This article was written by Jim Nitz
The second night game ever played at Wrigley Field was a Red Cross “Thank You” program exhibition between the Milwaukee Chicks and the South Bend Blue Sox of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. This was the first contest of a doubleheader held on Tuesday evening, July 18, 1944, serving as a break between the two halves of the AAGPBL championship season. In 1943, the first year of the league, an AAGPBL night all-star game had also been played at Wrigley Field.1 The 1944 event matched the fully-rostered teams of the Chicks and the Blue Sox, followed by the Racine Belles against the Kenosha Comets. The second game was stopped at 11 P.M. with a 6-6 tie after 3½ innings because the teams needed to get to their trains to begin the second half of the season the next day.2
The AAGPBL, founded by Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley, promoted this Red Cross doubleheader by offering free admission to Wrigley Field that evening to anyone showing a Red Cross worker’s button, contributor’s pin or card, or blood donor’s button, as appreciation for their wartime work. Furthermore, uniformed servicemen and anyone they escorted were also invited to enjoy women’s baseball at no charge.3 The day of the event, free admission for all was highlighted in the newspapers, in the hope of filling all 40,000 Wrigley Field seats.4 In addition to local radio spots and newspaper coverage, 25,000 bright red flyers were distributed throughout the Chicago area to promote the 7:30 P.M. twin bill. A special box-seat section was open only to members of the armed forces and Red Cross volunteers and contributors who arrived before 7:15.5
The Chicks and Blue Sox got the evening off to an exciting start, as Milwaukee, managed by future Hall of Famer Max Carey, won in a slugfest, 20-11, over South Bend, led by former big leaguer Bert Niehoff. The Chicks scored 11 runs in the sixth inning to put away the Blue Sox before a crowd estimated at 20,000 by the Chicago Tribune.6 The Racine Journal-Times reported that 16,000 fans attended the game, which went 2 hours and 25 minutes. Sylvia Wronski, the 19-year-old Chicks number-4 starter, earned the win, besting Blue Sox starter, Kay Bennett. Seven pitchers were used in a game that was much longer and higher-scoring than usual for the AAGPBL.
Milwaukee’s leading hitters were shortstop Pat Keagle with four hits, including two triples, and four runs scored; outfielder Thelma Eisen (called “Pigtails” by the Racine newspaper) who drove in six runs and also hit a triple; and third baseman Doris Tetzlaff, who added four hits. The Racine paper said the sixth inning “looked like a track meet” with 15 Chicks batters facing Doris Barr. South Bend was led by catcher Lucella MacLean with three RBIs on three hits; third baseman Lois Florreich and her three hits; and outfielder Betsy Jochum’s three singles and a triple.7 The Milwaukee Journal, the Kenosha Evening News, and the South Bend Tribune concurred with the Racine Journal-Times on the 16,000 attendance figure. The Journal continued to be the only newspaper to refer to the Milwaukee team as the Schnitts, which means “small beer” in German or, alternatively, “little Brewers” in reference to the Milwaukee minor-league team at the time.8
The inadequate portable lighting at Wrigley Field was said to have contributed to the high hit, run, and error totals as outfielders had difficulty seeing fly balls. The planned 300,000 watts were reduced to only 38,500 due to problems securing and installing the necessary electrical cable. Chicks chaperone Dorothy Hunter, in a 1976 interview with groundbreaking AAGPBL researcher Merrie Fidler, recalled the temporary lights as “little bitty flood lights on the grand stand.”9 Seventy-three years after the game, Viola Thompson Griffin, left-handed Chicks pitcher, still remembered those lights being stationed around the outfield and in the grandstand and as “poor and pathetic, making it hard to see, which led to many errors.”10
In an effort to further entertain the crowd, Victor Mature, a popular film actor of that time, was on hand. The Racine Journal-Times had this to say about what became Mature’s unwelcome appearance at Wrigley Field that night: “The appearance of “That (self-advertised) Beautiful Hunk of Man was, to put it charitably, unfortunate. Mature, a chief bo’sun mate in the coast guard who has put in 14 months of sea duty and is now recruiting with the Tars and Spars show, made an ‘entrance’ when the game was in progress, had the over-long contest held up while he made an inconsequential series of wise-cracks about himself, and was given a sound round of razzberries as he left. We certainly don’t like to see a service man booed, but the Beautiful Hunk certainly asked for it.”11
