Women's pro baseball league revisited

A League of Their Own PBS, Wednesday, 10-30-11 p.m (check local listings). Documentary special. ``I want to know where it says Men's Baseball Hall of Fame,'' declares someone near the end of this surprising and informative documentary. Baseball history should have a place, she feels, for the All-American Girl's Professional Baseball League.

It's hard to disagree after learning about an outfit - flourishing from 1945 to 1954 - where you had to ``play a man's sport, play it like a man, and still be ladylike,'' and where it wasn't uncommon to leave one city at midnight, arrive at nine or ten the next morning, and play a double-header that same day.

During World War II, rumors were flying that men's baseball might be canceled. To maintain the sport and boost morale, President Roosevelt backed the creation of the women's league. At its height, America's first organized professional athletic league for women had 10 teams playing all over the upper Midwest.

When the league held a weekend runion not long ago in Fort Wayne, Ind., it became the basis for a reminiscent show that mixes joyous and sometimes funny recollections with entertaining old footage. In those unreconstructed times, ``the whole league was based on being feminine,'' as one of the now-middle-aged women points out. On the field they had to wear short skirts - which gave their athletic movement a swirling, dancelike effect - and going to charm school was required so baseball wouldn't make them act tough.

But, as the clips make clear, they were good. They threw hard and accurately, were formidable hitters, and slid aggressively into stolen bases. (``Hitting the dirt in a skirt'' could hurt, one recalls.) During a recreational game at the reunion, the women displayed an athlete's natural throw and easy movement.

By skillfully cross-cutting old and new scenes, the production regains that hard-pressed time of fun and camaraderie, when the manager (who says he had a good voice then) used to sing on demand during long bus rides. Some girls had ``a boyfriend in every port.'' Occasionally two. One tells of the time four boys showed up for two girls at a game. ``We handled it like big leaguers,'' she recounts. ``We hid under the grandstand.''

In the league's prime there was little TV and ``people didn't have money in their pockets,'' as an ex-player keeps pointing out. Women's baseball drew crowds. Later the league succumbed to new entertainments and changing times.

In recalling it all, the women were not being nostalgic. They were simply acknowledging a part of themselves, one that turned out also to be a fascinating corner of social history. Does the show amount to more than a curiosity? Yes - it tells a lot about a time when the necessities of World War II became the mother of new attitudes. And it was a big step for women's sports.

As someone at the reunion says with good reason, ``You were all pioneers.''

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