Fern Shollenberger

This article was written by Brian Engelhardt

Fern Shollenberger was the third baseman on the All-Star team in six of her nine seasons in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She first evidenced her talents on the family ball field in Hamburg, Pennsylvania. This small town is in a rural area of Berks County, 17 miles north of Reading. Fern’s father, Alvas R. Shollenberger, had built what was known in the community as the “Shollenberger ball field” out of a rough plot of ground next to the family’s home. Alvas would pitch batting practice and was said to “have a pretty good fastball.”1

Fern, who was born on May 18, 1923, grew up playing baseball every day — weather and household chores permitting, of course. She joined her two older brothers, Wilmer and Kenneth, her younger brother Gene, and other children from the neighborhood. Their mother, Fannie M. Shollenberger, had an older daughter, Althea, who was a non-participant in the baseball games. Another brother, Lawrence, had died at an early age.

The development of Shollenberger’s baseball skills was related in an early chapter of Mike, a biographical novel by former Hamburg resident Nevin A. Bailey. Despite being fiction, the book, set in 2003, incorporated certain facts about Hamburg and its residents. At one point Mike, a World War II veteran now in his eighties, reminisces about the games on the “Shollenberger ball field,” which he describes as “our field of dreams back in the 1930s.”2  

Mike recalls how the young Fern, a spectator, was at one point hit on the head by a pop fly, but “she shook it off. It was not that the hit was the cause, but it wasn’t long after that she joined in the games we played [there].”3 Bailey went on to relate Shollenberger’s ascension to being the top player on the field:

“As time went by, Fern was always the first one to get picked. She was not only a good looking young girl; she was also the best player there. Her posture resembled that of a young Carl Furillo with his cat like stance and dynamite arm. She could have beaten him in a footrace and was a whole lot better looking, with blond hair tumbling from beneath her ball cap and sharp blue eyes watching every movement, she’d fist the pocket of her mitt, ready to pounce on the hot grounders that skirted near her domain.”4

Known as “Sholly” to her friends,5Shollenberger graduated from Hamburg High School, where she excelled in softball as the starting shortstop on the team, basketball, track, golf and bowling.  Following graduation, Shollenberger continued to participate in various sports in local leagues and special events, but especially on softball teams in local women’s leagues.

Beginning with the 1941 season, Shollenberger played shortstop for the Mohrsville Dodgers, one of the leading teams in the area, about six miles from Hamburg. Although the Dodgers usually fared well within their league, they didn’t go far in the state playoffs. Shollenberger eventually moved a few miles over to the Leesport Diamond Lils. Coached by Lloyd “Scoop” Clemens, the Diamond Lils were among the top women’s softball teams in Pennsylvania, although they usually were defeated in the late rounds of state tournaments by the Kaufmann Maids of nearby Reading, who dominated Pennsylvania softball for a 10-year period. Clemens, whose son Doug played for three major league teams between 1960 and 1968, moved Shollenberger to third base, and would later say that he would, “rate her with the best that ever played in Berks County.”6     

In the latter part of 1945, Shollenberger was working as a secretary for the milling company outside of Hamburg when Clemens encouraged her to try out for the AAGPBL. In fact, she was one of nine former teammates on the Mohrsville Dodgers who received invitations to try out for the league. Although Shollenberger’s mother was not in favor of the idea of her playing professional baseball, it being far from the traditional role of a woman that she had envisioned for her daughter, her brothers encouraged her to travel to the tryouts, having experienced firsthand the talents of their sister on a ballfield and knowing how much she loved to play.

An additional complicating factor was that Shollenberger had recently married  her high school sweetheart, Daniel Behler, who also was not happy with the idea of his wife playing baseball professionally more than 600 miles away. Behler ultimately didn’t object to her going to the tryouts, with the understanding that even if she happened to make a team, she would return home to Hamburg.

Although several of Shollenberger’s former teammates decided to turn down the invitation, on the morning of April 17, 1946 she and three other former Dodgers — Amy Dunkleberger Shuman, Doris Dunkelberger, and Dawn Miller  — boarded a train in Reading headed for Pascagoula, Mississippi, the site of the league tryouts.7 Joining them were three other women from that area of Pennsylvania:  Jan Stocker (later Bottazzi) from Allentown, Jean Faut from East Greenville, and Janet Brown from Copley.8 It was the first time that Shollenberger and most of the other women had ever been away from home.

All the women trying out had signed contracts with the AAGPBL providing that payment was contingent upon the player making a team. Whether or not they made one of the eight teams for the league’s fourth season, the league would pay their train fare (including the luxury of sleeper berths) as well as meal money for as long as they were in camp.

One member of the group on the train had more in common with Shollenberger than just being a former Mohrsville Dodger. That was Amy Dunkleberger, who had recently married Mark Shuman. As was the case with Shollenberger, Dunkleberger was going to the tryouts against the wishes of her new husband; like Shollenberger, had promised her husband that even if she were selected to a team after the tryouts, she would come home.  However, the two young women firmed each other’s resolve; as Amy related, “Fern and I both agreed that if we made the teams, we weren’t coming back.” 9

Upon their arrival in Pascagoula, the women were assigned to former wartime barracks. With about 200 players trying out, there were two weeks of playing games before cutdowns began. At that point, the process was described by Dunkleberger: “They took 20 girls every day. Every girl hit ten balls and fielded ten balls.” 10Out of the group that travelled from Pennsylvania,  Shollenberger and Jan Stocker were selected by the Kenosha Comets, while Amy Dunkleberger Shuman and Jean Faut were chosen by the South Bend Blue Sox. The others returned home.

Sharing a bus with the Rockford (Illinois) Peaches, the Comets travelled north from Pascagoula through Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma, playing exhibition games along the way. On the trip, Shollenberger and Stocker were roommates — at least when the team got to sleep in hotels rather than on the bus. Though the hotels were preferable to sleeping on the bus, they were far from four-star establishments, evidenced by Stocker recalling, “One place we stayed in — I think it was in Louisiana — was a rickety old place where Fern and I had to share the bed. In the middle of the night it collapsed.”11

In Kenosha the two agreed to share an apartment, as neither was going to be dating. Stocker was engaged to be married in the near future.

True to their word (to each other — not to their husbands), Shollenberger and Dunkleberger stayed to play after teams were selected. Dunkelberger would play for part of the season with the Blue Sox — but her season ended early when her husband travelled to the site where the team was playing, literally carried her off the field before a game, and forced her to return home.12 

After a couple of months, Shollenberger’s husband came to Kenosha to try to persuade her to return, and stayed with her, which forced Stocker to move out. He could not accept her decision to remain and play, but eventually returned home without her. According to Shollenberger’s niece, Cynthia Zerr, “It just didn’t work out.”13 The couple were divorced within a year. Shollenberger played under her maiden name during her first year with the Comets, the only one in which she was married.

The 1946 Comets were coming off a 41-69 season in which they finished in last place in the six-team league. Kenosha resident Charles Preston “Press” Cruthers, who played two years with the pennant-winning Philadelphia Athletics in 1913 and 1914, then several years in the minor leagues, had taken over as manager with three weeks remaining in the previous season with the Comets in last place. Although the team posted a record of 11-17 after the change, Cruthers thought he “clicked” with the team, and was looking forward to managing the group for an entire season.14

Shollenberger had played mostly shortstop and third base for the teams she played for in Berks County, but she had played second base on occasion. At five feet four inches and 126 pounds, she had considerable speed and quickness, plus a good arm, making her adaptable to all three positions. All this led to her becoming the Comets’ starting second baseman when,  three games into the regular season, regular second baseman Betty Fabac broke her leg in a collision on the base paths and was out for the season.15  Shollenberger not only did a credible job in the field, her batting average of .225 was the second highest on the team, resulting in her being described as one of the club’s most potent hitters.16 The Comets would finish the season in seventh place with a record of 42-70, a one-game improvement from the year before.

