In the fall of 1942, faced with the possible cancellation of major league baseball for the duration of World War II, Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley came up with a way of keeping the ball parks open: He would establish a women's professional league.
Acting swiftly, Wrigley enlisted Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey and Cubs attorney Paul V. Harper as fellow trustees. Arthur Meyerhoff, the Wrigley Company's principal advertising agent, was also among the first people who Wrigley brought in to help organize the league. "Mr. Wrigley was the kind of a guy who always tried to get ready for some contingency in his businesses," recalls Meyerhoff, now 90. "It appeared as though the ball parks would be empty for a while because of the manpower situation. His primary interest was not necessarily in innovating a new sport, but in providing wartime entertainment and home-front morale. He did it to continue some form of baseball during the war."
Jim Hamilton, the Cubs' chief scout, was dispatched to organize tryout camps throughout the U.S. and Canada in order to recruit players, and in May 1943, after an abbreviated spring training at Wrigley Field, the All-American Girls Softball League, as it was originally called, began play with four teams—the Rockford (Ill.) Peaches, South Bend (Ind.) Blue Sox, Kenosha (Wis.) Comets and Racine (Wis.) Belles. "It was put into those cities to road test it, to nurture it," explains Meyerhoff, "while Mr. Wrigley was getting it ready for the big ball parks, hoping to eventually have teams in the major league system."
The game they played that first season was essentially a modified version of soft-ball as played at the time: The ball was 12 inches in circumference, softball-sized, but the diamond was expanded (65-foot base paths, 40-foot pitching distance), there were only three outfielders, and base runners were allowed to take a lead before the pitch was delivered. From here, though, the game evolved steadily and rapidly, becoming more like baseball: Full sidearm pitching appeared in 1947, and by '48 overhand pitching was in effect. In 1954, when the All-American Girls Baseball League (that name was adopted in 1945) folded, the sport was being played with a near-regulation hardball on a diamond with 85-foot base paths and a 60-foot pitching distance.
Players were expected to embody "the highest ideals of womanhood" and were required to "dress, act and carry themselves as befits the feminine sex." There were strict rules for off-the-field dress and conduct, and during the early years players were closely supervised by chaperones, all of whom wore stewardess-style uniforms. The ballplayers' uniforms—designed by Mrs. Wrigley, Wrigley Company poster artist Otis Sheperd and Ann Harnett, the first woman signed as a player—were one-piece dresses featuring a short, flared skirt. And instructors from the Helena Rubenstein beauty salon were brought in to train the players in deportment and grooming.
From the perspective of the mid-'80s, this emphasis on femininity and glamour seems preposterously outdated, but given the social climate of the times and the public-relations image Wrigley sought to project, it was a stroke of marketing brilliance: Without it, the league probably would have never gotten off the ground.
Wrigley was determined to create a very different image from the "masculine" one conveyed by contemporary women's softball. The league administrators believed—and rightly so, it appears—that the stringent dress and behavior codes, together with the chaperones' strict supervision, would lend a certain moral respectability to the players' reputations and thus help ensure the public's acceptance of the league. This was professional ball, after all, with a four-month season, and for parents who might otherwise be reluctant to allow a teenage daughter to be away from home for that length-of time, such standards were reassuring.
"I'd have to say that a lot of the women's softball teams did dress and look mannish," says Pepper Paire, who played in the league from 1944 to '53, missing only the first and last seasons. "Some girls didn't make the league, not because they weren't good ballplayers, but because they looked too masculine. Mr. Wrigley didn't want any part of that image. So we went to charm school—and I'm here to tell you that some of the girls arrived with their shoes over their shoulders. We had to wear high heels, all dressed up, and carry a book on top of our heads and say, 'Bounce the ball.' This was in the evenings at spring training, after 10 grueling hours on the ball field.
"But you have to understand that we'd rather play ball than eat, and where else could we go and get paid $100 a week to play ball? So, if some of the girls liked to wear their hair a little bit short, or liked to run around in jeans, they bent with the rules. You wore your hair below your shoulders; you wore skirts and dresses in public. You never wore shorts or slacks in public, and you never smoked or drank in public. We could only date with a chaperone's permission, and we had to be in bed two hours after the ball game. Of course, there were a few little ways of getting around the rules, as long as you were discreet and didn't flaunt it. I've gone down and up many a fire escape, with the coaches sitting right there in the lobby."
Shirley Jameson, the second player signed, agrees that the concept of femininity was crucial to the overall success of the AAGBL but also remembers occasions when it got out of hand. "As far as charm school went, it was fine for what it was, but the women didn't seem to be tuned in to what we had to do," she says. "Some of it was apropos, but a lot of it you just couldn't use playing baseball. We had one chaperone who really went overboard, and when someone was running up to bat, she would say, You don't have any lipstick on!' Well, you know, that's the last thing in the world someone in a ball game is thinking about. She said it to me once when I was coming up to the plate in a game-winning situation! I don't know whether I had lipstick on or not, but at that point, I could have cared less. I was playing the game."