The Real Days When Women Went to Bat

Upcoming film celebrates HLthe era of women's professional baseball

WHEN Columbia Pictures' "A League of Their Own" opens next month, it will mark Pat Courtney's second brush with fame.

The film's story is inspired by the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that thrived during World War II and into the early 1950s before disappearing into obscurity.

If Mrs. Courtney doesn't end up on the cutting-room floor, she will make her film debut as an extra in "A League of Their Own," which is based on the mostly forgotten women's baseball league Courtney played in more than 40 years ago. The film is directed by Penny Marshall and stars Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna, and Tom Hanks.

Courtney, who lives in Chelsea, Mass., was originally offered one of six speaking parts reserved for former players.

"The reason I got selected was not because of any talent," she says. "They were looking for people that looked like actresses in the movie." Courtney was to play the role of actress Renee Coleman 40 years later at an old-timers' reunion game.

But the union stepped in at the last minute, saying that all actors had to be union members. "I was kind of disappointed," Courtney admits, "but it was fun anyway."

Courtney even played catch with Madonna. "She would say, `Will you go out and play catch with me just to practice?' " Courtney recalls.

Madonna certainly wouldn't have made the professional league in the '40s or '50s. "She is a very hard-working gal, I'll give her credit for that. She put a lot of effort into it. I understand that she did improve later," Courtney says diplomatically.

The real women baseball players of the '40s and '50s are reveling in the recognition they are receiving because of the movie. More than 400 former players are still living in the United States and Canada. The league was started in 1943 by chewing-gum magnate Philip Wrigley, who owned the Chicago Cubs. Although it began as a modified version of softball, the league soon evolved into baseball, with overhand pitching.

"It was a fill-in while the fellows were off fighting the war," Courtney says. "Wrigley wanted to keep the interest in baseball alive and give people something to do at night."

The players ranged in age from 16 to 23. Many were students or young schoolteachers who had grown up playing ball with the boys in the neighborhood. Tryouts were held around the US several times a year. Hundreds of girls would come out to try their arm, but only the best athletes made the league.

The former players tell spellbinding stories about the days of women's baseball - memories of singing on the bus, pulling pranks, learning the art of pitching or sliding in a miniskirt, and attending charm school.

"That was one thing that Wrigley insisted on was ladylike behavior," Courtney says. "You couldn't smoke in public. You couldn't wear slacks."

Four teams began the original circuit: the Belles in Racine, Wis., the Peaches in Rockford, Ill., the Comets in Kenosha, Wis., and the Blue Sox in South Bend, Ind. "A League of Their Own" is based on the Rockford team.

In its heyday, the league had 10 teams and attracted 4,000 to 6,000 fans to every game.

It was the introduction of television that brought the demise of the league in 1954.

"A lot of people were interested in staying home and watching the major league games on TV," says former player Marie Kelley, who lives in Jamaica Plain, Mass. "The Korean War was over and people just lost interest."

Mary Pratt pitched for the Peaches and the Kenosha, Wis., Comets from 1943 to '47. "Now that the film is coming out," jokes this retired physical-education teacher, "I'm going to go around and sell my [trading] cards like Pete Rose."

Although all the former players were invited to be extras in the movie, Ms. Pratt didn't participate in the filming of "A League of Their Own" last year. She keeps busy as an advocate for women's sports in her hometown of Quincy, Mass., and "just couldn't get away."

The names Penny Marshall, Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, and Madonna mean little to this spritely lady. "I've never even seen Madonna," she says. "I don't know whether she sings or dances or what." But when the movie comes out, Pratt definitely plans to see it. "It's going to be a film about an opportunity that I had 40 years ago," she says. "It's a recognition of women in baseball."

Then again, Pratt knows the movie may not represent her own memories of that time. "They are going to make this film, I assume, to fit into the mores of today's society. I can't expect it to be a documentary."

Pratt has heard rumors of scenes that contradict reality. Madonna might chew out Tom Hanks on the screen, but players never talked back to managers in Pratt's day. She's also heard that Madonna is shown sitting on the bench doing some knitting during a game. "That never went on," Pratt says to set the record straight.

Courtney's experience as an extra for "A League of Their Own" taught her a thing or two. "I now know where they get the phrase, `There's no business like show business.' I wouldn't do it for all the tea in China. It was nice because they involved us, but the last day we worked from 8 o'clock in the morning to quarter past four in the morning. They were long days - and it's boring, lots of waiting around."

Show business doesn't even compare to playing professional baseball, says Ms. Kelley, who was also an extra in the movie. Playing in the league "was actually action. It wasn't all this phony-baloney stuff. If you threw a rotten pitch and they hit a home run, you didn't take a retake on it. That was it."

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