Girls playing baseball?
If you’ve seen the 1992 movie, “A League of Their Own,” you know it’s been done before.
It’s hard to believe now, but the genesis of enticing the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League’s annual reunion to Albuquerque began at a July 2012 meeting of the Rio Grande chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research.
Former Placitan Kate Vonderau and Joyce Westerman, another former AAGPBL player, told the small gathering about their days in the game. Westerman, who had a book about her diamond career (“Joyce Westerman: Baseball Hero,” written by Bob Kann), was in Albuquerque to visit her daughter, a Volcano Vista High School teacher. Vonderau and Westerman didn’t meet until that day two years ago.
Nonetheless, what the group heard got them thinking: What if we could have the AAGPBL reunion in Albuquerque?
Ultimately, a pitch was made — and “caught” — to have it here in 2014.
“I thought, they did a real nice job,” Vonderau said of the movie. “I would say it was 85-90 percent accurate; they put some things in there for entertainment only.”
Vonderau played in the league from 1946-53.
The league had been all but been forgotten when some baseball historians decided it was time to pay homage to that interesting period (1943-54) of America’s past; the league was founded by chewing-gum magnate Phil Wrigley, who sought inexpensive entertainment for Americans to take their minds off World War II.
Raised in Fort Wayne, Ind., Vonderau began playing softball at the age of 12.
After graduating from Southside High School there in 1946, she attended a tryout for the Girls Professional Baseball League.
“There were quite a few (at the tryout),” she said. “Most of them were from right around that area; I knew most of them. There were about three of us that made the team.”
Vonderau became a member of her hometown team, the Fort Wayne Daisies, and getting anywhere between $75 and $150 a week to do something she loved.
“I was planning to go to college; in fact, I went to business school in the off-season, and I worked in a bank in the off-season. After I finished playing baseball, then I went and got my bachelor’s degree, and my master’s, and my doctorate.”
Vonderau played through the 1953 season, always behind the plate.
Like most ballplayers, Vonderau found herself traded — and on more than one occasion. After playing for the Daisies in 1946, she was dealt to Muskegon (Mich.) in 1947, and the Lassies won the league championship that year.
She played for the Chicago Colleens and Peoria Redwings in 1948, was traded from Peoria back to Muskegon in 1949, and then played the next three seasons with Fort Wayne again, playing a role for the Daisies in 1952 when they won the championship.
Westerman, who lives in Kenosha, Wis., was also a catcher. She played briefly (nine games) with the Grand Rapids Chicks (1945), the Ft. Wayne Daisies (1946), the Peoria Redwings (1947-51), the Racine Belles (1948-49) and the South Bend Blue Sox (1946, 1952).
She grew up on a Wisconsin farm and “first played (softball) at 18,” and was playing on a softball team in Kenosha when she heard about tryouts for the AAGPBL.
“No way will I ever play in those uniforms, showing your legs that way,” she remembered thinking. But once she tried out in Kenosha in 1944 and “made the cut,” she started thinking differently. “I had never seen girls play like that on a team.”
A first baseman and catcher, Westerman batted just 18 times, with two hits, in 1945. But by the end of her career, by then married and with children to look after, she had played in as many as 102 games (in 1951) “and it was super.”
Vonderau, 86, remembered a spring training held in Cuba, where “they treated us very well. The Brooklyn Dodgers were there and I think we got more publicity than they did.” (That would have been 1947, the season Jackie Robinson debuted, and the Dodgers wanted to avoid any controversy and distractions in the continental U.S. about having the first African-American to play in the majors that April.)
Vonderau recalled being paid between $75 and $125 a week back then; Westerman said, “Boy, you were rich.”
Vonderau first came to the Southwest when she attended Arizona State University. Later, when it came time to retire — and not wanting to shovel snow in Ft. Wayne every winter — she decided upon New Mexico because it offered four seasons. She moved to Albuquerque a few years ago.
“Some people think that just because we played baseball, we were real masculine,” she said.
“That was not true. Most of the players were quite feminine, they just had very good skills and very good athletic ability.”
When the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., recognized the AAGPBL with a special exhibit in 1988, Westerman said she was there. So was actress Penny (“Laverne and Shirley”) Marshall, who produced the movie but, until then, hadn’t realized women had played baseball, and that led to the movie being made a few years later.
Being a part of the AAGPBL “was probably the best part of our lives, except our families,” Westerman said. Now, she said, the Hall of Fame has two rooms dedicated to the AAGPBL.
Westerman and Vonderau agreed, there was crying in baseball. Westerman had at least four broken fingers and a broken nose, and Vonderau was spiked numerous times.
According to “A Whole New Ball Game,” a book about the AAGPBL in 1993, Vonderau’s Ft. Wayne Daisies, managed by Jimmie Foxx, defeated Westerman’s South Bend Blue Sox for the ’52 crown.
The AAGPBL folded in 1954: America had found new entertainment: television.
Here’s your chance
You’ll have the opportunity to meet some of the AAGPBL players in Albuquerque this month.
The legendary ladies of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League will be gathering for a reunion July 19-22 in Albuquerque.
You can be a part of all reunion events and mingle with the players by becoming an associate member of the AAGPBL players association; check the website at aagpbl.org to learn more about associate membership privileges. The four-day gathering in the Duke City promises to be as educational and heartwarming for all who attend.
Several events and autograph sessions include but are not limited to the following:
• “Women in Baseball Victory Ride Celebration” from Albuquerque to Santa Fe on the New Mexico RailRunner Express on July 20;
• A Pacific Coast League baseball game when the Fresno Grizzlies take on the Albuquerque Isotopes (followed by a showing of “A League of Their Own” on the Isotopes’ new HD videoboard) on July 21;
• A day of celebration, sharing and recognition that includes a reenactment game at the New Mexico Veterans’ Memorial on July 22; and the
• Reunion banquet at the Albuquerque Marriott, featuring two live musical performances, a great meal, special presentations and a keynote address by former big-league pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee on July 22.
For more information on registration, schedule or hotel reservations, visit aagpbl.org or contact Kris Shepard via email at email@example.com.