During the offseason, former major-league outfielder Ralph Shinners replaced Cruthers as the Comets’ manager. Despite the new leadership, as well as the team starting the 1947 season with spring training in Havana, Cuba, the Comets finished in last place with a record of 43-69.  Betty Fabac’s return to the team resulted in her being reinstalled as the regular second baseman with Shollenberger being moved over to third base, where she would play for the balance of her career. Her batting average dropped to a career low .165, which resulted in her overall performance that season being termed “spotty.”17

With yet another change of managers during the offseason, the Comets began the 1948 season under Donald Chester “Chet” Grant, a former Notre Dame football star who had managed the South Bend Blue Sox to two successful campaigns in the AAGPBL Grant was described as instilling “a new competitive spirit in the Comets, plus…applying instructions for smart, heads-up play [which] has already laid the ground work to lift the team from the doldrums of defeat.”18

Whatever Grant was selling seemed to work for Shollenberger almost immediately, as early reports from spring training in Havana and Florida noted that she “looks like her 1946 self both defensively and at the plate.”19  When the regular season began Shollenberger was among the league leaders with a .400 batting average, going 16 for 40 over the first two weeks of the season.

Into the early part of July, Shollenberger had her average above .300, but by the end of the season she would cool off, finishing with a batting average of .210. However, Kenosha Evening News Sports Editor Eddie McKenna described her as the Comets’ “brilliant third sacker,” noting that she had the league’s “best defensive standard” at her position, with a .946 fielding average.20 Despite those stats, the honor for the all-star third baseman went to Racine’s Madeline English, who not only didn’t match up to Shollenberger’s fielding average, but hit 50 points lower than Shollenberger, who was chosen to the second team.

The Comets improved their record under Grant to 62-64, good enough for fourth place along with a playoff berth in the five team Western Division in the new 10-team format. The Comets were swept by the Rockford Peaches in the best-of-five playoff series, failing to get any hits or runs in two of the games. In the other game, a tight 3-2 loss, the Comets managed only two hits, one being a single by Shollenberger, who also scored one of the runs.  

As a result of an offseason contract dispute, the Comets replaced Chet Grant with Johnny Gottselig, a former member of the Chicago Black Hawks of the National Hockey League who had also managed the Racine Belles in 1943 and 1944, and the Peoria Red Wings in 1946. He would be the Comets’ seventh manager in seven years. The team responded well to Gottselig’s leadership, posting a record of 58-55, good for a fourth-place finish and playoff spot in the now eight-team league. The Comets were swept by the Muskegon Lassies in a best-of-three series, 3-0 and 6-1, with Shollenberger getting a single in each game.

At the outset of spring training in 1949, Eddie McKenna had declared, “Fern Shollenberger is the best defensive third baseman in the league — the record proves it.”21 That season Shollenberger compiled a fielding percentage of .955, recording 178 putouts and 333 assists, and figuring in 20 double plays in 111 games. This in the eyes of the league managers apparently outweighed her .178 batting average, as they determined at least for that year she indeed was the most valuable third baseman in the league and elected her to the league All Star team, the first of her eventual six selections to the team.

The news of Shollenberger’s election to the All-Star team was proclaimed in an inch-high banner headline on the sports page of the December 19, 1949, Kenosha Evening News. In the accompanying article Eddie McKenna described her as “most efficient operating third baseman in the (League),” who after a “highly spectacular” 1948 season in which she was given the “go by” as to selection on the managers’ All Star team, “instead of sulking and taking the slight sitting down, roared back…with an aggressiveness that produced another brilliant campaign to open wide the eyes of all the pilots in the circuit.”22  Despite the various newspaper articles reporting Shollenberger’s selection to the 1949 AAGPBL All-Star team, she is not noted as a league All-Star selection for 1949 in W.C. Madden’s All American Girls Professional Baseball League Record Book, with Maddy English being listed as that year’s selection at the position.23

