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The Girls of Summer

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"We had to look nice," says Terry Donahue of her days as a catcher in the All American Girls Baseball League. "We had to have our makeup on, our lipstick on, and we could not have short hair. We had to have long hair. Mr. Wrigley was very strict about that. Someone was always yelling at me, 'Terry get on some lipstick!'" She sits back and laughs a laugh that seems too big to have come from her slim frame. "We wore cleats, which had to be shined. We wore dresses, which are not very good for sliding. But he made it very feminine."

This was the 1940s, when nearly a million women were working in heavy industry while men were at war. P.K. Wrigley, a man who claimed to know little of baseball and to care even less about it, started a professional baseball league--hardball, overhand pitch--for women. Oops, girls.

This was no fly-by-night operation. Scouts were sent all over the country and into Canada for players, tryouts were held at Wrigley Field, managers were culled from the men's leagues, salaries were eye-catching, and spring training was no lark.

"In 1947 we trained in Havana, Cuba," Donahue says. "The Brooklyn Dodgers were training there at the same time, and we outdrew them! They couldn't figure out what was going on, so the Dodgers came over to watch us--and they were quite surprised by the level of play.

"And oh, my gosh, it was quite an experience. It was so warm there, and our workouts--oh! They really put us through it. The Cuban guys were so cute! They wore white shirts and white pants, and they had those black mustaches and black hair." She shakes her head. "We had chaperones--very strict, very strict. We couldn't even go out on a date. We'd be out there trying to get in shape and the Cuban guys would be wanting autographs."

At 66, Terry Donahue is still giving autographs, more and more since the Hollywood hype machine has geared up for the opening of Penny Marshall's film about the girls' league, A League of Their Own.

Donahue admits to being a little worried about the movie. She knows it is not a documentary: "It's a comedy thing." But she wonders how they made actresses into ball players. She should know: she and 50 other former players tried to teach the actresses some basics on a Skokie baseball field last summer.

"Terrible!" Donahue exclaims. "I don't know why people are anxious to see this movie, because how could they make them play like we did? But of course they can do a lot with film, with good editing. But we're very anxious. And very nervous. None of them were very good. Best of all was Rosie O'Donnell--she's a comedian. Do you know her? Janet Jones--she's the wife of Gretzky--she was out there, supposed to be pitching. She was out there on her toes like she was in a ballet. Well we were just howling. I had a lot of respect for Madonna. She worked very hard. They all worked hard, but she worked harder. I saw her at a batting cage for over an hour, and when she came out she had blisters on her hands. She's a hard worker. I saw her slide into second base in Wrigley Field, and I thought 'Oh Madonna, don't do it! Because you're not doing it right!' And she just lay there. But she got up and tried it again. She's a really determined, hard worker. One of the girls got a black eye. One broke her nose. They worked hard. And that summer it was very hot. So I give them a lot of credit."

Donahue runs to answer the phone, hiking up her arms and taking off like she's heading for first base. For all her femininity--her Lincoln Square apartment is woody and elegant, with oriental runners between rooms, and cabinets filled with graceful curios--she moves like an athlete.

She's dressed in slacks and a polo shirt with yellow lettering commemorating the league's 1988 induction into the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame. That was something, she says, but somehow this movie is turning out to be more. On the phone is someone from the Today show hoping to film her and another woman throwing the ball around. With luck she'll get a new mitt: the ones she has out on the dining-room table to show me--along with five balls of various sizes, a photograph of the Cooperstown display, and a mound of photographs from the starfest in Skokie--look hazardous.The fielder's glove has no webbing: Donahue used to catch with the equivalent of a five-fingered oven mitt.

"I was a utility player," she says. "But one day our catcher broke her finger. The manager said to me, 'Have you ever caught?' 'No, I haven't.' 'Well,' he said, 'you're going in.' And I said, 'I'll do the best I can.' 'I know you will.' So he gave me this great ol' mitt, and I said 'I can't use that mitt.' I used my infield glove, and do you know that very first game I caught went 19 innings? My hand hurt, but I never switched to that big mitt because I didn't want to miss the ball. I stuck with that glove. They put a beefsteak in it to help pad; another time they tried a sponge. Finally they gave me a first baseman's glove, which I still have.

