The International Girls Baseball League
This article was published in the Fall 2016 Baseball Research Journal.
Probably almost everyone has heard of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) thanks to the movie A League of Their Own. Of course, the film did not deal with other professional leagues or an international girls’ baseball league. The idea for an international league was first proposed by Arthur Meyerhoff, a Philip K. Wrigley advertising agent and AAGPBL Commissioner from 1945 through 1950. Meyerhoff was also integrally involved in helping to establish and advertise the AAGPBL from its inception in 1943. In 1948 he envisioned an International Girls Baseball League to play games in Florida in December, Venezuela in January, Puerto Rico in February, and Cuba in March.1
Meyerhoff’s plan stemmed from his experiments with league spring training in Cuba in 1947 and postseason exhibition tours in Cuba, Central America, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico in 1948 and 1949.2 Although Meyerhoff’s groundwork suggested that a winter league of girls’ international baseball could be viable, its success was undermined by potentially dishonest Latin American promoters and financially constrained team directors who lacked his vision.3
A second incarnation of an International Girls Baseball League did come to fruition, though, and with the help of co-author and former AAGPBL player, Helen “Nordie” Nordquist, we have been able to construct an account of this hitherto obscure subject.
The second set of administrators to establish a women’s winter professional baseball league in Florida came from the Chicago-based National Girls Baseball League (NGBL), a parallel league to the All-American. They organized and operated the “International Girls Baseball League” (IGBL) in Florida during the winter of 1952–53.
The amateur/semipro teams of the Chicago area were a key source of talent for the AAGBPL, as the area attracted the nation’s best softball players and touring teams from other cities during the 1930s and 1940s.4 Philip Wrigley created the All-American Girls Softball League (AAGSBL) in 1943 to keep baseball alive with female players, while many male big leaguers were serving in World War II. The AAGSBL title only lasted half a season because league administrators wanted to differentiate that, except for underhand pitching, ball size, and field dimensions, the league utilized baseball rather than softball rules. Subsequent league title changes included All-American Girls Base Ball League (1943, 1946–50), All-American Girls Professional Ball League (1944–45), and American Girls Baseball League (1951–54). The players' adoption of “All American Girls Professional Baseball League” when they incorporated as a players’ association in 1987 is how the league is known today and how it is referred to in this article. That league did not play in Chicago except during 1948. Its teams were primarily located in smaller cities around Chicago.5 It was natural that Wrigley’s scouts would recruit the best talent in Chicago, who were playing softball in the Metropolitan League. Thus, in order to retain and compete for player talent, some of the administrators of the Metropolitan League decided to convert their amateur softball teams into the professional “National Girls Baseball League” in 1944.
As a result, women’s professional ball then had its own “American” and “National” Leagues. The NGBL began with five teams in 1944, which was increased to six teams in 1945, and that number remained stable for several years.6 For most of its history the All-American League consisted of at least six teams, with a high of ten teams in 1948 and a low of four teams in 1943.
