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Ball players share memories of league

Nicole Zook | Wednesday, April 12, 2006

They may have looked unassuming with their glasses and walkers, but the three older women in the Saint Mary’s Vander Vennet Theater were once known as superstars in the world of professional sports.

Janet “Pee Wee” Sears, Betsy “Sockum” Jochum and Fran “Big Red” Janssen are former members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), but they didn’t have to come from cities near and far to talk about their experiences playing ball during World War II – the three women, who spoke to an small gathering of baseball aficionados in the College’s Student Center on April 2, are all local to the South Bend area.

The women spoke about what it was like to play baseball, how the sport has changed, being a woman in the man’s world of athletics in the 1940s and 50s when it was unheard of for women to play any sport professionally and, of course, the movie “A League of Their Own.”

“I just liked to play ball. I lived on a farm, and my brother and I would play,” Janssen said. “I didn’t even play organized ball until I got to Fort Wayne and joined a softball team.”

The women in the league were often traded “to keep the league even,” Janssen said, and they lived with families in their team’s towns.

Jochum said the players practiced every single day at 5 a.m., and practices and games were radically different than how the game is played today.

“We didn’t have the warm-up like they do now, we ran laps,” she said. “There were no team warm-ups. Pitchers were sort of on their own.”

There was also no bullpen, Sears said, and coaches would let any player from the bench or outfield with a good arm try pitching during games.

The AAGPBL players wore skirts as part of their ladylike uniforms and faced a fair amount of discrimination from men who thought women shouldn’t be playing baseball.

“I liked [the uniforms] – except for sliding,” Jochum said. “It was especially bad in South Bend because there were cinders at home plate.”

“It was interesting to go to each town and read the articles in the newspapers,” Janssen said. “Usually, men’s sportswriters would write about these ladies coming to town to play baseball … usually they had some smart headlines, but a lot of fans came to see the games.”

Women’s baseball – and the AAGPBL – has been experiencing a resurgence in popularity since “A League of Their Own” was released in 1992. The three women credited its director Penny Marshall, an avid AAGPBL memorabilia collector, for breathing new life into the sport.

“We were unknown until the movie started,” Jochum said. “Otherwise, we never talked about the league.”

Despite small inaccuracies the movie depicted, like players living in fan’s homes and chaperones never entering the dressing rooms, Sears said it was an accurate portrayal of the AAGPBL experience.

“The movie was quite good, I thought,” she said. “I thought it captured the basic essence of the whole league.”

One audience member asked Sears if the players actually sang the AAGPBL song at the league’s 1988 induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame “like at the end of the movie.”

“Oh yeah, that’s our song!” Sears said. “I tell you what, when you see your name up on that list at Cooperstown … I got tears.”

The women said the players still remain in contact, and 438 attended the league’s 50th reunion a few years back to reminisce about their days in the AAGPBL and how much playing baseball has affected their lives.

“It was the experience of a lifetime, really, especially for 1943,” Sears said.