane Lore, “Baseball legend visits fifth-grade class at OLQP School,” http://www.silive.com. Corroborated by http://www.sisportshalloffame.org.
xii Gloria Cordes Elliott, interview at her home in Staten Island, New York, 2002.