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Belles have history behind the plate

Nicole Zook | Thursday, September 22, 2005

“Baseball is the latest and most popular form of athletics at St. Mary’s.”

The words ring just as true now as they did when they were written in the monthly Saint Mary’s student newspaper, Chimes, in May 1915.

Club baseball is the newest form of athletics on campus. It is quickly gaining popularity and interest among athletes, faculty and students – and not just at the College. Full-time Notre Dame and Holy Cross women are also allowed to participate in the new club sport.

But while the idea of a women’s baseball team may seem new and intriguing to students today, it is actually an age-old tradition in South Bend.

Early Innings

Women’s baseball has a rich history at Saint Mary’s. In fact, organizer and coach John Kovach created the club sport in order to celebrate the 100th anniversary of baseball at the College.

Saint Mary’s was one of the first women’s colleges to form a student baseball team in 1905, shortly after the first documented team at Vassar in 1866. By 1919, the sport was so popular that not just students but South Bend residents showed up at Saint Mary’s to watch the games.

An October issue of Chimes, read: “A baseball game was played at S.M.C. Saturday afternoon and the cheering almost rivaled that of the football game at N.D., then in progress.”

Several other leading women’s colleges, including Smith and Wellesley, formed teams that were just as popular. Younger girls began to play baseball after a “Blondes and Brunettes” team, the first to be paid to play the sport in 1875, began “Bloomer Girls” ball clubs across the United States. By the 1930’s, baseball for women of all ages had spread nationwide.

It wasn’t until 1942, after most of the country’s young, able men were drafted into WWII, that a major league was formed for women in baseball.

Women who tried out and made a major league team were sent through charm school and given a strict set of beauty guidelines, which instructed them to “be at all times presentable and attractive, whether on the playing field or at leisure” and gave tips on proper lipstick application – since, of course, they would be wearing it while they played.

Women in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) were paid anywhere from $45 to $85 dollars a week to play on minor and even two major baseball fields in the Midwest. The league began play on May 30, 1943 with a game between South Bend’s own team, the Blue Sox, and the Rockford Peaches.

Memorabilia from this game and other pieces of South Bend Blue Sox history are currently on display in the Cushwa-Leighton Library, along with autographed baseball cards, gloves, programs and photographs from other AAGPBL teams such as the Kenosha Comets and Peoria Redwings.

“There’s no crying in baseball”

Another interesting piece of memorabilia on display is a Racine Belles uniform worn in the 1992 film “A League of Their Own,” starring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks. The movie, which chronicled the AAGPBL from its inception in 1942 to its conclusion in 1954 and its official recognition by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Nov. 1988, led to an increased interest in the sport of women’s baseball.

Now, women in 19 states can play the sport in leagues.

Beginning in 1996, South Bend again formed a team – first in the shape of the South Bend Belles, a Ladies Professional Baseball League team that several Saint Mary’s Belles played for, and then under the rekindled name of the South Bend Blue Sox in the Great Lakes Women’s Baseball League. The team helped to expand the league in 1997, when USA Baseball, Inc. – the group that selects the Olympic baseball team – provided them with a grant to start their own Invitational Tourney.

South Bend, the last original team affiliated with the league, also contributed players to the first ever National Women’s Baseball Team selected by USA Baseball in 2004.

Kovach invited interested women to contact him and join the team, to become a part of Saint Mary’s history.