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A Team Of Their Own: Women Playing Hardball

Rockford has a long, proud baseball history:  it’s where sports pioneer Albert Spalding got his start. It’s where every company in town had its own industrial league team. And during World War Two, the most famous women’s professional baseball team drew thousands of fans. Now there’s a new team trying to revive the tradition of women playing hardball.

Helen Wyatt knows baseball. So her words mean a lot to the members of the Rockford Starfires, the city’s first women’s hardball team in nearly 60 years.

“When they started they were girls. Now they are ballplayers.”

Wyatt was known as Sis Waddell during her playing days with the Rockford Peaches, back in 1950 - 51.  Now she’s one of the Starfire’s biggest cheerleaders.

“It’s wonderful. I can’t do it anymore, but I love watching those kids play.”

Like their All-American Girls Professional Baseball League predecessors in the World War Two era, most of the Starfires players are making the tough transition from softball to hardball. Rockford native Laura Cernick plays outfield and is being groomed as a pitcher -- which means learning to throw overhand. She says other aspects of hardball that take some getting used to are a smaller ball, longer distances between bases, and the challenge of hitting a ball “coming at you at 50 miles per hour or more.”

It’s a challenge some women have been working toward their whole lives. Like third baseman Nicole Richter of Winnebago, who says she’s been playing ball since she was five years old.

“It’s really exciting for me to know that I can actually play hardball. Because when I was younger I was told that, ohhhh, girls have to play softball. This is a dream come true for me, and I’m really excited.”

Rockford native Beth Layng has known since she was five she wanted to be a baseball player.

“We all have a huge passion for the game, love the history behind the game, and when you have coaches like Greg and Steve, who put so much into it for us, you can’t help but have just so much energy and heart. And I’d have to say that heart is the biggest strength of our team.”

Coach Greg Schwanke says it’s more than heart: this team has some great arms. He has been working with the team on bat speed and strength training since last year…and he’s impressed. Schwanke feels the pull of history with the team, too: he’s a fourth generation baseball coach in the Rockford area. He has also been working for years on restoring the home of the Rockford Peaches, Beyer Field. While they might play on the same field as the Peaches, there ARE some big differences between Schwanke’s team and the team portrayed in the 1992 film A League of Their Own. Players in the AAGPBL were paid 80 dollars a week. Schwanke’s baseball team? No pay. It’s for the “love of the game.”

And then there’s the matter of the uniform. The All American Girls teams of the 40s and 50s famously played in skirts. At this weekend’s introduction to the Starfires, held at Kryptonite Bar in downtown Rockford, one of those rare uniforms made an appearance. Famed Rockford Peach Dottie Key’s uniform, to be exact. Key died in 2003, but her children Doug and Dona presented her off-white skirted tunic for the crowd to admire. Her other one’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Key once said she loved playing baseball in a skirt: she felt “free as a bird.” Dona Key-Ericksen says her parents were long-time supporters of getting a women’s hardball team back on the field in Rockford.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

We’re ecstatic. Doug and I are proud to be slices off that old Peach. I wish mom and dad could be here to see this. And my mom would be crying all over the place, although there’s no crying in baseball!

Starfire outfielder Laura Cernick has her opinion about today’s uniforms: she would love to wear a skirt. But coach Schwanke prefers pants for his players, saying that times have changed and the team can’t be living in the 1950s.

By the way, Schwanke says it’s not easy getting a team dressed: he hasn’t been able to find off-the-rack baseball pants for women and may have to have them custom-made for next season.

Pants or skirts, the team has inherited the legacy of the Peaches and the other teams of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. In fact, the team got its name when a player discovered Starfire is a variety of Peach. But today’s ground-re-breakers have challenges different from their predecessors. No one’s sinking money into the teams, so players have jobs, school, and family to juggle with their diamond time. There IS no league: while women’s hardball is huge in Australia and there are teams all over this country, there’s just one opponent within a reasonable drive of Rockford: the Chicago Gems. But that doesn’t matter to the Starfire’s  Beth Layng.                                                  

“We are all hugely honored. We’re really looking forward to this next season and seeing what we can do for Rockford. Bring in some more spark and bring in a new form of inspiration to young girls."

The Starfires first game of the season is May 18th against the Chicago Gems at one of the venues they plan to use this summer: Marinelli Field, former home of minor league baseball in Rockford. On July 27th, the original home of the Peaches, Beyer Field, will hold a grand re-opening. And Labor Day weekend, the team will host an international women’s tournament, at Beyer and Marinelli.      


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