ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque’s Kate Vonderau loves golf, but it’s her baseball career that’s gained notice
When Kate Vonderau opens her mailbox to find autograph requests from sports fans in Europe and Asia, it’s not a testament to her golf skills.
Yes, the Albuquerque retiree has become something of a fixture on the local links: The 84-year-old still plays nine holes every Monday, another 18 on Thursday and has maintained a regular presence at the city women’s tournament for two decades. (Vonderau, a tourney competitor since the early 1990s, took on an organizational role for this year’s event instead of playing three straight days in the July heat.)
Even after 50 years around the game, though, Vonderau never made the championship flight of the city tourney and claims her best handicap was about 15 or 16 – “which is not setting the world on fire,” she noted.
Vonderau’s real athletic claim to fame involves a swing of another kind: She played eight years in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, an organization made internationally famous decades after its demise by the 1992 Tom Hanks/Geena Davis film “A League of Their Own.”
“People keep sending letters, requests for baseball cards,” Vonderau said recently in her Northeast Albuquerque home, adding that she gets up to two or three notes every week from fans of all ages. “They’re kids; they’re men; they’re women; they’re everybody. I got one not too long ago from Japan. I’ve gotten (them) from Germany.”
Vonderau, who retired to New Mexico in 1988 after teaching 25 years at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, never had her own baseball card until after the movie. Now she keeps a few hundred on hand to satisfy fan demand.
“Nobody would’ve even known about this had it not been for the movie, except in the Midwest where we played,” she said.
The AAGPBL sprouted up during World War II to fill the baseball void created when many male players were called to military duty.
A native of Fort Wayne, Ind., Vonderau was a softball player just out of high school when the AAGPBL signed her during a tryout. A catcher, she started with the hometown Fort Wayne Daisies, but also logged games with the Muskegon (Mich.) Lassies, Peoria (Ill.) Redwings and the Chicago Colleens during a career that spanned 1946-53.
The Midwestern-based league gained regional popularity, and Vonderau remembers playing for crowds of up to 5,000 people and making between $75-$100 per week – pretty darned good money for those days.
It was a blast.
“We were just having a good time and getting paid to do something we loved to do. We thought we were on the top of the world,” Vonderau said. “We didn’t think about being pioneers until after the movie was made.”
Vonderau’s memories of big games and tough defeats have been lost to time, and so has much of her memorabilia. She donated her shoes to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and has also parted with the cutesy, skirted uniform the league’s players wore for a more feminine vibe. (“When we slid into bases, it was very painful,” she recalled.)
Vonderau stores what little she has left – yellowed newspaper accounts, a few old baseballs – in a small cardboard box and said most of what she remembers from those days are the bonds she forged with teammates. More than 600 women played professional baseball with the league, and they still gather for regular reunions despite their dwindling ranks.
“We get together and it’s just like we’ve seen each other yesterday,” Vonderau said. “It’s a nice feeling.”
For decades it was those reunions that kept the league’s memory alive. Vonderau said she rarely talked about her AAGPBL days with anyone outside of her fellow players even though her lengthy teaching career included myriad physical education courses.
“I taught school all those years, and I don’t think I ever mentioned (the AAGPBL days) to my students. After they found out, they couldn’t figure out why I never said anything,” Vonderau said with a laugh. “I never had occasion. Nobody ever asked.”
The 1992 movie changed everything and piqued interest worldwide. Those who saw the Hollywood blockbuster got a surprisingly fair representation of the league, according to Vonderau. She called the crowd-pleasing flick “85, 90 percent accurate.” Her one point of contention? A scene in which Hanks’ character, reportedly based in part on Jimmie Foxx, uses the restroom in front of his female players.
“Jimmie Foxx was a perfect gentleman. He never did anything that would embarrass any young lady,” said Vonderau, who played for Foxx. “The scene from the bathroom was so far from Jimmie Foxx. It was the exact opposite of anything he’d have done.”
Vonderau played her final season in 1953 – a year before the league folded – then went on to finish her college degree and get into teaching. It was around that time, she said, that she also picked up golf.
“I could swing a baseball bat, so why not a golf club?” she said. “It doesn’t work that way very well, but I tried to make it work.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal