Although most people familiar with Jean Cione knew her as a longtime professor of sports medicine and director of women’s athletics at Eastern Michigan University, she also had an earlier career as a standout player in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). Cione primarily pitched and played first base for five teams between 1945 and 1954. For three seasons, she played for the Rockford Peaches, the team depicted in the 1992 film A League of Their Own, starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis and Madonna.
Jean Shirley Cione was born on June 23, 1928 in Rockford, Illinois, about 90 miles northwest of Chicago. She was the eldest of two daughters born to John Cione, a machinist, and Viola (née Hasselquist), who worked in a beauty shop.
Cione grew up the consummate tomboy, earning a letter at Rock River School playing boys softball as an eighth-grader. Although a talented athlete, she didn’t have the chance to play varsity sports since her high school had no girls teams. Instead, she played for industrial league women’s softball teams in Rockford.
Cione was thrilled to learn in 1943 that Rockford would have a team in the newly formed All-American Girls Professional Softball League (the league evolved in various ways over time, including its name, the size of the ball, pitching distance, and pitching style). She and her father attended many Peaches home games. In the spring of 1945, prior to its third season, the league held tryouts – conducted by Hall of Famer Max Carey, who was also president of the circuit. Cione couldn’t wait to hit the diamond. The league invited her to spring training in Chicago; she made the cut and was assigned to Rockford. At age 17, the high school junior became a professional athlete.
“From that moment on, I was learning from and playing with the most talented women softball players in the United States, Canada, and Cuba,” Cione wrote in the foreword to the book The Origins and History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. “For two years, the Peaches had been my idols, now I was one of them. … Just think, in 1945, a young woman athlete was not only able to dream of competing at a very high level of athletics, but she was able to live her dream. It was unbelievable.”
Cione, who threw left-handed but batted from the right side, was listed at 5-feet-8 and 143 pounds. After playing first base with Rockford in 1945 and the Peoria Red Wings in 1946, Cione returned to Rockford in 1947 and established herself as one of the league’s elite pitchers with a 19-14 record and 1.30 ERA. Despite her performance, the Peaches finished in sixth place at 48-63.
From 1948 through 1951, Cione played for the Kenosha Comets. She had another strong year in 1950 with an 18-10 record and 2.96 ERA. Since 1948, the league’s pitchers had been allowed to throw overhand – but her sidearm southpaw delivery frequently baffled batters.
“I was primarily a power pitcher,” Cione said in a 2009 interview. “I developed a cross fire where I stepped to first base and brought it in right under your ribs. I was not afraid to work the inside of the plate. I had a changeup and later in years, I developed a two-fingered knuckle curve … that’s a ball that’s thrown with a spin on it and when it loses enough momentum, it falls off … I was left-handed and that was good for pitching against some of the very, very good left handed hitters.”
Among Cione’s career highlights were three no-hitters – a league record. She fired two of them in the same month with Kenosha in August 1950. She also completed a rare unassisted triple play while playing first base. She was named a league All-Star in 1952.
“Jean was our star pitcher and one of the best I had ever seen,” said Delores “Dolly” Brumfield White, who played with Cione on the Comets from 1948-1951. “She was very serious about her pitching and was all business on the field. I played first base and hated it when Jean fielded a bunt. It was difficult to catch her hard sidearm throw.”
The Kenosha franchise folded after the 1951 season. Cione joined the Battle Creek Belles in 1952; that team moved to Muskegon, Michigan in 1953. She returned to Rockford in 1954 for the AAGPBL’s final season. Cione ended her 10-year baseball career with a 76-65 record, 2.33 ERA, 86 stolen bases and a .224 average.
During the baseball off-seasons, Cione took classes at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), where she earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1953. She then taught high school physical education in Trenton, Michigan and Rockford, and earned a master’s in education from the University of Illinois in 1962. Later, she conducted post-master’s work at the University of Michigan.