The founders of the NGBL included Charlie Bidwill, owner of the Chicago Cardinals football team, Emery Parichy, owner of a suburban home improvement business, and prominent politician Ed Kolski. The NGBL continued as a fast pitch softball league while the AAGPBL, except for pitching, ball size, and field dimensions, always played by baseball rules. Throughout the league's history, its field dimensions, ball size, and pitching style were constantly changed to approximate those of the men's game because league administrators believed baseball was a better spectator sport than softball.7
From 1944–54 players jumped back and forth between the All-American and National Leagues. Players switched leagues for things like a better salary, playing closer to home and a job—some AAGPBLers didn’t like or got tired of the extended travel—or being more comfortable with one game (usually softball) than the other. Some players in the AAGPBL, especially pitchers and infielders, couldn’t adapt to overhand pitching or throwing the longer field distances that league administration continually adopted, but they were still outstanding softball players. Connie Wisniewski, for instance, first became an AAGPBL outfielder when the increased pitching distance and overhand delivery reduced her pitching effectiveness. In 1950 she switched to the NGBL, where her underhand softball pitching prowess was in demand, but returned to the AAGPBL in 1951 because she enjoyed the social atmosphere there more.8
After two years of conflict over players, administrators in the two leagues reached a non-raiding agreement in 1946, and competition between them lessened, which brings us to the winter of 1952–53.9
As noted previously, Meyerhoff had envisioned establishing an International Girls Baseball League in 1948, and Frank Darling of the NGBL wanted to start a winter league in Florida in 1950. These ideas did not come to fruition, but in the fall/winter of 1952, some NGBL administrators, headed by Darling, organized and operated a winter girls’ baseball league in Florida. Frank Darling, owner of the NGBL’s Chicago Music Maids, was the president and driving force for the IGBL, and league secretary Harry D. Wilson also hailed from the NGBL. Darling must have collaborated with AAGPBL administrators on recruiting some of their players because a December 21, 1952, (Illinois) Morning Star article announced that six Peaches were playing in the IGBL.10
Another aspect bespeaking collaboration between the NGBL and AAGPBL was that the IGBL adopted the AAGPBL’s skirt-style uniform rather than the NGBL’s baseball pants or shorts-style uniforms. No information was available to suggest whether IGBL administrators consulted with those from the AAGPBL regarding the league’s title or whether they eventually intended to include competition with Cuban, Venezuelan, or Puerto Rican women’s teams. However, the league’s title suggests this may have been a possibility.
NGBL and AAGPBL players were “recruited” to the IGBL with letters from Darling in October 1952.11 If a player responded affirmatively to the letter, she received a contract.
Enough players from the NGBL and AAGPBL responded affirmatively to Darling’s winter ball proposal to constitute four teams. Those listed on the following page who played for teams preceded by city names were from the AAGPBL, and the other players listed came from Chicago’s NGBL teams.
The NGBL was well represented in the IGBL with outstanding players such as Beckmann, Borowy, Brunke, G. Burns, Johns, Kabick, Ricketts, and Stoecher. They were all on the NGBL’s 1952 All-Star team. In addition, the Queens, the team the All-Stars played, were represented by Busick, Hane, Kmezich, Kolski, F. Savona, and Stech, who were equally outstanding. Kabick and Ricketts had also previously starred in the AAGPBL. Savona was the “Babe Ruth” of the NGBL; she shattered the existing home run record and batted over .400 in 1951.12
Top players from the AAGPBL were former All-Stars Joan Berger, Briggs, Foss, Kelley, Moore, Perlick, Richard, Sams, Winter, and Wisham. Multi-year AAGPBL All Stars included Perlick (1943, 1947, 1948), Richard (1949–54), Ricketts (1953–54), Sams (1947, 1949–52) and Winter (1946, 1948). Among these, Sams was one of only two AAGPBLers who earned the league’s Player of the Year Award twice (1947, 1949).13
The plans for the International Girls Baseball League were very ambitious, and as it turned out, overly so. There was to be a 240-game schedule, meaning 120 games per team, to be played between December 2, 1952, and April 28, 1953. After that, of course, the women would return to their regular league teams for their scheduled seasons. As noted, Frank Darling, owner of the NGBL Music Maids, was the IGBL president. Umpires were from the men’s Florida International League. Games were played almost daily from December 2 through December 21. However, a Sunday, December 21, 1952, Rockford (Illinois) Morning Star sports page editorial predicted that the IGBL was doomed unless a “lusty TV contract” and/or additional “advertising lifesavers” turned things around. The article noted that attendance was affected by cold weather and amounted to only 667 fans at the season opener. Some succeeding games only drew 200–500, and players were asked to take a pay cut due to the league’s financial woes.14 There was a two-week hiatus for the Christmas holidays, and play resumed on January 6, but weather prevented all but a couple of games for the next few days. Then on January 11, 1953, it was announced that the rest of the season was cancelled.
