Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley organized the country’s first women’s professional baseball league in the 1940s.
Wrigley realized that World War II (1939-1945) was hurting Major League Baseball. Some of the best players were leaving their teams to join the Army and the Navy. He knew that women’s softball games were drawing thousands of fans throughout the United States and Canada. He was worried that President Franklin D. Roosevelt would call off Major League baseball until the war was over. Afraid that the fans permanently would turn away from the game, he came up with a substitute — the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).
Tryouts were held in May 1943 at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Cubs baseball scouts invited 280 women to compete for places on the league’s four teams. By the end of the month, 60 women were chosen for the teams.
Before they could play ball, however, the women had to attend charm school. On the field, Wrigley wanted his players to be tough and competitive, but off the field, he wanted them to reflect “the highest ideals of womanhood.”
Charm school was not the only thing that separated the women’s game from the men’s. At first, the AAGPBL used a 12-inch ball and underhand pitching. Almost, every year, however, rule changes brought the AAGPBL’s game closer to baseball. The league eventually moved to a standard 9-1/4-inch ball, overhand pitching, and rules similar to those in the Major Leagues.
Players were paid between $45 and $85 a week, plus meal money. The season began with spring training in May and ended with the playoffs in early September. Teams played from 110 to 126 games each summer, with no days off. Over the years, the league expanded from four to 10 teams. In 1948, a total of one million fans attended games.
Although the teams were located in the Midwest, the AAGPBL became known all over the country. Still the women were never as famous as other sports stars of the time. Player Ruth Williams did not let that bother her. “I was just so wrapped up in what I was doing,” she said. “I was so thrilled to be a part of it. To think I was getting paid to do something I just loved to do.”
The league played its last season with only five teams before it folded in 1954. Some historians say hard economic times kept fans from going to games during the league’s last years. Most of the blame for the AAGPBL’s downfall, however, can be placed on television. By the early 1950s, many TV stations were showing Major League games and many fans stayed home to watch the male pros.
Baseball is one of the few sports that is not offered on a professional level for women today. But women do play in amateur baseball leagues, and professional women’s softball has become a popular sport. One of the most famous women’s softball players is Jennie Finch who pitched for the Chicago Bandits in the National Pro Fastpitch League.