by Gene Marrano
Jim Sargent has long had a penchant for baseball, even as he worked as a professor of American History at Virginia Western Community College. Sargent, who retired as the dean of the school’s Social Science division in 2010, previously co-authored a biography of former major league player Danny Litwhiler, a long time and successful college baseball coach he got to know while pursuing a Master’s degree at Michigan State. Litwhiler, who also managed in the minor leagues, had plenty of stories to tell. “Any ballplayer does,” said Sargent.
Sargent, a Roanoke resident who has published more than one hundred articles on the game of baseball in print and via the Internet, has now teamed up with another baseball writer, Bob Gorman, for a new book: The South Bend Blue Sox: A History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Team and Its Players, 1943-1954. This is the team and the professional circuit portrayed in the hit Tom Hanks-Madonna movie, “A League of their own,” in 1992. Gorman lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina and received kudos from The Sporting News for his 2009 book, Death at the Ballpark.
“Its unique,” said Sargent, who first found out details about the league during a baseball card show in 1995, when he met a former player. “I didn’t know about it [and] found out there was quite a bit to it.” Tom Hanks might have told one of his players in the movie that “there’s no crying in baseball,” but Sargent notes that he “might have had something else to say,” if he had to slide on a dirt infield while wearing a skirt.
One of the best pitchers in the league, Jean Faut of the Blue Sox, whom Sargent has written about previously, struck out several major league ballplayers at the time when they challenged her. “I compare her to Greg Maddox,” said Sargent, “in that she had excellent control, a couple of speeds on the fastball and three curves.”
Sargent has authored pieces on various players from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and interviewed several of them for The South Bend Blue Sox book. Betsy Jochum (Blue Sox, 1943-1948), Jean Faut (Blue Sox, 1946-1953), and Sue Kidd, (Colleens, rookie tour, 1949; Blue Sox 1950-1954) contributed forwards to the new volume, which has been published by McFarland & Company out of Jefferson, NC.
The league was created in 1943, in part when there was consideration given to canceling Major League baseball during World War II. President Roosevelt nixed that idea, thinking even a diminished league that was missing many players due to military service would be good for the country’s morale.
With men away and women working long hours in their place, revving up the country’s war machine, keeping major league baseball in place as a recreational activity – it indeed was the country’s undisputed national pastime back then – was seen as essential. “If you weren’t 4-F by 1942 you were in the service,” said Sargent.
The All-American League was launched however and held on through the 1954 season. The Blue Sox were one of only two AAGPBL to play all twelve seasons before the league folded. Players were culled from women’s softball circuits in the United States and Canada. Pay was above average, even more than many of their fathers were making while working in factories at the time.
What started out almost as softball, with underhand pitches and a larger ball, soon evolved into a game that resembled men’s baseball – and Sargent said these girls could play. And they did it all – running, fielding, sliding into bases, while wearing those trademark one piece tunics with the short skirt, designed to show off their feminine side. “It was always designed to evolve into baseball – but the talent [pool] they had available came out of fastpitch softball,” noted Sargent. “They didn’t feel they could convert those women to baseball in one season.”
Sargent said most of the players from the All-American League he has spoken to didn’t see themselves as pioneers, they were just athletes who wanted to play competitive games. There was one common thread: “the best years of their lives,” was what he heard most. “It was a chance to play professionally, a game they loved to play.” Co-authors Bob Gorman and Jim Sargent will make a joint presentation about their book on the South Bend Blue Sox at Virginia Western Community College on March 30.