During the four-year period with the Comets in which she ascended from rookie to All-Star, Shollenberger developed ties to the Kenosha community as well as warm friendships with a number of her teammates. An article in the Kenosha Evening News titled, “Comets Have All the Hopes and Aspirations of the Girl in the Stands,” briefly described the personal side of each of the players on the Comets rather than just their talent on the ballfield. Describing Shollenberger as friendly, it shared that she worked in a paper box factory in her hometown in the offseason and even though she thought of herself as a movie fan, she seldom had time to see many, because of time required for practices, games, and other chores.24 

A series of advertisements by the Comets titled, “We Thought You’d Like to Know…,” ran during the month of August 1949 in the Kenosha Evening News, each featuring an individual member of the team, together with her photo in uniform. Each installment focused personally on the player as well as on her skills on the field.  The item on Shollenberger not only described her as the league’s leading third baseman, but also related that her talent on the field enabled her to play not only third base, but second base, shortstop and the outfield. It also discussed how her love of sports extended to volleyball, basketball, and bowling. Noting that she played golf, “with more fun that finesse” the item noted that her favorite story is “about the time she drove her golf ball 150 feet into her partner’s golf bag.”25

Shollenberger was described in numerous articles as one of the most popular players with her teammates as well as with Kenosha fans. Teammate Delores “Dolly” (Brumfield) White prized her relationship with Shollenberger, describing her as a “honey” who was one of her closest friends and, “one of the best gals [on the team].”26 

Shollenberger’s community involvement in Kenosha included her coaching the “Shollenbergers,” a girls softball team in the Junior Comet League sponsored by the Comets. The Shollenbergers won the league championship in 1949. During several off-seasons she played on a basketball team of players from the AAGPBL who would play local teams in fund raisers, with the AAGPBL team getting a flat fee or a share of the gate.

Again managed by Gottselig for the 1950 season, the Comets posted a record of 64-46, the best ever for the team. Within striking distance of first place for most of the season, the Comets finished in third place, only three games behind the first-place Rockford Peaches. With the exception of center fielder Josephine Lenard’s having the tenth-highest total of RBIs in the league (51), no Comets finished in any of the leading offensive categories. The team was led by the strong performance of the pitching staff, especially Jean Cione’s record of 18-10 with two no-hitters. The Comets lost the best-of-five league semi-final round to the Rockford Peaches, 3-1. The Peaches went on to win their third straight league title.

Shollenberger was again voted as the All-Star third baseman after posting what were then offensive career highs in batting average (.254), RBIs (31), hits (106), runs (48), and doubles (8) as well has performing impressively in the field.

Following the completion of the 1950 season, it was reported that the AAGPBL was “flat broke” and that the existence of certain teams was at risk, among them Kenosha, which had operated at a loss during each of the eight years it had been in existence.27 The board of directors of the Comets determined that unless there was an infusion of $15,000 into the team’s budget, the team would not be able to operate for the 1951 season.28

The Comets were able to begin the 1951 season. However, team operations were taken over by the management of the Fort Wayne team at the beginning of August, so that the schedule could be completed. With a number of changes in the roster, even under the hand of Johnny Gottselig, the club finished the first half with a record of 21-36, and the second half with a record of 15-35. Overall, their 36-71 was sixth in the eight-team league.

Shollenberger was again named the third baseman on the All-Star team, batting .254 with a career-high 41 walks, and matching a career high with 48 runs scored. During the second half of the season, she was the team’s leading hitter, batting at a .350 clip.29  In an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune at midseason titled, “A Woman’s Place…Is at Home Plate”, Gottselig declared that, “when it comes to fielding, you can’t beat … nonchalant third baseman Fern Shollenberger,”30

Following the 1951 season, the Kenosha franchise officially folded and Shollenberger joined the Kalamazoo Lassies, who had taken over the Muskegon franchise in the middle of the 1950 season.

The 1952 Kalmazoo Lassies posted a record of 49-60 under manager Mitch Skupien, finishing in fifth place in what was now a six-team league. Shollenberger batted .228 and played well enough in the field to be one of three Kalamazoo position players selected for the All Star team.

