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Baseball changed forever the life of local woman

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 - 11:41 am

When former Fort Wayne Daisies baseball player Isabel “Lefty” Alvarez was asked to submit biographical information to the Northeast Indiana Baseball Association (NEIBA) in May, she didn’t suspect it was for an award.

“I was very surprised that someone was keeping track of my doings,” Alvarez said. “I never thought of getting anything like that. It was super,” she said.

A reporter and columnist for “Touching Bases,” the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Players Association’s newsletter, and an active AAGPBL and NEIBA member, Alvarez was this year’s recipient of NEIBA’s Bob Parker Memorial Award. The honor recognizes a person for the promotion of America’s favorite pastime.

But however much Alvarez’s past and present contributions to baseball are commemorated, she credits the game itself for the majority of opportunities she’s had in her life — exactly the point author Kathy Williams plans to touch upon in a book chronicling Alvarez’s life.

“For women who had the chance to play professional baseball in the ’40s and ’50s, what was most important was the opportunity,” said Williams, a women’s studies professor at Marshall University in West Virginia.

Williams went to an AAGPL reunion six years ago in Syracuse, N.Y., where she met Alvarez and other former players. A history buff with a passion for fast-pitch softball, Williams said meeting the former AAGPL players was life-changing; her curiosity prompted her to begin work on Alvarez’s biography.

The book is tentatively titled “Life After the League: From La Tilla del Cerro to All-American,” and will recount everything from Alvarez’s family life in Cuba to her days as a professional baseball player in America to life after the league. Williams plans to take a fall sabbatical to finish the book which is scheduled for publication by the end of the year, she said.

Had it not been for baseball in America, Alvarez’s life would have gone down a completely different path, Williams said.

Alvarez displayed talents in a wide range of other sports and activities in her native Cuba, including fencing, bowling and modeling bathing suits.

“My mother wanted me to be a talk-show radio broadcaster or go into physical education as a gym teacher,” Alvarez said. “She had me like a little doll. I didn’t know about that. I just played ball.”

Her mother got her onto a baseball team in Cuba, and Alvarez came to America in 1949 as a 15-year-old pitcher for the Chicago Colleens, with whom she toured the United States and South America.

“My mom wanted a better life for her kids and saw baseball in America as a way to get it,” Alvarez said.

Launched in 1943, the AAGPBL continued play in post-World War II, pre-television America until it disbanded in 1954. As a member of the league, Alvarez played with several Midwestern teams, including two seasons with the Fort Wayne Daisies — in 1951 and again in 1954.

“We were done in 1954; then everybody went home, like there wasn’t any more baseball,” she said.

By the time the league disbanded, Alvarez had become a U.S. citizen, was learning English and began working at a number of jobs, eventually finding work at General Electric in Fort Wayne. Her baseball days came to life on the silver screen with the 1992 movie, “A League of Their Own,” the cinematic classic that tells the story of the AAGPBL’s rise in popularity in the 1940s and early ’50s.

In the film, Alvarez can be seen stepping off a tour bus set to relive some of her career highlights at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. The film made her an instant local celebrity.

To Alvarez, stepping off the bus in the film for a reunion visit scene brought back memories of learning English and traveling with her teammates through her favorite state, Indiana, she said.

“That part of the movie, that was part of us. We were all together. We always traveled by bus,” she said. “We always had so much fun; we were like family.”

Despite the initial language barrier and age gap — Alvarez was one of the youngest players in the league — she developed a bond with her Daisies teammates and the Midwest and decided to stay in the area.

“I was made to be here. Riding in the bus, I always liked Indiana. Thanks to baseball, … what it has done for all of us,” she said. “Besides baseball, my friends and the Midwest were my best luck.”

After her baseball-playing days ended, Alvarez played softball locally for 20 years, packing up her glove for the last time when her knees no longer let her play. But that’s not to say her favorite pastime is any less a part of her life, she said.

Alvarez still keeps in touch with fellow league members on a regular basis via e-mail correspondence. Lou Arnold, former South Bend Blue Sox pitcher and Alvarez’s longtime friend, even attended the NEIBA award banquet with her in May.

To let fellow AAGPBL players know what she’s up to, Alvarez also pens her own column, “In Lefty’s Words,” for the players association newsletter. .”

Lately the column has included meeting and being on-camera with U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton when the former presidential hopeful made a stop at Sara’s Family Restaurant in Fort Wayne earlier this year.

“I was the whole TV show. My friends called and said they were watching me more than Hillary,” she said.

Alvarez has also attended all of AAGPBL’s annual reunions. This year’s outing will take the former All-Americans on a cruise to the Bahamas and Costa Maya in November, which Alvarez said she is very much looking forward to attending.

“I get so excited about my reunions I can’t sleep at night,” she said. “I like to go places where I see things of the past. (Playing baseball) was the most important part of my life.”