Betsy Jochum clearly recalled this incident in a 2017 interview, stating that fans wanted to watch the ballgame rather than listen to a Hollywood star.12 Viola Thompson Griffin enthusiastically remembered that she and her teammates “as young girls, we thought Mature was great!”13 Mature did War Bond promotional tours and performed in morale and recruiting shows in 1944. Interestingly, he had been rejected by the Navy in 1942 due to color blindness. The very same day, he enlisted in the Coast Guard after passing a different vision test.14
Ballplayer reactions to playing at Wrigley Field were fascinating. Sylvia Wronski said it was immensely satisfying but added, “I loved playing ball. Even at Wrigley Field, nothing else ran through my head but playing the game. Baseball was my only passion until I got married.”15 Jochum did not recall specific details, other than Victor Mature getting booed. However, she did have vivid memories of the 1943 AAGPBL tryouts, also held at Wrigley Field.16 Griffin, in a 1995 oral-history interview, said that she “was very much conscious” that the AAGPBL was contributing to the war effort by playing in that Red Cross doubleheader. She also remembered the Mature incident by stating that “he was so handsome, and we wanted to watch him, and the people wanted to watch us play ball.”17
Almost three-quarters of a century after the game, Griffin said that, at the time, it was “so wonderful, amazing, and exciting to say I’m in Wrigley Field and walk out on that diamond.”18 Wronski recalled other AAGPBL war efforts during 1944 in which the Chicks played at several veterans hospitals, including Milwaukee’s.19 In addition, she was pictured in the August 10, 1944, Milwaukee Journal, promoting a coming Red Cross “Thank You” game at Borchert Field, home of the Chicks.20
As unforgettable as this exhibition appears now, no box score or pictures have been found for it. The only statistical record is a South Bend Tribune line score (showing the Blue Sox as visitors and the Chicks as home team) which included the runs for each of the nine innings, total runs, hits (South Bend 13, Milwaukee 16), and errors (South Bend 6, Milwaukee 5). Only the starting pitchers and catchers were included in this line score.21 AAGPBL press coverage in 1944 was more detailed for regular-season games in the teams’ hometown newspapers. However, the crowd of at least 16,000 watched the AAGPBL make history at Wrigley Field’s second night game ever, under those inadequate temporary lights in July 1944.
This article appears in “Wrigley Field: The Friendly Confines at Clark and Addison” (SABR, 2019), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. To read more stories from this book online, click here.
1944 Milwaukee Chicks photo is courtesy of AAGPBL.com.
1 Merrie Fidler, Origins and History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2005), 52.
2 “Racine Club Adds 2 Players, Ties Comets in Chicago Show,” Racine Journal-Times, July 19, 1944.
3 “Schnitts Split a Double Bill,” Milwaukee Journal, July 13, 1944.
4 “Wrigley Field Scene of Girls’ Games Tonight,” Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1944; “Belles to Play in Chicago,” Racine Journal-Times, July 18, 1944.
5 Fidler, 54-55.
6 “Girls’ Games for Red Cross Attract 20,000,” Chicago Tribune, July 19, 1944.
7 “Racine Club Adds 2 Players, Ties Comets in Chicago Show,” Racine Journal-Times, July 19, 1944; “Comets, Racine Tie 6-6 After Short Contest,” Kenosha Evening News, July 19, 1944.
8 “Comets, Racine Tie 6-6 After Short Contest”; “16,000 Watch Schnitts Win,” Milwaukee Journal, July 19, 1944, “Rockford, Blue Sox Meet Here Tonight,” South Bend Tribune, July 19, 1944; Thomas J. Morgan and James R. Nitz, “Our Forgotten World Champions: The 1944 Milwaukee Chicks,” Milwaukee History, vol. 18, no. 2 (1995): 36.
10 Viola Thompson Griffin, telephone interview with author, April 29, 2017.
11 Jim O’Brien, “Sidelines,” Racine Journal-Times, July 19, 1944.
12 Betsy Jochum, telephone interview with author, April 13, 2017.
14 John Keyes, DVCP. “Victor Mature Shadow Box.” TogetherWeServed – Connecting US Coast Guardsmen. Together We Served, 2011. Web. 14 Apr. 2017. https://coastguard.togetherweserved.com/uscg/servlet/tws.webapp.WebApps?cmd=ShadowBoxProfile&type=Person&ID=9597.
15 Sylvia Wronski Straka, personal interview with author, May 25, 1994.
17 Viola Thompson Griffin, oral history interview with Robert Carter, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Graduate Public History Class Project: The Forgotten Champs-The Milwaukee Chicks of 1944, March 8, 1995.
18 Griffin, 2017.
19 Sylvia Wronski Straka, oral history interview with Lisa Hutchinson, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Graduate Public History Class Project: The Forgotten Champs-The Milwaukee Chicks of 1944, March 20, 1995.
20 Milwaukee Journal, August 10, 1944.
21 “Rockford, Blue Sox Meet Here Tonight,” South Bend Tribune, July 19, 1944.
Milwaukee Chicks 20
South Bend Blue Sox 11
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