The Lassies improved to 56-50 the next year, finishing in third place under Skupien. After taking two out of three games from Fort Wayne in the first round of the playoffs, the Lassies were swept two games to none by league champion Grand Rapids. In 1953 Shollenberger’s run of four straight seasons as the All Star third basemen was broken by Katie Horstman of the Fort Wayne Daises, whose performance at the plate (.292, 4 home runs, 46 RBIs) dwarfed that of  Shollenberger, whose batting average dropped to .193 with only 23 RBIs (although she did have a career-high 12 doubles). On top of that, Shollenberger’s .932 fielding average was the lowest it had been in any season in her AAGPBL career. 31

The 1954 season would be the last year of the AAGPB; however, both the Lassies and Shollenberger would go out with a bang. Finishing in fourth place with a record of 48-48, the Lassies still qualified for the playoffs in the now five-team league. Joining Shollenberger in the Kalamazoo infield that year were perennial All-Star first base/pitcher June Peppas, All-Star second baseman Nancy Mudge, and veteran shortstop Dottie Schroeder.    

After taking two of three games from the second-place South Bend Blue Sox in the first round, the Lassies took three of five from the Fort Wayne Daises, who had finished in first place. Shollenberger, who would have hits in each of the five games in the series, led a 17-run Kalamazoo attack with three hits in the first game of the series, including one of the only two home runs she would hit in her entire AAGPBL career. Down two games to one, Shollenberger drove in a key run in a come-from-behind rally, then took the deciding game, 8-5, behind June Peppas’s strong pitching

Shollenberger’s late-season offensive fireworks were a fitting conclusion to her most productive offensive season in the AAGPBL, as she batted .268 with 8 home runs and 58 RBIs, all career highs. She was chosen to the All-Star team for the sixth and final time.  The victory in the deciding game marked the team’s only title and would be the last game played in the AAGPBL.

According to The Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball, Shollenberger played in 918 games, batting .221 and driving in 231 runs. Her .942 career fielding percentage and double plays led all third basemen in the league. 32

Shollenberger returned to Hamburg after 1954 and worked with patients with severe mental disabilities at a state center for the disabled. According to her niece Cynthia Zerbe, “[Shollenberger] was always the one who played with all the kids. She was very athletic and very much a kid until the end of her life. Even after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she still played with us and was always very positive. If she was unhappy, she never let anyone know it. She used to bring patients home with her for holidays.”33  Zerbe related how her aunt inspired her to specialize in learning disabilities in her own teaching career, adding that “[Shollenberger] was so patient.” 34

During the off seasons spent in Hamburg, Shollenberger had been a leading scorer for the Hamburg Commandos women’s basketball team and one of the leading performers on a women’s bowling team. She was among many Berks County athletes included as “Berks County Athletes of the Century” selected by the Reading Timesin 1950 for her accomplishments on the baseball diamond. She also is a member of the Hamburg Athletic Hall of Fame. The late Ruth Kramer Hartman, a rival to Shollenberger in softball leagues around Reading and in the AAGPBL, remembered Shollenberger as the best player she had ever seen in Berks County.35

According to Zerbe, Shollenberger did not talk about her accomplishments in the AAGPBL with anyone other than her family members. After the death of her mother, she took care of her father. She was killed at age 54 along with her father in an auto accident caused by a drunk driver on Christmas Eve of 1977 near Leesport, Pennsylvania.

Shollenberger kept a multi-volume scrapbook chronicling her experiences in the league. It is an interesting insight into Shollenberger’s personality that most of the pictures and articles she kept were of her teammates on the Comets: Audrey Wagner, one of the league’s top hitters; Gloria Cordes, the team’s ace pitcher; and first baseman Alice Hohlmayer. Aside from featuring her teammates, several items featured Jean Faut as well as other women in the league. She also posted several articles describing the experiences of Eleanor Engle, a woman in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who signed a professional contract with the Harrisburg Senators of the Class B Interstate League but did not get to play. Unfortunately, several volumes of what had been a nine-volume scrapbook were destroyed in a flood a number of years ago, but the electronic version of the remaining volumes has been donated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and is included in Shollenberger’s player file there.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in Notes, the author accessed Shollenberger’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, plus information on Shollenberger  found on the All American Girls Professional Baseball League website found at: https://www.aagpbl.org/

This biography was reviewed by Norman Macht and fact-checked by Alan Cohen.

