Day 6

'A League of Their Own' celebrates 25 years of bringing women in baseball to the forefront

The 1992 film raised awareness of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, upon which the movie is based. Sue Zipay is a former Rockford Peach who also appears in the film. She says the film made the former players instant celebrities.
Bitty Schram (left) as Rockford Peach player Evelyn and Tom Hanks as coach Jimmy Dugan. "A League of Their Own" was released 25 years ago. (Columbia Pictures)

Before the film A League of Their Own was released, very few people knew that Sue Zipay was once a professional baseball player.

Zipay played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), which was started in 1943 in the midst of the Second World War.

The league ran for 11 years but received little recognition. But that all changed after A League of Their Own hit the big screen. The film celebrates its 25th anniversary next weekend.

It wasn't really socially accepted in those days.- Sue Zipay, former Rockford Peach

"We became instant celebrities," Zipay tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Celebrity status was a huge shift for the league's former players. Before the film, they seldom told anyone about their baseball careers.

"It was our little secret," says Zipay, noting the stigma that came with being a female athlete in what was traditionally a male sport.

"It wasn't really socially accepted in those days and every time somebody found out that I played baseball, they kind of frowned," she explains. "So it wasn't anything that we ever talked about."

Pitcher Sue Zipay (bottom row, left) with the original Rockford Peaches circa 1953. (Sue Zipay.)
    

The AAGPBL

Gum magnate and Chicago Cubs owner, Philip K. Wrigley created the league as a way to keep baseball revenue coming in while many Major Leaguers were overseas fighting in the war.

Recruitment drives were held across North America, and there were four teams in the league's first season: the Rockford Peaches in Illinois, the South Bend Blue Sox in Indiana, and the Racine Belles and Kenosha Comets both in Wisconsin.

Over its 11-year span, the league eventually had 15 different teams and 600 women playing professional baseball — 64 of whom were Canadian.

Sue Zipay, pictured here in 1953, was a pitcher with the Rockford Peaches. (Sue Zipay)

In addition to playing the game, the players were also required to attend charm school, where they learned about etiquette, personal hygiene and the league's dress code. Their appearance was strictly monitored, with the women playing in short dresses, which were not ideal for sliding. No short haircuts were permitted.

Zipay was a pitcher, utility infielder and outfielder for the Rockford Peaches, the main team featured in A League of Their Own, albeit in a fictionalized version of the team. The Peaches were also the most successful team in the AAGPBL, winning four championships.

My mother always told me to stop wearing jeans and stop playing baseball with the boys because it wasn't ladylike.- Sue Zipay, former Rockford Peach

Zipay was signed with the Peaches at the age of 18, just after finishing high school in Massachusetts. It was her high school softball coach who told her about the league.

"It was a dream come true," says Zipay. "I never could have visualized that there would be a women's professional baseball league."

It was against her mother's wishes that Zipay joined the league.

"When I was probably 11 or 12 years old, my mother always told me to stop wearing jeans and stop playing baseball with the boys because it wasn't ladylike," she says with a laugh.

But Zipay knows there were other reasons that her mother was concerned.

"She was just a little fearful of me leaving at age 18, all by myself," says Zipay. "I got on a train in Boston with a little brown bag with my lunch in it, and scared to death … never been out of the state of Massachusetts before, and headed for this big dream of professional baseball."

    

The end of the AAGPBL

Zipay joined the league in 1953, and the league had its final season in 1954. She was heartbroken when the AAGPBL came to an end.

Zipay has laid some of the blame for the league's demise on the rising popularity of television in 1954. She says people from farms used to travel for miles to see the women play, but that all stopped when people could stay home and watch television instead.

The league's popularity also declined when the men returned from the war, and Major League Baseball returned to its full roster.

Sue Zipay became a Rockford Peach at 18, despite her mother's disapproval. This was her baseball card from 1953. (Sue Zipay)

But Zipay also cites a lack of support from MLB as a possible reason why professional women's baseball has failed to survive in the United States.

"They need the backing, maybe, of Major League Baseball," she explains. "The WNBA has the backing of the NBA … just to get it going."

Zipay also says it's harder for girls to develop baseball skills today.

"When I was learning to play, and all the women that played in our league, learned to play with their brothers and the boys on the block, and we had sandlot games. They don't have that anymore."

Today, most children's baseball is played in Little League, where the majority of players are boys. Zipay says girls are either not invited to play in Little League, or they don't want to play in a league dominated by boys.

"So the possibility to develop the skills of these little girls … it's not there."

    

A League of Their Own

A League of Their Own was released on July 1, 1992, and starred Tom Hanks, Geena Davis and Madonna.

The film depicts a fictionalized version of the league, focusing on the Rockford Peaches. Many of the league's former players make an appearance at the end of the film, as the AAGPBL exhibit is unveiled at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Zipay appears in the film while taking an at bat during an exhibition game among the league's alumni.

It has been really great for women's sports.- Sue Zipay, former Rockford Peach

She says the film not only made them celebrities, it made it much more acceptable for women to play baseball.

"The movie did so much for our league, and really, so much for sports in general," says Zipay. "Geena Davis was [in Florida] speaking at the Ringling Museum, and she was talking about the fact that after the movie, little girls come to her and say, 'Oh, you're the one that got me into sports. I love that movie'. So it's been great."

Zipay is now working to open the Women's Sports Museum in Sarasota, Florida. She says the idea was born from the fear that AAGPBL memorabilia would be lost. So she and her former league-mates wanted to create a lasting legacy for what they had achieved.

The museum will include women from all sports, not just baseball. Zipay she doesn't know of any museum dedicated to women in sport.

"We have all the halls of fame, and all the stars go in there, but there's so much history that's been lost, so many things that people don't know about, even within my league," Zipay says.

The museum will also include classrooms where girls can learn about sports and sports management.

This weekend Zipay is involved in a women's skills clinic for baseball, as well as an exhibition game celebrating the film's 25th anniversary.

"It has been really great for women's sports."

The cast of "A League of Their Own" pose with some of the original Rockford Peaches in front of their team bus during filming in 1992. (Sue Zipay)

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