Golden anniversary presents golden opportunity for Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame
Cover by Gregory Beatty
ARTESIAN / JUNE 28
REGINA FRINGE FESTIVAL / JULY 6-10
The Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame (SSHF) turns 50 in 2016. To celebrate, it’s touring a one-woman play by Maureen Ulrich called Diamond Girls: Diamonds In The Rough that explores Saskatchewan’s ties to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) that ran in the American midwest from 1943 to ’54.
Yes, that’s the league represented in A League of Their Own. Tom Hanks, Geena Davis and Madonna starred in the movie, but Regina’s Arleene Noga played a major role too, serving as an advisor, and even playing a bit part as a third base coach.
Noga played infield with the Fort Wayne Daisies and Muskegon Lassies from 1945 to ’48. And she’s one of three Saskatchewan women, along with Mary “Bonnie” Baker (a three-time all-star catcher with the South Bend Blue Sox and Kalamazoo Lassies) and Daisy Junor (an outfielder with the Blue Sox, Lassies and Springfield Sallies) who Ulrich drew inspiration from for Diamond Girls.
“It all started with the commemorative display Regina installed for Mary in Central Park last year,” says Ulrich. “I’ve always been a fan of A League of Their Own and had met Arleene, so when I saw that and read up on Mary I thought ‘I need to do this story.’
“I started doing research on how many of the women are still alive. I contacted the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame to see if I could get contact information, and they jumped on the train right away. ‘Did you know it’s our 50th anniversary? We think this would be a great sports history project.’ So it was unintentional on my part, but it’s been a wonderful partnership.”
SSHF director Sheila Kelly is more blunt in assessing the partnership. “I hijacked her project, is what I did, because it was perfect with Saskatchewan having contributed so much of the Canadian content for the All-American Girls. The numbers are staggering. Of 65 Canadian women who played, 25 were from Saskatchewan.
“As well, Arleene has been the face of the league. She’s taken possession of the history and ensured the story gets out. For many years, our June exhibit was A League of Their Own With Arleene Noga and the All-American Girls. The kids were all over that. It would start with them saying, ‘Oh, you have a baseball signed by Madonna!’ That was the perfect springboard for us to say, ‘Okay, let’s tell you the real story.’”
The AAGPBL was the brainchild of Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley. Concerned about the viability of minor and major league baseball as the U.S. war effort ramped up and many star and reserve players enlisted, he proposed establishing a women’s baseball league.
“Wrigley was a smart businessman because, obviously, he was in another business with chewing gum,” says Ulrich. “He’d already explored how to get women into ballparks as a source of revenue through Ladies’ Days. He’d been doing that for years, so I think he regarded this as another marketing opportunity.
“The league started off in smaller cities around Lake Michigan. That model worked extremely well. But when they tried to translate it to Minneapolis or Chicago, it didn’t work because there was too much competition from other sporting events.”
The first season there were six franchises, including the one immortalized in A League of Their Own — the Rockford Peaches. The teams played softball rules, but with runners able to lead off and steal. Each year, tweaks were introduced to shift more toward baseball, with a smaller ball, greater infield distances and overhand pitching.
At its peak, the AAGPBL had 10 teams and played a 108-game schedule. Players were paid between $45 to $85 per week and, as Kelly notes, Saskatchewan was a hotbed for recruits — thanks, in part, to retired Chicago Blackhawk defenceman Johnny Gottselig who grew up in Regina. Gottsleig knew Wrigley, and teamed with local scout Hub Bishop to sign talent for the AAGPBL.
And there was plenty of talent to sign, says Kelly. “Sports, particularly the ball sports, were very unifying for prairie communities. In many cases, there wasn’t anything else to do. You worked hard, and you played hard, and that was often on the ball diamond.
“I asked Arleene once, ‘Why you?’ She replied, ‘It could’ve been anybody. In fact, it should’ve been my sister. She was a far better player. That’s all we ever did was play ball.’”
Games at Central Park in Regina and Cairns Field in Saskatoon used to attract crowds in the hundreds, says Ulrich. “As today, there was a big rivalry between Regina and Saskatoon. Moose Jaw also had a team called the Royals. Hub Bishop would pick out the girls who looked right and played right and offer them a contract, and most jumped at the opportunity.”
Diamond Girls is directed by Kenn McLeod and stars Malia Becker. To set the scene, Ulrich expects there will be archival photos of Baker, Noga, Junor, Wrigley and other AAGPBL figures. Some voiceovers might be used too, but most of the narrative will be carried by Becker playing multiple roles.
Like a baseball game, Diamond Girls will have nine “innings”. “We’ve got a prologue, which is the pre-game show,” says Ulrich. “Then we’re in every significant location: the bench, hotel room, charm school, interviews with reporters, even when the women were at home, and the conflict with family about whether they should play or not. I also show the relationship between the women — two were on the same team, and played against the other one.”
The first part of the story takes place against the back-drop of World War II. “It was a very unusual time,” says Ulrich. “The world was kind of flip-flopped. Women were working in factories, and as ballplayers they could make more money than their husbands.”
“It’s definitely a snapshot of a particular time in history,” Kelly agrees. “Certainly, some who see the play will be almost appalled because these women had to ask permission to go whether it was from their father or husband.
“Then there was the whole need to look and act like women. You had to be beautiful, but you darn well better knock that run in too.”
That’s an aspect of the AAGPBL that intrigued Ulrich too. “Wrigley was only interested in attractive women because that would ensure people were at the park. The more feminine the girls looked, the more amazing their athleticism appeared, because you wouldn’t expect that from someone wearing a little skirt with her hair styled and her make-up and nails done.
“Initially, that’s what drew people in — the bizarre notion of these women playing. But fans fell in love with the teams. It wasn’t just the [home] team either, the fans got to know players from other teams when they came to town and embraced them all.”
This was pre-TV, remember, and gas and other types of rationing were in effect, so entertainment options were scarce. And with a dozen years of depression and war in the rear view mirror, the good news story that was the AAGPBL drew interest far beyond the towns where the teams played.
“From what I’ve read, Mary was the most publicized player in the league,” says Ulrich. “She had her picture in Life when the magazine did a spread on the league in its inaugural season. So she garnered a lot of attention and used it to negotiate a better signing bonus. But she was a true celebrity. She had supper with movie stars, appeared on What’s My Line? as a contestant.”
Diamond Girls isn’t the only anniversary project the SSHF is touring this summer, says director Sheila Kelly. “We’ve converted a 53-foot semi-trailer into a mobile museum and starting July 1 we’ll tour 70 communities.”
One highlight, she says, will be an Aug. 20 to 22 stop in the Battlefords. “The Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame is there. It’s having its induction ceremony. The travelling exhibit will be there for that, and there will be a performance of Diamond Girls on Aug. 23.”
Diamond Girls plays Regina June 28, and July 6 to 10 at the Regina Fringe Festival, and hits Saskatoon Aug. 28 (see sasksportshalloffame.com for the full itinerary).
As a Regina-based organization, says Kelly, the SSHF sometimes struggles to connect with the rest of the province. So she’s thrilled to be on the road this summer. “To be able to do that, and to take Diamond Girls to Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto too, and say this is Saskatchewan’s history, and its Canada’s history, is pretty awesome.”