80 years ago, in May 1943, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) became the first professional baseball league of women. The story of how this league was formed has been immortalized in the film A League of Their Own. Our Research team recently dove into MyHeritage’s vast collection of historical newspapers to learn more about the background of this event and discover the real story behind the famous film.
Women have actually played professional baseball since long before the AAGPBL was formed. Starting in the 1890s, mixed-gender teams traveled around the U.S. challenging men’s teams to play with them, and frequently winning. The women who played on these teams were called “Bloomer Girls” after the loose-fitting shorts they wore as part of their uniform. Bloomers were named after newspaper editor and suffragist Amelia Bloomer, who advocated for women’s right to wear pants in the mid-19th century.
As the men’s minor leagues expanded, playing opportunities for Bloomer Girls decreased until their activities stopped altogether in 1934.
World War II changes the game
Even before entering World War II in December 1941, the United States enacted its first-ever peacetime draft, and in September 1940, all men aged 21–45 were required to register. From that point on, millions of American men aged 18 and above were conscripted into military service — including top baseball stars.
By 1942, many minor baseball leagues were forced to disband. By 1943, there was genuine fear for the future of the major leagues.
Concerned that the game — and their bank accounts — would never recover, stadium owners and baseball executives sought creative solutions.
A brilliant idea came from Philip K. Wrigley, the chewing-gum mogul and owner of the Chicago Cubs’ major league baseball franchise: recruit women to play!
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed in May 1943. Out of the 280 women who made the final tryouts, 60 were selected to become the first major league professional female baseball players. They were divided into 4 teams of 15 women each.
Women’s baseball in a man’s world
Though the formation of the AAGPBL was an apparent breakthrough in inclusivity in baseball, the league was far from what we might consider progressive today. Black women were excluded from play, and there was a great emphasis on the appearance of the players alongside their athletic talent. During the recruitment phase, Wrigley directed his representatives to “hunt down beauty as well as playing ability.”
After their daily training, women players were required to attend Helena Rubenstein’s evening charm school classes to ensure that each of them was as beautiful and attractive as possible. Their uniforms consisted of a one-piece with a short skirt. They were not allowed to wear pants or shorts or to cut their hair short. They were even required to wear lipstick, both on and off the field.
“Femininity is the keynote of our league,” president Ken Sells told the Youngstown Vindicator in May 1943. “No pants-wearing, tough-talking female softballer will play on any of our four teams.” The article describes the female players’ uniforms as “dainty, pastel frocks with three-quarter length ballet skirts surmounting snug, matching tights.”
For the first several years, the women actually weren’t playing classic baseball, but a more fast-paced version of softball. This was because most talented female ball players in the U.S. grew up playing softball, not baseball.
Soon, the league grew to include 10 professional women’s teams. The AAGPBL kept fans entertained and ballparks filled, not only during World War II, but also after the war ended and men returned to the field. For 12 seasons, more than 600 women played for the league’s teams.
Unfortunately, the league disbanded in 1954 due to financial difficulties and difficulty recruiting new players.
The history of the AAGPBL serves to demonstrate how World War II accelerated advancement in the inclusion of women in the workforce, but also, how that advancement was relatively short-lived. It wasn’t until 1994 — two years after A League of Their Own came out in theaters — that women’s professional baseball returned with the formation of the Colorado Silver Bullets.
Find more fascinating stories from history in the MyHeritage newspaper collections.
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Source: My Heritage