Baseball: A League of Everyone

Interview with Dr. Kathryn Vonderau –  professional baseball player, coach, and educator:

One of the first lessons that boys learn playing baseball is not to mess with the girls. How many neighborhood pick-up games are rudely interrupted when a boy lobs a pitch underhanded to a girl? Girls don’t appreciate the condescension and they usually smash one right back at the pitcher.

Researchers and writers have attempted to discover the roots of baseball for almost two centuries. During the 20th century the game held a grip on the United States like no other sport. Kids growing up until the 1980s used to sort out the neighborhood hierarchy through long summer days of playing baseball. The playing field used to be big enough for girls and boys.

When baseball was at its zenith in the mid-20th century Americans were more than willing to support Major League Baseball and professional women’s baseball. WillCountyBaseball.org spoke to Dr. Kathryn Vonderau who played professional baseball for five different teams from 1946 through 1953. Dr. Vonderau’s baseball life is an American chronicle of a time forgotten.

A Game for Everyone

Kids used to gather on empty playgrounds, backyards, or streets to hash out their growing pains. Girls and boys were held to the same baseball standards. But sometime in the mid-1960s girl’s fastpitch softball began its meteoric rise. American women got sick and tired of legal roadblocks to their participation in baseball, so they played their own game. Boys’ baseball and girls’ softball are different games now, but the ultimate test remains for all “ball” players: Can you hit a fastball?

Biology explains a lot about human fascination with sport, and it might tell us a lot about why baseball evolved with so much social impact. Science suggests that sports like baseball are part of our human evolution.

The characteristics of animal play suggest that sport likely originated as play. The play of juvenile mammals, including humans, often mimics behaviors (e.g., capturing prey, escaping from predators, fighting) needed for survival. Human play behaviors also mimic those used in many sports (e.g., running, chasing competitors, throwing and intercepting projectiles).

The origins of baseball can be researched until the end of time; but it’s easy to see how baseball developed. Anyone born in the 50s, 60s, or 70s can describe at least three different versions of baseball they played as kids. There is a timeless fascination in bashing a pitched baseball as hard as you can. The challenge in baseball or softball is hitting against a pitcher determined to make you look foolish trying.

In 2005 David Block wrote the book “Baseball before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game.” Block convincingly deconstructs baseball mythology in America. He debunks Abner Doubleday and the New York Knickerbocker club; and he theorizes that baseball has never really been America’s creation. Block discovered distinctly European roots for “baseball.”

Medieval texts suggest baseball’s English antecedents may themselves have descended from Continental bat-and-ball games. An illustration in “The Romance of Alexander,” a French manuscript from 1344, depicts a group of monks and nuns engaged in a game, thought to be “la soule,” that looks a lot like coed softball (no sign of a keg, however). Two other French games, “thèque” and “la balle empoisonée” (“poisoned ball”), also bear similarities to early baseball.

Mythology has provided baseball fans the story that one of two influential American gentlemen, Abner Doubleday or Alexander Cartwright, established the official game of baseball. Any baseball fan has to ask the question: What is a more realistic scenario? Did baseball evolve from a co-ed bat and ball game between bored monks and nuns, or did it magically appear in the mid-19th century played by white men in uniforms?

Whatever version of “ball” that has been played throughout the centuries one thing has remained true. Hitting a slow pitch – underhanded or overhanded – is boring. It is the conflict between pitcher and batter that remains compelling. Naturally, “ball” players are drawn to the greatest challenge in baseball or softball; and that is hitting a fastball.

The Perfect Storm of Professional Women’s Baseball

As baseball became more established and its rules were finally crystallized many other variations of “ball” continued to flourish. Fastpitch softball became a craze in the 1930s and 40s. Whether it was baseball or softball the challenge to hit the fastest and best pitchers still provided the greatest drama. Large crowds appreciated the quick pace of the game.

During World War II the best players in Major League Baseball were drafted into military service. Many Americans were uncomfortable watching young men play baseball while so many others were at the front. No more than 12 minor leagues survived during the war years compared to 44 circuits that operated in 1940. From the early 1940s to 1953 the stars were perfectly aligned for women’s professional baseball.

Fastpitch softball provided the players and baseball-crazed spectators filled the seats as America watched social revolution on diamonds throughout the country. Most of the fans and the players were not conscious of the movement taking place. Black men and women were legitimizing their plight for civil rights with their contributions to the war effort, and white women were taking on entirely different roles in society. Baseball emerged as the ultimate reflection of these necessary changes.

In 1996 Lois Siegel and the National Film Board of Canada released a documentary titled Baseball Girls. Siegel spent three years piecing together the professional and private stories of North American women in organized baseball.

Baseball Girls starts at Vassar College in the 1860s and ends up following the Colorado Silver Bullets of the mid-1990s. Along the way Siegel captures the unforgettable baseball memories of women who played professionally. The real characters from A League of Their Own make appearances along with women who played in the Negro Leagues. The film offers a lasting tribute to the unique perspectives of women in baseball; but it also focuses on why the game is so compelling to women and men.