"It was a great position: you're in on every pitch, and you had the whole game in front of you. You know, our pitchers could throw curves."

Of course Donahue learned to play baseball without a glove. "After we finished our homework, we'd just go out every day and play ball. We were not from rich families; we played ball with our brothers. My brother was a very good ball player, and he'd throw me grounders. You know how brothers will be--he'd throw me nasty grounders. I figure that's how I got so good at it."

Donahue grew up on a farm in southern Saskatchewan, but has lived and worked as an interior designer in Chicago for the past 40 years. (Think it's cold here? Her family would visit Chicago to escape the Saskatchewan winter.) As a teenager she played ball for the local school, but during the summer a team in the big city, Moose Jaw, asked her to play. While she was in Moose Jaw, a scout from the really big city invited her to try out for the All American Girls Baseball League.

The league had been around a few years already, and some other women from Moose Jaw had joined. "My one dream, I told my dad, was just to play ball every day, I loved it so. Well. We played May through September, a 126-game season. We played six days a week and twice on Sunday. We traveled by bus and prayed for rain. But even if we were rained out one day, we'd have to make it up the next. We were in tremendous shape."

Players were signed to contracts at wages ranging from $50 to $125 per week, which was nothing to sneeze at back then. ("My gosh, in those days gals were making $50 per month!" says Donahue.) This money helped some women go to college and on to medical school or law school. Others went off like so many women in the 1950s and got married. Which was one of the reasons the league folded in 1954: there was no longer a minor league to bring players up. The advent of television didn't help either.

But in the late 1940s in Peoria, where Donahue played for the Redwings, the league drew very well. "First people came out because it was a novelty--women playing baseball, overhand pitch. But then they saw the brand of ball we were playing, and they kept coming back and got to know us. We had a wonderful audience. Nineteen forty-eight was the peak--the league drew one million people. Chicago had a team one year, the Colleens, but they didn't draw well. There was too much else going on. It was in the smaller midwestern cities like Muskegon and Racine where we did well." Muskegon had the Lassies, Racine had the Belles--and Grand Rapids had the Chicks.

Donahue still plays in old-timers' games--three innings--at the annual "Run, Jane, Run" in Fort Wayne, Indiana, an event that promotes women in sports. "You get out there and you know what you're supposed to do, but the body doesn't do it anymore." Luckily, most of the player reunions are just that: reunions where they stand around and reminisce about so-and-so getting bonked in the head with a ball. On June 24 some AAGBL players got together at Comiskey Park, where the White Sox honored them before a game. The Cubs haven't done anything for them yet, Donahue notes, which is funny, because they started the league.

There's a women's baseball league in Glenview now, but Donahue and her league friends have gone out to see the women play only once. They weren't impressed and haven't gone back. Donahue thinks young girls today have so much to choose from in sports and entertainment that there'll never be another bunch of women who grew up playing only baseball because they were too poor to play anything else. Then again, she hopes she's wrong.

"I got tickets for a Cubs night game and I brought a friend. We wore our down coats. Behind us was a family, and the little girl knew every player's name. She was so enthusiastic, cheering. And finally I turned around to her and said 'I'll bet you're a ball player.' 'I am,' she said. 'What position do you play?' 'Third and catcher.' 'I knew you were in that hot box. It's all there. I'll tell you what, on July 1 you go see A League of Their Own, about women who played baseball in the 1940s. I was one of them.' Well then the parents got involved. The father went down to buy a Cubs book, which has an article about the league. This little girl was so cute, so I sent her a league pin and a picture of myself. But all through that game she had that enthusiasm and that love for the game. Then her little brother came up and said to me, 'Were you really that good?'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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