A major event in sports history took place in September 1943. Two teams played in the first championship series of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Both were from Wisconsin.
The league was founded that year to keep fans coming to ballparks while male players served in World War II. It held tryouts for women around the United States and Canada and picked top prospects for the first four teams: the Racine Belles, Kenosha Comets, Rockford Peaches, and South Bend Blue Sox. The female athletes had the rare opportunity to get decent salaries and play for big crowds, and bask in media attention.
Unfortunately, there was no avoiding 1940s-style sexism. The women had to follow strict rules for grooming and manners. They were even forced to wear “ladylike” uniforms, including short skirts that offered no protection for their legs when sliding into bases.
In a 2009 interview from the Grand Valley State University Special Collections & University Archives, Racine Belles’ infielder Sophie Kurys said at first, the public viewed the women as mere novelties. But fans soon realized that these were serious ballplayers.
“The people were great. We were a curiosity to begin with, and when they came out and saw that we could really play, then they came out in droves, and we did really well,” recalled Kurys.
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League proved popular in Wisconsin. Kenosha’s Helen Nicol emerged as the 1943 season’s best pitcher, with 31 wins and 220 strikeouts.
In the all-Wisconsin championship series that fall, the Racine Belles bested the Kenosha Comets in three straight games, with Racine catcher Irene Hickson batting a torrid .417.
The league expanded to ten teams, and attendance rose to nearly a million in 1948. But recruiting new players proved difficult, and owners cut back on expenses. In 1954, they shut down the operation amid a backlash against women playing baseball.
But the players had made their mark, paving the way for other women’s professional leagues. And even though it took a while, they got their due. They were honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and memorialized in Hollywood’s “A League of Their Own.”
Joyce Barnes McCoy pitched for the Kenosha Comets in 1943. In a 2009 interview from the Grand Valley State University Special Collections & University Archives, she described her appearance decades later at a ballgame in her native Hutchinson, Kansas.
“They asked me to come and throw out a pitch at this complex there. I never experienced anything like that. Some of the officials of Hutchinson, the mayor and some of those were there, so they introduced us,” remembered McCoy. “And when they introduced me, I stood up, and that whole grandstand was alive with yelling and hollering. I took off my hat and waved at them, and they started in again. And all the umpires took their hats off, and I had to autograph everything.”
Yes, hats off to Joyce Barnes McCoy and other Wisconsin players from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. It’s good to know that, by the end of their lives, they finally had a chance to feel like all-American legends.