Baseball and Social Progress

In 1947 Branch Rickey made Jackie Robinson a Los Angeles Dodger; but earlier in 1943, Rickey and Chicago Cubs’ owner Philip K. Wrigley opened the door for women’s baseball. Wrigley and Rickey formed a nonprofit called the All-American Girls Professional Softball League as an alternative to declining interest in men’s baseball.  Organized softball created a pool of players for the new league, and the rules for the league created sort of a hybrid game.

Wrigley and Rickey created a game which included both softball and baseball. Midway through their first season the owners changed the league name to the All-American Girls Baseball League. There were semi-pro women’s softball teams of quality players in Chicago and many other urban centers throughout the U.S. and Canada. Softball teams provided a logical basis for the use of a 12-inch softball and underhand pitching for the AAGBBL until the owners decided to liven up the game.

In an effort to increase hitting and spotlight base running and fielding, they extended the length of softball’s base paths and pitching distance. They also incorporated men’s base running rules by allowing runners to lead off and steal bases. Softball at the time included 10 players. This new game would parallel men’s baseball in number of players (9) and types of equipment.

The league started with a flurry of rules controversies, but eventually its owners settled on regulations that made their game officially baseball and not softball:

The rules were modified each year to lengthen infield distances and approve first side-arm pitching (1946) and overhand pitching (1948).

After their first season the league’s name was changed, yet again, to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

This title was retained until the end of the 1945 season when All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBBL) was again adopted and retained through 1950. It was during this time period that overhand pitching and smaller ball sizes were adopted. When independent team owners purchased the League at the end of the 1950 season, the official League name was changed to the American Girls Baseball League (AGBL), but popularly it continued to be identified as the All-American League or the All-American Girls Baseball League (AAGBBL).

A League of Their Own immortalized the AAGBBL in 1992. The telescope of history and the reach of Hollywood made us appreciate a fleeting but influential moment in our history. The existence of the AAGBBL is testimony to the role of baseball as the great democratizer in American society. It’s a record of the immense social change that forced Americans to celebrate and acknowledge the equal contributions of women. And it also tells a story about the enduring experience of playing baseball in our country. Baseball may never be that popular ever again.

A League, and a Force, of Their Own

WWII had a powerful effect on Major League Baseball, but the games continued. After the war had ended the All-American Women’s Professional Baseball league attracted over 900,000 fans in 1948. It wasn’t just a lack of quality baseball that created a women’s league. People wanted to watch women play baseball – not softball. It was a very small window for women who aspired to be major leaguers. From 1943 through 1954 over 600 women played baseball professionally.

Dr. Kathryn Vonderau was a catcher for several teams in the AAGBBL. Her career began after the war in 1946. She was discovered playing fastpitch softball in her hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. She was recommended for the AAWPBL by Harold Greiner, owner of the Bob-Inn Restaurant in Fort Wayne.

Greiner sponsored Vonderau’s softball team that won state championships in 1944 and 1945. Vonderau went on to play from 1946 through 1953 for various teams in the Midwest including the Fort Wayne Daisies. For the next three seasons, Vonderau divided her playing time with the Muskegon Lassies (1947), Chicago Colleens (1948) and Peoria Redwings (1948–1949). Vonderau returned to the Daisies in 1950, playing for them through 1952, when she helped Fort Wayne win the pennant. She was then sent to the Muskegon Belles in 1953, her last year in the circuit.

WillCountyBaseball.org talked to Dr. Vonderau about her experience playing professional baseball. We asked her why the All-American Women’s Professional Baseball League had such an impact.

“Well, we were good. We played good baseball, and put on a good show,” Vonderau said.

And were she and her teammates conscious of the social impact their league had at the time?

“Not really, not when we were playing. No. We didn’t know until we finished that we were making history – didn’t know until people told us later. We were just playing a game that we loved and getting paid to do it. So, we didn’t think about anything else. We just wanted to be the best we could be so people would appreciate how we played.”

WCB.org asked Kate how she remembers her career in baseball.

“Oh, I sure enjoyed it. We had a very good time. We had good coaches, good managers. And we played good baseball. It was fun. It was fun to play with other people who had the same kind of talent that I did for baseball. So it was very interesting.”

Who really knows how many centuries of baseball have been played? We do know that for about a decade in the middle of the 20th century women played professional baseball. It wasn’t a freak show. And try as they might, the men couldn’t make the game ladylike enough to deny the talent on the field. Women like Kathryn Vonderau just wanted to compete like any player trying to master the conundrum of hitting a baseball thrown at high velocity.

*After her playing career Dr. Kathryn Vonderau coached softball and taught at all academic levels from elementary through university as a Health, Physical Education and Recreation educator for 31 years. She retired from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 1988. She is honored in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame as part of a dedication to the AAGBBL. She was inducted into the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Hall of Fame in 1996 acknowledging her career and accomplishments as an educator and UWW’s first softball coach. In 2003, the University dedicated a permanent display case honoring her years in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Feature photo: Kate Vonderau catches a night game in the All-American Girls Baseball League.

From Gallery of Women in Baseball, Dirt on Skirts exhibit, Ball State University.

 

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