On Monday, January 12, 1953, the Omaha (Nebraska) World Herald reported that the IGBL, which operated for more than a month, had folded the day before. The league blamed “cold weather and other attractions for its failure,” and it was noted that “spotty crowds attended the first three weeks and the league closed down for the Christmas holidays” with only two games per team being played between January 1–7, 1953.15
The Miami Herald sports page articles for the IGBL from December 3, 1952, through January 9, 1953, were short and sweet.16 They reported outstanding individual play, scores, winners and losers, line scores, and the next night’s game schedule, but not much else to entice fans to attend games. There were no averages (or even standings) published. All that was available, mainly from the Miami Herald, are line scores with some commentary. Thus the following statistics are unofficial, but the standings are approximated as follows:
|Ft. Lauderdale Rockettes||9||4|
|Miami Beach Belles||4||12|
More game stats for analyzing league action would have been desirable, however the success of the Queens was no surprise. Their core was from the Chicago Queens, the dominant team in the NGBL. The other teams looked fairly evenly matched on paper. For hitting, only home runs were mentioned in the articles. Three players had at least two—the NGBL’s Alice Kolski (one grand slam), and Freda Savona (two in one game), and the AAGPBL’s Betty Foss. For pitching, the best performance was Ginny Busick’s 6–1 record. Lottie Jackson was 4–2, while Sunny Berger and Ann Kmezich went 3–2.17 The pitching style was underhand, so the pitchers were primarily from the NGBL, although some played in the AAGPBL 1943–47, when the league utilized underhand pitching. One notable disappointment was Joanne Winter, a star in both leagues, who started out 0–5.
The only promotions to stimulate attendance were Ladies’ Nights, an exhibition game or two with local men’s teams, and a clash between a team of IGBL All-Stars and the Fort Lauderdale Rockettes.18 Only two articles included photographs. One was a game action shot of Marie Mansfield attempting to tag Alice Brunke at third base on December 3, 1952, and the other was a December 9 still of Margaret (Sunny) Berger about to deliver an underhand pitch. Some feature articles on individual players and more game action shots might have helped stimulate attendance. In addition, efforts to promote attendance among local business or factory workers might also have bolstered sagging fan turnout. Coverage by other local newspapers in IGBL cities was not available for this article, but it seems reasonable to believe that the Miami Herald’s coverage was representative of the rest.
Of the International Girls Baseball League’s premature folding, NGBL star Freda Savona said, “I just can’t understand it, …The sport has been so successful around Chicago. Why, for two seasons our league outdrew the White Sox in attendance.”19 Of 28 games scheduled between December 30 and January 4, the teams played about half, but this wasn't only due to the weather. Ad hoc adjustments to the original schedule wiped out five games between these dates. One has to wonder at the market research and lack of publicity by management because Miami was a much smaller market than Chicago. In addition to the usual sports activities (basketball, high school games, etc.), there were football bowl games, and Hialeah and jai-alai featured the allure of gambling. If the league had survived into February/March, it would have also had to compete against major league baseball’s spring training. In addition, there was a good men’s minor league operating in the area. Since the IGBL was an experiment, a 60 to 80 game schedule would have been more sensible.
As the January 12, 1953, Miami Herald article noted, the IGBL consisted of the cream of both women’s Midwestern circuits.20 Unfortunately, the demise of the IGBL was an early indicator that women’s professional softball and baseball were on the way out. The AAGPBL lasted through the 1954 season, dropping from six teams in 1953 to five in 1954. The NGBL dropped two teams in 1953 and another in 1954 after which it also came to an end.21,22 Subsequently, there was no women’s professional baseball to speak of. Amateur women’s softball underwent a revival as a college sport with the passage of Title IX and enjoyed a stint as an Olympic sport from 1996 through 2008. There was an attempt to establish an International Women’s Professional Softball Association (1976–79), but it wasn’t until 1997 that the current women’s National Professional Fastpitch (NPL) league was first established as Women’s Professional Fastpitch (WPF).23
As former IGBL participant Helen “Nordie” Nordquist affirms, the life of the International Girls Baseball League was brief, but despite bad weather and less than the best publicity and promotion, it afforded AAGPBL and NGBL players the opportunity to enjoy joining together to play a game they loved during the winter of 1952–53.
