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"Women in Baseball: Latinas in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League"
By Dan Cobian
The year is 1943. The Second World War is violently consuming the planet. The Allies have captured Italy in a major turning point. Chaos reigns. Yet, a wonderfully positive development was beginning in Chicago at roughly the same time -- 1943 was also the first season of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), the most popular women’s baseball league that ever existed.1
Fast forward to 1949. The AAGPBL is considered a successful endeavor, with ten teams and a paid attendance of roughly one million viewers. Perhaps just as significant, there are now eleven Latinas playing in the AAGPBL, nine of them Cuban born.2 Before 1943, white males dominated baseball. But with the emergence of Latinas in the AAGPBL, it became an acceptable domain for women, and not just white women. In fact, the AAGPBL held its spring training in Havana in 1947.3
Women’s baseball is clearly an important historical development, both in the context of gender and race in the U.S. But how exactly is the AAGPBL important to our studies of Chicana and Latina history? The creation of a women’s league with such popularity, the assimilation of Latinas into what was previously known as a field dominated by white males, and a prominent acceptance of Latinas, I would argue, illustrate the historical significance of ‘Estrellas Latinas’ in the AAGPBL.
As early as the 1860s, women played on organized baseball teams. Vassar College in New York had the first women’s baseball teams, composed of eight players, in 1866.4 Women’s teams continued to emerge at various colleges during the early 1900s, and traveling teams known as the “Bloomer Girls” challenged amateur and semi-pro men’s teams.5 In the years that followed, some women attempted to play on men’s teams. However, throughout much of the early 1900s, baseball was still a man’s game.6
This all changed in the early 1940s. With the shortage of players from Major League Baseball due to military service, Philip Wrigley, the legendary owner of the Chicago Cubs, attempted to ‘fill the void’ by founding the first and only women’s professional baseball league in 1942.7 In 1943 the league was coined “The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League,” with a total of four teams from Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.8
Wrigley knew that he would have to market the league well in order to succeed, so he pitched the concept of women’s baseball more strongly than women’s baseball. As the league’s name implied, the players needed to portray the ‘All-American’ girl. Players were required to attend after-practice classes, known as “ Charm School”, which taught them proper etiquette, hygiene, and behavior.9 The league rules focused more on player appearance and behavior than on the actual game. For example, the first rule of conduct was as follows:
ALWAYS appear in feminine attire when not actively engaged in practice or playing ball. This regulation continues through the playoffs for all, even though your team is not participating. AT NO TIME MAY A PLAYER APPEAR IN THE STANDS IN HER UNIFORM, OR WEAR SLACKS OR SHORTS IN PUBLIC.10
This marketing strategy was successful, and attendance rose as the league continued to expand. Then, in 1947, AAGPBL spring training was held in Havana, Cuba, where it drew a huge following. League scouts noticed some of the locals with remarkable talent, and they began to recruit Cuban women to play in the AAGPBL.11
At the peak of the league’s existence in 1948, there were eleven Latina players, all of whom played at least one game in the AAGPBL. Two of these women – Marge Villa and Helene Machado – were born in California, while the other nine were natives of Cuba.12 Most of these players were no more than twenty years old. One can imagine the challenges they must have faced moving to a new country and having to learn a new language while attempting to assimilate into the league. Compared to the American girls in the league, the Latina players faced prejudice or discrimination on two fronts – since they were both women and Latina. Perhaps the biggest challenge was in the name: The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Despite some rough beginnings, teammates, fans, and league officials eventually supported the Latina players.
Isabel Alvarez, Ysora del Castillo, and Mirtha Marrero, all of whom signed contracts following the spring training session in Havana, were three of the most well known Latinas ballplayers.13 Marrero was 17 years old when she joined the Chicago Colleens as a pitcher in 1948. She had a difficult time communicating with teammates because of the language barrier and was somewhat unhappy at first. However, she quickly learned to connect with others. Her former teammates described her as “a character – popular, lively, and energetic.”14
Isabel “Lefty” Alvarez was the youngest Latina to play in the AAGPBL. In 1949, at the age of 15, she joined the Chicago Colleens with the encouragement of her mother, who wanted her to have a better life. Alvarez also had difficulty communicating in her new country, but credits her teammates for helping her through the rough times.15 One of those teammates was Migdalia “Mickey” Perez, another Cuban born player who was recruited during spring training and played for the Colleens in 1948. Mickey was a mentor to Alvarez, and along with Alvarez’s mother, drove ‘Lefty’ to stay in the U.S., play baseball, and forget about Cuba. Alvarez became a U.S. resident in 1953 and earned her citizenship in 1959.16
Also in 1949, another Latina player joined the Colleens. Ysora del Castillo was seventeen years old at the time, and she earned multiple nicknames for her style of play. “ Chico” or “Pepper” was known for her lively chatter that boosted her teammates’ performances.17 Castillo was born to a poor family in Cuba, but, like Alvarez, used baseball as a way out of poverty.
