Like a lot of youngsters growing up in the 1940s, Marilyn Jenkins wanted to someday be a professional baseball player.
Like today, the odds were astronomical against it.
Plus, in the early 1940s, shortly after the United States entered World War II, girls like Marilyn didn’t play baseball; baseball was for boys.
Apparently, there weren’t a lot of girls like Marilyn, because she was good enough to play professional baseball — and she and about two-dozen other former members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League held their reunion in Albuquerque this week.
There were plenty of activities for the ladies, most in their 80s — Jenkins is about to turn 80 — to enjoy while here: a ride to Santa Fe on the Rail Runner Express, a ride on the Sandia Tram, a ride on ABQ Trolley, gambling at local casinos, golf and more. The ladies were introduced before Monday’s Pacific Coast league ballgame at Isotopes Park and the movie that brought the AAGPBL notoriety, “A League of Their Own,” was shown on the huge scoreboard after the Isotopes’ 5-4 victory over Fresno.
Jenkins didn’t mind taking some time for an interview with a local reporter, after she had just signed 149 autographs for fans at a table on the concourse, where the women sat and sweated — it was unusually humid Monday evening — as they met fans.
“I think I was 11 years old when the Grand Rapids Chicks came to Grand Rapids — and my dad was a baseball fan,” she recalled. “He sent me over the Southfield where the Chicks were playing. He said, ‘You’ll love it. Go get a job.’
“So I went and I cleaned under the bleachers; this was in 1945,” she said. “It was kind of fun; we found nickels and dimes (that had fallen) out of pockets — that was a lot of money then.”
“Maybe a few weeks into the season, they asked me if I wanted to be batgirl.”
An answer didn’t require much thought.
“Probably by the time I was 13, I was out during practices, filling in,” she said. “Back then I was kind of a strong, not fat, but stocky kid. (The manager) said, ‘You should be a catcher.’ So he used to let me catch batting practice. That just progressed, and I’ll tell you, it was a big part of my life, particularly in 1947, when Dad died. That was a wipeout — I had no brothers or sisters.”
Jenkins has lived her entire life in Grand Rapids, Mich., known as the “Furniture Capital of the World” to some and as the birthplace of President Gerald Ford for others.
“I went to the same high school he did,” she said. “Of course, he was a little bit ahead of me. I lived on the street over from South High School, and I had many of the same teachers Jerry had. His family was in the paint business — it was Ford Paint Company. Where he grew up wasn’t too far from where I lived.
“The interesting thing about Jerry Ford; I’ve been pretty liberal all my life, always a Democrat,” Jenkins said, answering “Never in my life” when she was asked if she ever voted for Ford.
Her best memory of her days with the AAGPBL — she played from 1952-54 — is still fresh in her mind.
“It was the first game I ever played; I played center field,” she said. “It was in my hometown and they were promoting it. I remember it very well: Dottie (Key) Ferguson from the Rockford Peaches was the first batter. I was terrified, standing out there, my knees (knocking). She hit a line drive, right smack at me — I caught it.”
Another great memory had her behind the plate for the championship game in 1953. Her Chicks lost that game to the Fort Wayne Daisies. After playing 19 games in 1952, and then 69 games in 1953, she saw action in 53 games in 1954, when the league ended operation.
According to author Lois Browne in “Girls of Summer,” Jenkins “realized that the All-American’s days were numbered when her week’s pay was counted out in one-dollar bills. ‘It was the gate receipts from the night before,’ she said.”
Jenkins recalled being in New Mexico “40 years ago … I think I stayed a couple days.
“Albuquerque? They’ve been wonderful here — I love the air,” she said, enjoying the AAGPBL reunion.
“I went to Old Town; I gambled. Gambling was a miracle; we stopped at some little casino on the way to Santa Fe,” she said. “I went in there and put a twenty-dollar bill in, I think the ninth spin I won $360. Then I left; that’s good.”
She remains a baseball fan, getting to Detroit Tigers games at Comerica Park on occasion.
Being a part of the historic AAGPBL, making her dream of playing baseball come true, and being a unique part of American history took a while to sink in for Jenkins.
“I was 17 years old; what do I know? All I know is, I wanted to play ball and I had the opportunity to play ball – and I can truthfully say, and I don’t think the majority of us, knew what we were doing other than having one hell of a good time, OK?
“We didn’t expect any of this ‘history’ business,” she added. “In 1988, when Cooperstown recognized us, Penny Marshall was there. She picked up on it — she’s brilliant — she picked up on the whole scope of things and proceeded to make that movie. We owe it all to her.”
Jenkins said she’d only seen the movie “five or six times,” and wasn’t about to that night at Isotopes Park. She was preparing to catch an 8 p.m. bus back to the Marriott.
“Life’s been good to me,” she concluded. “Since the first of the year I’ve had some medical issues, but they haven’t me affected me that much.
“I still work; I’m in the estate-sale business,” she said.
The AAGPBL banquet was held Tuesday evening, when the guest speaker was former big-league pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee. His aunt, Annabelle Lee, had taught him how to pitch when he was a youngster.