BILL McMAHON is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Akron. Born in Chicago in 1937, he is a lifelong Cubs fan. He has been a SABR member for about 30 years, active in the Jack Graney Chapter, and he has contributed several articles to SABR publications. He chairs the Farm Club subcommittee of the Minor Leagues Committee. Other SABR activities include Retrosheet and the Nineteenth Century Research Committee. Bill’s interest in womens’ baseball stems from watching the games of the Bluebirds of the National Girls Baseball League in Bidwill Stadium in the late 1940s. He is currently working on a book on that league.
HELEN E. “NORDIE” NORDQUIST was born to Swedish immigrants in Boston, Massachusetts, March 23, 1932, and she lived in nearby Malden most of her life. As a result she’s a life long Red Sox Fan. Nordie grew up playing baseball and tag football with the neighborhood boys and was the first girl in her junior high school to earn a school letter for sports. In high school, she co-captained the softball team as a junior and senior. Nordie signed as an outfielder for the Kenosha Comets of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) in 1951 and played for the AAGPBL’s Rockford Peaches (1952–53), and South Bend Blue Sox (1954). After the AAGPBL folded, Nordie played amateur softball in the New England states and took up bowling. She worked as a switchboard operator, an accountant, and retired as a toll collector on Interstate 95 for the State of New Hampshire.
MERRIE A. FIDLER authored "The Origins and History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League," published by McFarland in 2006 and joined SABR about that time. She is a native northern Californian who taught P.E. and coached volleyball, basketball, and softball before retiring in 2003. She roots for the Boston Red Sox who signed her brother Bob to a minor league contract in the 1950s. She also roots for the Cubs because Philip Wrigley created the All-American Girls Baseball League, and the Giants, of course, have been her primary team since they moved to San Francisco.
Miami Beach Belles, L to R: Wilma Briggs, Ruby Heafner, Inez Gray, Marie Mansfield, Joanne Winter, Jaynne Bittner, Erma Bergman, Jacquelyn Kelley, Ruth Mason, Helen Nordquist, Dolores Moore, Donna Banning, Marilyn Burns, Genevieve Burns.
Hollywood (FL) Queens, L to R: Irene Applegren, Louise Fischi, ?, Ruth Richard, Dorothy Hane, Freda Savona, Ginny Busick, Margaret Berger, ?, ?, Alice Kolski, ?, Mary Rudd.
Ft. Lauderdale Rockettes, L to R: June Borowy, Georgia Terkowski, Caroline Stoecker, Dorothy Whalen, Virginia Ventura, Mary Wisham, Lottie Jackson, Joanne Beckman, Donna Johns, Yolanda Davino, Lonnie Stark.
Miami Maids, L to R: Joan Knebl, Julie Gutz, Joyce Ricketts, Josephine Kabick, Ann Pallo, Jean Weaver, Ann Kmezich, Betty Foss, Mary Pembo, Edythe Perlick, Alice Brunke, Stephanie Vaughn.
- 1. Fidler, Merrie A., The Origins and History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishers, 2006), 113. (Taken from “Memorandum of All American Cooperative Organization Plans for Latin America,” April18, 1948, Meyerhoff Files, Drawer 74, S.A. Tour Folder. This folder was reviewed by Fidler in 1974. Also, see Fidler, 111–21, for a full discussion of the AAGPBL’s post season Latin American Tours.)
- 2. Ibid.
- 3. Ibid, 112, 121, 123. A letter to Max Carey from Mary Rountree noted that Manuel Parra told a couple of players that one of the reasons the October tour failed was because of a falsification on his part. He added $8,000 to the transportation bill to be assured of a larger return. At the end of the 1949 Latin American Tour, the players were $4,724.96 short on their salaries and demanded to be paid or they would quit and join the professional National Girls Baseball League in Chicago. Meyerhoff agreed to pay half and pressured team directors to pay the other half. The directors weren’t happy about that because they were already in debt and money was tight.