 

Notes

1Nevin A. Bailey, Mike (St. Petersburg, Florida: Booklocker.com, Inc., 2006), 3.

2Ibid., 4.

3 Ibid., 3.

4 Ibid., 4.

5 Cynthia Zerr, “Field of Dreams,” Reading (Pennsylvania) Eagle, July 5, 1992:  F1.

6Doc Silva, “25th Anniversary,” Salute to Sports, Reading Times (in Fern Shollenberger file in Baseball Hall of Fame).

7The Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Record, April 16, 1946: 15

8 Interview by author with Jeanette Stocker Bottazzi for SABR Bio, https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bottazzi

9 Amy Dunkelberger Jurasinsiki, SABR Biography, based on September 6, 2007 interview with the author.

10  Amy Dunkleberger Jurasinki, SABR BioProject.

11  Jeanette Stocker Bottazzi, SABR BioProject.

12  Amy Dunkleberger Jurasinki, SABR BioProject.

13 Susan L. Pena, “Shollenberger inspired those who knew her,” Reading Eagle, July 5, 1992: 96.

14 “Cruthers Back to Manage Comets,” Kenosha (Wisconsin) Evening News, April 23, 1946: 15.

15 “Bad Break for Betty Fabac,” Kenosha Evening News, May 28, 1946: 8.

16 “Kenosha Comet Comments From Training Camp,” Kenosha Evening News, April 22, 1948: 20.

17  Ibid.

18  Eddie McKenna, “Comets, Racine Launch Sixth Campaign,” Kenosha Evening News, May 8, 1948:  6.

19 “Kenosha Comet Comments From Training Camp”, Ibid.

20  McKenna, “Fabac, Shollenberger, Lead Their Positions,” Kenosha Evening News, October 13, 1948: 14.

21 “Comets Appraised,” Kenosha Evening News (from Fern Shollenberger scrap book).

22 McKenna, “Fern Shollenberger Selected to League All Star Team,” Kenosha Evening News, December 19, 1949: 16.

23 Shollenberger is also listed as being chosen to the Managers’All Star Team in the Racine Journal Times, December 19, 1949: 18, Maddy English is also not listed on that year’s second team third baseman, which was Alice Pollitt of Rockford.

24 “Comets Have All the Hopes and Aspirations of the Girl in the Stands,” Kenosha Evening News, July 9, 1948: 1.

25 “We Thought You’d Like to Know…,” Kenosha Evening News, August 1950 (from Fern Shollenberger scrapbook).

26 Jim Sargent, We were the All-American Girls: Interview with Players of the AAGPBL (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2013), 248.

27 Keith Brehm, “It’s This Way,” Racine (Wisconsin) Journal-Times, October 4, 1950: 19.

28 “Comets Appeal for Funds to Keep League Franchise,” Kenosha Evening News (1950, Fern Shollenberger scrapbook).

29 Harley Key, “Comets Make Debut Against South Bend,” Dubuque (Iowa)Telegraph Herald, August 3, 1951: 9.

30 Robert Cromie, “A Woman’s Place…Is at Home Plate,” Chicago Sunday Tribune, July 15, 1951.

31This leaves open the question whether Shollenberger was named to four, five, or six All-Star teams. A case can be made for six, but it appears five is the correct number.

32 Leslie A. Heaphy,The Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2016), 226.

33 Pena, “Shollenberger Inspired Those Who Knew Her,” Reading Eagle, July 5, 1992.

34 Cynthia Zerr, “Field of Dreams,” Reading Eagle, July 5, 1992: F-4.

35 Interview by author with Ruth Kramer Hartman, June 9, 2011.