All of the Cuban players were quite young when they left their homes in Cuba to pursue a better life through baseball. A remarkable collection of photographs from the Northern Indiana Center for History, the Joyce Sports Research Collection, and the personal collections of Isabel Alvarez, Ysora del Castillo, and Jean Moffett vibrantly displays their youth upon entrance to the league.18 In some photos, Alvarez and Castillo look like girls who should be in little league instead of a women’s professional baseball league. In other photos, we see the Latina players sticking together, supporting each other on their daunting yet exciting journey. These photographs depict the ‘ladylike’ appearance which was required at all times. The players always looked their best, with full lipstick, styled hair, and neat appearance. In addition, the uniforms are dress-like with short, revealing skirts. They are not the most practical uniforms for playing baseball. The popular 1992 film “A League of Their Own” addressed the concept of visually appealing, yet rather nonfunctional, uniforms.
According to former players, the film, which brought an inordinately large amount of attention to the league and created an AAGPBL fan base fifty years after the fact, is actually quite accurate. Norma Metrolis, a catcher from 1946 to 1950 in the AAGPBL, acknowledged that the film was a comedy and, therefore, exaggerated or took liberties with certain parts of the story. It nonetheless remained a faithful depiction of life in the league.19 The film inspired many historians and is tied into almost any discussion of the AAGPBL or women’s baseball.
While the film portrayed one season in the league, it did not cover the demise of the AAGPBL or what happened to the players. In the late 1940s, the league dismissed the concept of centralized operation, and each city assumed responsibility for its team. As a result, some teams regressed to a traveling format in order to stay afloat.20 With Major League Baseball back in full swing following the conclusion of WWII, the women’s teams began to lose fans rapidly. In addition, players were retiring, and lack of scouting and development prevented new players from replacing the older ones. Finally, with only five teams remaining, the owners voted to make 1954 the last season of the AAGPBL.21
The league lasted a total of twelve seasons, much longer than most had predicted. With the war over, women were expected to return to their traditional feminine roles of housework and child rearing.22 Still, one must admit that the league had its impact on society’s perception of femininity. Although it was traditionally billed and marketed with the attitude of “Hey, they’re pretty…and they can play ball,” many noticed that these girls had true athletic skills that transcended traditional ideas of gender.
In addition to white men, Chicanos and Latinos also embraced traditional gender roles in society. When Mirtha Marrero married in 1953, her husband stopped her from playing in AAGPBL. In fact, Marrero did not even attend reunions or other functions until 2003, nine years after her husband’s death.23 Ysora del Castillo’s career ended after the 1951 season, when she married and became Mrs. Raymundo Kinney.24 While these women still struggled to be accepted as females and athletes, they made great strides in Chicana/Latina history.
These women used baseball as a way out of poverty, a way to make a better life for themselves. The spring training game in Havana had extraordinary historical significance, as it helped to expand the popularity of Latino ballplayers. The AAGPBL scouts and managers who traveled to Cuba saw that Cubans had a true love for baseball. It created an entirely new market for players. It was not just a coincidence that a large number of Latinos began to make their way into the major leagues after 1948.25 These were not the first Latino players to be a part of Major League Baseball, but they were the first to be widely accepted and acknowledged.26
Although its impacts on society’s view of women in sports were not immediately evident – perhaps due to America’s desire for return to old standards following the war – one can argue that the women of the AAGPBL truly paved the way for today’s female athletes. While it is true that women in sports today are still marketed as both females and athletes, they draw much attention for their athletic accomplishments. It is now okay for a woman to be athletic and feminine, rather than viewed as a female with masculine skills.
Truly, the league was successful in a way that will probably never be duplicated. It had recurring effects on women in sports and gave Latinas a place in the league and in the country. From the perspective of Latina ballplayers, the league must be viewed as a tremendous success. They brought national attention to Cuban baseball, made their places in this country, and transcended race and gender by being widely accepted into a domain previously dominated by white males. They paved the way for future Latina and Latino athletes, and it is worth noting that the last three of baseball’s Most Valuable Player award winners were either born in a Latin American country or of Latin descent.27
The league’s existence and popularity was truly a remarkable feat. To this day, the AAGPBL remains the only women’s professional baseball league that ever existed. In 1988, The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown inducted the entire AAGPBL and presented a “Women in Baseball” exhibit, which highlighted the contributions of the league to the national pastime.28 Former AAGPBL players came from all over the country to be honored for their historical achievements and reunite with teammates they hadn’t seen in 40 years. Finally, the women of the AAGPBL received the attention they deserved for their landmark accomplishments. Of course, Alvarez and Castillo were there, having been successful on two fronts, both as women and as Latinas. To borrow a phrase from Mirtha Marrero: “Dale, chica!”29