- 4. Ibid, 200.
- 5. An exception was 1948, when a team, the Colleens, was placed in Chicago. That effort failed.
- 6. For various reasons, e.g., time and Chicago demographics, the National Girls Baseball League was largely forgotten and hence did not attract much media attention. The primary sources are the Chicago newspapers 1943–55 and the league magazines. The Tribune is of course the best known paper, but at times the coverage in the Herald-American and (Sun)-Times was as good as or better than the Tribune’s. The Daily News also covered the league. The papers carried line scores and occasional stories about players, but all in all, the coverage was probably less than that of, e.g., bowling. The magazines were put out by Publishers Press from 1949 to 1953, and for some of the other years there is insufficient information about rosters, standings, and averages.
- 7. Fidler, 36–37.
- 8. Fidler, 212. This information was provided from an interview with former AAGPBL player Marilyn Jenkins, who was a close friend of Connie Wisniewski.
- 9. This was near to the end for both leagues, leading to a quest for ways to stimulate interest, such as a winter league pitting their players against each other.
- 10. Oliver L. Cremer, “The Sports Coop: Six Peaches in Doomed Florida League,” Rockford(Illinois) Morning Star, December 21, 1952, 49. There were still some turf wars. After the non-tampering contract expired on February 15, 1951, Darling signed Sophie Kurys, Edythe Perlick, and Joanne Winter of Battle Creek for the Music Maids. In retaliation, Grand Rapids signed Connie Wisniewski of the Music Maids. (See Chicago Tribune April 6, 1951, B2; April 12, 1951, D2). On the other hand, Publishers’ Press, which published the Official National Girls Baseball League Magazine, put out an issue in August 1950, which covered both leagues, essentially equating them.
- 11. The player depicted on the letter is Stephanie “Tosh” Vaughn.
- 12. It was thought that Freda Savona wasn’t recruited by the All-American because she wasn’t “pretty.”
- 13. The other two-time AAGPBL Player of the Year was P/3B Jean Faut (1951 and 1953).
- 14. Cremer, Rockford (Illinois) Morning Star, December 21, 1952, 49.
- 15. “Female Diamond League Collapses,” Omaha (Nebraska) World Herald, January 12, 1953, 10.
- 16. See IGBL articles in the Miami Herald Sports Pages for December 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13,14,15, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21, and 22, 1952, and January 4, 7, 8, and 9, 1953.
- 17. After several years with the New Orleans Jax, the top amateur team, Jackson signed with the Music Maids, for whom she pitched and played outfield.
- 18. “Maids nudge Belles, 2 to 1,” Miami (Florida) Herald, December 11, 1952, C12; “Girl Baseball ‘Frozen Out’,” Miami Herald, December 13, 1952, A21; “Lauderdale Girls Swamp Miami, 5–1,” Miami Herald, December 21, D8; “Lauderdale Girls Lose 2,” Miami Herald, December 22, D4; and “Girl Baseball Play Resumes Tuesday Night,” Miami Herald, January 4, 1953, D6.
- 19. “Girl Baseballers Strike Out,” Miami Herald, January 12, 1953, D3.
- 20. Miami Herald, January 12, 1953, D3.
- 21. Frank Darling sold the Music Maids before the end of the 1953 season.
- 22. That left a three-team league. For the playoffs, another team was cobbled together from players available in the Chicago area.
- 23. Even softball was left to amateur leagues. Women’s softball underwent a revival as a college sport after the passage of Title IX and in 1976 Billie Jean King (professional tennis player), Janie Blaylock (professional golfer) and softball star Joan Joyce launched the ten-team International Women’s Professional Softball Association (IWPSA). The IWPSA ran for four years. More recently a pro fastpitch league was launched in 1997 as Women’s Pro Fastpitch (WPF) which is now operating with six teams under the name National Pro Fastpitch (NPF), an official partner of Major League Baseball. See “NPF History” at http://www.profastpitch.com/about/history/, accessed September 30, 2016.