Play Ball

Former players of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League visit campus. Left to right: Lou Ericksson Sauer, Dolly Niemiec Konwinski, Eileen “Ginger” Gascon, Joyce Hill Westerman, Sister Tony Ann Palermo and Betsy Jochum.
Former players of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League visit campus. Left to right: Lou Ericksson Sauer, Dolly Niemiec Konwinski, Eileen “Ginger” Gascon, Joyce Hill Westerman, Sister Tony Ann Palermo and Betsy Jochum.

Sister Tony Ann Palmero, S.S.S.F., and her teammates playing in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League had no idea they were making history. They were just having fun.

“We were just out there playing ball and enjoying ourselves,” says Palmero, who along with five other league members met up on campus in mid-May as part of St. Norbert College’s Sport & Society in America conference. “We didn’t really talk much about what we did.”

Founded in 1943 during World War II over concerns about the availability of male baseball players, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League played in mid-sized Midwest cities until 1953. The league and its players – who were recognized by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988 – later inspired Penny Marshall’s 1992 hit movie, “A League of Their Own.”

Palmero loved baseball and threw herself into it fully for four seasons, but felt she was being called to do something greater. She left spring training in 1953 to enter a convent. “I had planned to goin September, but was worried if I kept playing, I would somehow not go,” she says. Once at the convent, no one knew about her baseball-playing days.

“Religious life was tough. I think playing baseball was easier, truthfully,” says Palmero, a School Sister of St. Francis, who later earned three master’s degrees and a doctorate. She taught for many years in the K-8 school setting and also in the social work and physical education programs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Yes, we played every day and a double-header on Sundays in the league, and practiced and traveled. But living as a religious, we got up at 4:30 in the morning and had to think about obeying and silence. But you learn to, how should I say it? You learn to live in a situation and not lose your identity.”

Palmero, who was absorbed in her own work in Madison, missed the media frenzy when “A League of Their Own” came out, drawing the nation’s attention to the women who played in the league. It wasn’t until she saw the movie in 2003 that she started talking again about her experiences with the All-American Girls.

Dolly Niemiec Konwinski, who played 1949-51, says the Girls” – as they call themselves – didn’t realize they would be seen as pioneers. “We were just having fun and we were offered money to play baseball. How could you turn that down?” Fielding questions in the Cassandra Voss Center, they compared notes about childhood reputations as tomboys. Three of the six subbed on their brother's paper-routes, and were known for their accuracy and pitch as they lobbed the evening news onto local doormats. 

While the girls had their fans back in the day, they faded into the background once the league folded. The movie, however, put the players back in the spotlight. More than 20 years after “A League of Their Own” came out, the attention remains. Today, the women are at ease when people ask for their autographs. Some even have their own baseball cards.

“It’s nice that we were pioneers and that we led the way, but we didn’t know at the time we were doing it,” says Eileen “Ginger” Gascon, who played three seasons. “But if they saw us in a grocery store, they would have no idea who we were. We would just blend into the background.”

A unique experience
Today’s young female athletes have more opportunities – and challenges– than the All-American Girls did, the players said during their presentation.

“They have access to so much coaching and training. I just learned from shagging balls in the outfield for a men’s team in my town,” says Lou Erickson Sauer, who played for three seasons. “We just had an opportunity and took it. I’ve had women athletes say ‘Thank you for opening the door for us.’ ” Without question, Title IX opened the doors for many athletes, says Joyce Hill Westerman, who played eight seasons and later coached softball at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis. (Title IX requires colleges receiving federal aid to offer equal opportunities in sports to their male and female students.)

“Today’s athletes are so talented,” Westerman says. “The equipment is also way better. They don’t have to play in skirts.” But while today’s girls have more access to great coaches and personalized training, Gascon wonders if young athletes are doing too much. “Some girls are playing the same sport year-round and are doing it much harder than we did, so they develop injuries,” she says.

While the All-American Girls were called professional athletes and played in front of crowds ranging from a couple hundred to several thousand depending on the city, today’s female ballplayers don’t have their own professional league. Palmero isn’t surprised. “The college girls are the ones who get the attention,” she says. “There’s also more sports opportunities out there. Look at basketball with the WNBA and all the women soccer teams. We didn’t play soccer or basketball. There was just baseball.”

Konwinski says people have a lot of different options as to how they spend their free time, and watching women play baseball doesn’t usually rise to the top of the list. “We used to be the only game in town, so people came out to see us,” she says. “We didn’t have to compete against a hundred TV channels and everything else vying for people’s attention these days.”

Surrounded by league memorabilia and stopping conversations occasionally to sign yet another autograph, Betsy Jochum, who played for eight seasons and participated in the filming of “A League of Their Own,” says in the end the original players’ experiences came down to just one thing: “We played baseball because we loved it.”

Bringing the girls to campus
Keith Sherony (Economics), director of this year’s Sport & Society conference, is a self-described baseball nut. A few years ago, he and his wife, Linda (Business Administration), had the opportunity to meet several All-American Girls during a field rededication event. Linda has since assisted at their annual reunion. “They were outgoing and spunky and thrive on the opportunity to talk about their experiences,” says Sherony. “As we started putting this event together, I knew they would be a good fit, so I reached out to some people I know involved with their players’ association and it just grew from there.”

While the players were in the area, Sherony had the opportunity to introduce not only St. Norbert athletes to the girls, but also players from UW-Green Bay. “It was wonderful to bring together women athletes separated by a few generations and watch them interact,” he says.


July 9, 2014