Cione returned to EMU in 1963 as a professor of Sports Medicine. She spent the next 29 years teaching anatomy, physiology, kinesiology and other classes in the School of Health Promotion and Human Performance. She also coached women’s track and basketball and became the university’s first director of women’s athletics in 1973.
Although Cione didn’t talk much about her baseball career with her students or colleagues, the subject came up occasionally during her classroom lectures.
“One day in kinesiology class, we were discussing the aerodynamics of a baseball pitch,” said Eric Durak, who took undergraduate courses at EMU in the early 1980s. “She mentioned she had played professional baseball as a young girl, but most of the players weren’t strong enough or didn’t know how to throw a curveball. I thought her reference to playing baseball was a little odd at the time. But the reality of what she had done hit me later when the movie A League of Their Own was released. Now I watch the movie with admiration knowing who inspired it.”
Durak also said that Cione carried her no-nonsense attitude from the baseball diamond to the classroom.
“If you asked a question the textbook covered, she’d tell you to look it up and give you the page number,” he said. “She didn’t yell at people, but she didn’t mess around – you were expected to know your stuff.”
Cione mentored generations of students like Durak, who worked with her for two years as an undergraduate teaching assistant in her anatomy and physiology lab.
“She was a lot more than just an anatomy teacher,” said Durak, who became a wellness specialist at the University of California-Santa Barbara. “Cione was a great mentor who encouraged me to pursue graduate work. We stayed in touch through the years. I still occasionally refer to notes I took in her class.”
The impact that Cione and the AAGPBL had on the development of women’s sports went far beyond the diamond. Lucy Parker, retired EMU associate athletic director, says that Cione was instrumental in helping women’s sports at EMU evolve from club teams in the physical education department to a full-fledged athletic program.
“In the 1960s, there was no women’s athletic program at Eastern, just club sports,” Parker said. “Jean ran the club sports program, coached the softball team and did some fundraising. During that time, she created a model for the women’s athletic program in advance of Title IX. She firmly believed in equality in athletics, but she didn’t stand on a soapbox. Once the women’s athletic program was created, she devoted herself to academics. She loved teaching and knew that many of her students were the first in their family to go to college. She was really invested in their success.”
After retiring from EMU in 1992 and moving to Bozeman, Montana, Cione became vice president of the AAGPBL Players Association. A League of Their Own revived interest in the league, and Cione and the other surviving players became celebrities. In addition to granting interviews about her days in baseball, Cione contributed to a video presentation about the league for the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s permanent exhibit about women in baseball. She was inducted in EMU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1986 and the National Italian-American Hall of Fame in 2007.
Cione spent her final years traveling, golfing, volunteering at the Museum of the Rockies, and following her beloved Chicago Cubs. She died on November 22, 2010 in Bozeman at age 82. She was survived by her partner, Ginny Hunt.
“We never did, and still do not, envision ourselves as pioneers,” Cione said in a 2005 interview with the Bozeman Chronicle about the AAGPBL. “[A League of Their Own] made us pioneers. For us, it was an opportunity to play a sport we dearly love at the highest level. We would have done it for nothing.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Eastern Magazine.
Jean Cione player file. National Baseball Hall of Fame; Cooperstown, New York.
Books and newspapers
Cione, Jean. “Foreword.” Published in Fidler, Merrie A. The Origins and History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2006.
Welsch, Jeff. “Bozeman Resident an Original Member of the Rockford Peaches,” Bozeman Daily Chronicle, June 26, 2005.
Interviews with the author
Durak, Eric; April 12, 2011.
Parker, Lucy; April 25, 2011.
White, Delores; April 14, 2011.
AAGPBL.org, Jean Cione player profile.
EMUEagles.com, E-Club Athletic Hall of Fame, Jean S. Cione.
Legacy.com, Jean Cione obituary from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Olson, Gordon. Interview with Jean Cione, September 27, 2009. Grand Valley State University, All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, Veterans History Project. http://cdm16015.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15068coll11/id/18
United States Census, 1930; FamilySearch.org (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:X39D-26K : 8 December 2015), John Cione, 1930.