75 years ago this week, the women of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League put on their skirts and cleats and trotted out onto four Midwestern ball fields for the first time. Now some of those players are in Rockford to celebrate their history and help push women’s baseball into the future.
Back in 1943, chewing-gum magnate P.K. Wrigley decided that America needed more baseball to keep spirits up during World War II. Since the "boys" were away fighting, he called on the "girls" to do the patriotic thing and entertain the Home Front. And, boy, did they!
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed, with short-skirted, cleated-feet athletes from all over North America bringing their best game to the Midwest, where the four original teams were based: the Rockford Peaches, the South Bend Blue Sox, the Racine Belles, and the Kenosha Comets. More than 600 women received paychecks as professional baseball players from 15 teams during the AAGPBL's 12 years of existence. Then the league folded and they went on with their lives.
Fast-forward 75 years. Former Rockford Peach Shirley Burkovich and former Peoria Redwing Maybelle Blair are in Rockford to celebrate the anniversary of the league and promote the future of women in baseball. They're meeting fans, signing autographs, and hoping to raise interest, and money, to build the headquarters of the International Women’s Baseball Center right across from Beyer Field, home of the Rockford Peaches during the 12-year run of the league.
“All these little girls, all over the country, come up and say they want to be a Rockford Peach, they want to be a Rockford Peach!" Blair exclaimed with a grin. "Rockford should grab this thing and run with it while they still have the opportunity, and while we are still here to help!”
This thing is the $7 million planned International Women's Baseball Center and use of the restored Beyer Field for baseball tournaments. Kat Williams is president of the International Women’s Baseball Center. She says, "The IWBC is investing in Rockford because we believe we are in the right place. Get to know us, believe in what we are doing, and help us get it done."
On Wednesday, the IWBC kicked off the AAGPBL 75th anniversary celebration with a fundraising gala at the Coronado Theatre in downtown Rockford, featuring music and dance of the Peaches era, hotdogs and peach beer, an auction and, of course, an autograph session with several former players and the actress who played Peaches player Marla Hooch in the 1992 film that rekindled interest in the AAGPBL, A League of Their Own.
Major League Baseball's highest-ranking female, Vice President for Baseball Operations Kim Ng, also made an appearance. Attendees also were treated to the unveiling of the Women's Baseball World Cup trophy, which is in the U.S. for the first time and on its way to Florida, where the tournament will be held in August. The League also collected proclamations from the city of Rockford and the state of Illinois at the event.
The party continues through the weekend, with the help of Friends of Beyer Stadium. Friday is Rockford Peaches Day at Rockford City Market in the downtown area, while East State Street will be renamed "Peach Orchard Lane" temporarily. The movie that continues to introduce new generations of baseball fans to the Peaches, A League of Their Own, will be shown at Friday Night Flix in Davis Park.
The celebrations move to Beyer Field, the home of the Peaches, after that. Kids can learn about the connections between baseball and science at "Baseball in the STEAM Zone" Saturday morning, followed by opening ceremonies and an exhibition game between Rockford's current women's baseball team The Starfires and local celebrities. Closing ceremonies, a home run derby, and a baseball battle between cops and firefighters are Sunday.
Once the party's over, the push to develop a world-class museum and headquarters for the International Women's Baseball Center will continue. President Kat Williams says they're looking for local businesses with deep roots in the Rockford community to come forward with major gifts toward the $7 million goal. At the other end of the spectrum, people are encouraged to donate their change toward the project. The Kiwanis Club of Rockford handed out Peaches coin banks that can be emptied into a special fundraising account at Illinois Bank & Trust.
Meanwhile, Shirley Burkovich and Maybelle Blair will continue to greet their fans, sign autographs, and share their stories about how they were lucky -- and talented -- enough to get to make a living doing what they loved most during a brief window when women had a professional baseball league of their own. What they want more than anything else is for today's female athletes to have even better opportunities to stand out in their field.