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Former women's pro baseball players together again

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Sunday, September 23, 2012 - 12:01 am

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — When Delores "Dolly" Brumfield started dating her future husband, Joe White, in the 1970s, she never bothered to tell him about her youth — when she played in a league of her own.

"I really didn't tell that many people about it. For one thing, they wouldn't have believed me," Brumfield, now 80, said, recalling her playing days as a teen-ager in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. "That was the biggest thing. If you say, 'Oh, I played professional baseball,' there ain't no such thing, not in the South anyway. They didn't have any idea at all.

"I just didn't talk about it that much."

Brumfield is more than willing to talk about it these days, especially this weekend as 47 former players of the AAGPBL reunite for the 20th anniversary of "A League of Their Own," the movie that popularized what Brumfield and more than 500 other women accomplished from 1943-54. A new Blu-ray release from Sony Pictures that includes deleted scenes from the movie will be released in mid-October to celebrate the anniversary.

"I think we were pioneers," said Brumfield, a native of Prichard, Ala. "We showed that we could participate in sports. We could compete in sports."

According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, the history of women playing baseball dates back to at least the 1860s, when Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. fielded a team. The AAGPBL is considered the first formal women's professional baseball league and was formed when World War II was in full swing.

The so-called "lipstick league" was the brainchild of Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley, who wanted to keep ballparks busy during the war if baseball was adversely affected by players being called to serve their country. The league's first tryouts were held in Chicago in the spring of 1943 and drew almost 300 women from across the United States and Canada.

Four teams from the Midwest — the Rockford Peaches, South Bend Blue Sox, Racine Belles and Kenosha Comets — were formed and played a 54-game season that year. The league also at times included the Fort Wayne Daisies, Minneapolis Millerettes, Kalamazoo Lassies, Muskegon Lassies, Grand Rapids Chicks, Peoria Redwings, Milwaukee Chicks, Chicago Colleens and Springfield Sallies.

Wrigley deemed femininity a high priority and contracted with Helena Rubenstein's Beauty Salon to meet with the players at spring training. Proper etiquette was taught and each player received a beauty kit with instructions.

It seems like only yesterday for 93-year-old Mary Pratt of Quincy, Mass.

"We were going to look like ladies, dress like ladies and act like ladies. I lived the life," said Pratt, a left-handed pitcher who played in the league for five years when she wasn't teaching. "I was there when Helena Rubenstein came in, and we put the books on our heads and we learned to walk like ladies. This is the crux of why this was so successful. I just thought this was so wonderful."

So, too, did Brumfield, who grew up on the outskirts of Mobile, Ala. She learned to play baseball on the elementary school and junior high school fields close to her home.

"I was the local tomboy. I wanted to be out there playing. At that time in Alabama, there were no girls sports in the high schools," Brumfield said. "The men from the shipyards and paper mills in Mobile during World War II would come to those playgrounds to play ball. I was out there just wanting to play when they would come. If there was somebody missing, they'd let me fill in."

When the AAGPBL conducted spring training in April 1946 at Pascagoula, Miss., about 60 miles from Brumfield's childhood home, her mom took her out of school and drove her there in a beat-up Chevrolet. She quickly caught the eye of league president Max Carey, a former Pittsburgh Pirates star and future Hall of Famer.

"He had me hit, run, throw," Brumfield said. "Afterwards, he asked me how old I was. I said, 'Well, I'm 13, but I'm soon going to be 14.' So, he went to my mother and said, 'Mrs. Brumfield, we don't take girls this young.' My mom said, 'I don't want you to take her. I only wanted to know what you thought.' "

A lot, apparently. Brumfield was invited to spring training the next year and her mom let her go — by train to Miami and by plane to Havana, Cuba.

"I think my mom was proud. She encouraged me," said Brumfield, whose first contract was for $55 a week. "Just the idea that you're doing something you really love to do and were getting to travel was great. It was our part of history. It's our part of women's history, it's our part of baseball history at that particular time. The war changed a lot of lives in many different ways."

That the experience had a profound effect on the women who played is easy to see. Strike up a conversation with Pratt, and she'll more than likely sing the Rockford theme without skipping a beat.

"Oh, we hail from Rockford, Illinois, it's just across the line

We're not too young, we're not too old, in fact we're in our prime

Oh, we hit the ball with might and main, in fielding we are fast

We are the Rockford ballclub, we always dress in class

Oh, we never kick the gang around, we're always on our toes,

Not only in the ballpark, but when we're with our beaux

Oh, we're all in bed by 10 o'clock, that is a dirty lie

We are the Rockford ballclub, our motto do or die."

Carol Sheldon was born the year after the women's league folded, and though she went to college in Kalamazoo, she never knew about the girls of summer until she saw the movie.

"It's the only movie I ever went to that had a standing ovation at the end," said Sheldon, who grew up in Detroit and didn't start playing baseball until age 42. "I walked out of that theater going, 'How do I not know about this?' The only women athletes that I could idolize as an athlete were tennis players, golfers, gymnasts, because there was no pro softball. It would have been nice to have a role model."

The last scene of the movie is a reunion of the team as old women at the National Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit on their exploits. That happened when the Hall of Fame exhibit opened in 1988, and it happened again on Friday when the women revisited Cooperstown.

The reunion ended Saturday with a softball game at Syracuse's Alliance Bank Stadium, and 11-year-old Nadia Diaz will throw out the first pitch. Diaz has dreams of playing baseball, too, for a long time and seems right on track. With her blazing fastball and tantalizing changeup, she struck out 19 batters in a 1-0 win in a six-inning Little League championship game here in June.

"When I see what has evolved out of it, with all of us willing to come back, we're coming at a time where there is that big push to think that girls should get that opportunity that's offered through sports," Pratt said. "I'm so honored that at the age of 93 that I'm able to help the girls that are coming after and tell 'em to persevere."