By Marjorie Magazine
It’s National Girls and Women in Sports Day, celebrated every February 3rd as a time for women to embrace their full potential and power in play. Our minds instantly wandered to the past, the great achievements of women who emerged into the sports world during the 20th Century from golf to tennis and even baseball, especially during the 1940’s and 1950’s as a direct result of World War II. The All American Girls Professional Baseball League was established by chewing gum magnate Phillip K. Wrigley as a way to save America’s love of baseball from collapse as many young men, especially baseball players, were being drafted and sent to the front lines. By recruiting strong and enthusiastic young women across the country, baseball’s legacy was renewed to be a sport loved– and played– by all with seasons that ran from 1943 to 1954 and expanded from 4 teams to 15. With the return of men from war, so did that of MLB, and by the mid-50’s interest in women’s baseball waned.
But the legacy of the AAGPBL is a true reminder of the strength of women and testament to our love of the game and keeping the spirit of the nation alive through the respect, competition, and camaraderie of sports. But, however a progressive moment it may been, it was still a very much white-dominant association, with little to no WOC players among the teams.
And so on this day, especially as it occurs during Black History Month, our minds went directly to this small moment in the 1993 film A League of Their Own depicting the first season of the AAGPBL through the experiences of those who played for the Rockford Peaches. During the season montage, a ball goes way out beyond 3rd base, into the small seating where Blacks are permitted to watch the game. Protagonist and catcher Dottie Hinson awaits for the ball to be thrown back to her as a Black attendee picks it up, only to show her own strength as she throws it way over Hinson’s head and to pitcher Ellen Sue at the mound who catches it without a bit of a flinch at the strength in which came down. The attendee smiles and nods to Henson, who herself is quite impressed, as she returns to her seat.
The scene is less than 15 seconds but a critical part in the film, directed by the late Penny Marshall. It is a reminder to viewers on the importance of remembering all of history, especially as vintage enthusiasts here at Marjorie can agree to, even its darker moments. Our love of history is a constant reminder to pave the way for better times ahead, for the future that will become a past to be enjoyed by all through a more inclusive and accepting lens. With A League of Their Own, the scene above illustrates the lost potential for growth and exposition of greater strength to be displayed by all passionate women, regardless of their ethnicity and race. We can only wonder how many young Black women were immediately dismissed for a chance to play America’s pastime in the AAGPBL, and make history.
But to say that their potential in sports was immediately shot down isn’t to be said without acknowledging the more progressive stance and movements within the Black community, especially that of their own leagues during the exact same time. Some speculate that the women in the scene is a direct reference to Toni Stone, Mamie “Peanut” Johnnson, and Connie Morgan, the first three Black women to play professional baseball when they joined the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues. Stone was the first female player, recruited as a long-term contract replacement for Hank Aaron who had just left to play on the Atlanta (then Milwuakee) Braves in the Major Leagues. Shortly after, she was replaced by Mamie Johnson, nicknamed “peanut” for her small frame. Johnson recalls the time she and a friend actually did in fact try out for the AAGPBL, although in her words, they “went to try out,” rather than given a chance at all, due to their race:
And more recently, Toni Stone’s legacy was immortalized in a 2019 play of the same name where she was portrayed by April Matthis.
As time and history grows more expansive in including every one of its participants in the narrative, especially the disenfranchised, it’s a wonderful day to have remembered such a scene and reflect on the voices of history that might have been lost, but thankfully resurfaced once again.