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The South Bend Blue Sox: A History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Team and Its Players, 1943-1954.

Jim Sargent and Robert M. Gorman. The South Bend Blue Sox: A History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Team and Its Players, 1943-1954. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2012. 302 pp. Paper, $39.95.

Long forgotten, even during the halcyon days of the women's movement, it took a glorious but very inaccurate movie, A League of Their Own, to bring the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League back to life. Books on the league appeared almost simultaneous with the film. Lois Browne's Girls of Summer (1992), Barbara Gregorich's Women at Play (1993), and Sue Macy's A Whole New Ballgame (1993) began serious studies of the league.

Sargent and Gorman have written the first full-scale team history. Both authors are seasoned baseball historians, so this is a carefully researched, detailed, and thoroughly documented study. They mined the newspapers of South Bend and other league cities, but their extensive interviews with former players give feeling, vibrancy, and emotion to their story.

The book details the permutations of the league's name (from All-American Girls Soft Ball League to All-American Girls Professional Baseball League), the size of the ball, pitching distance, length of base paths, and the position of the pitcher's arm, all of which changed almost yearly. From 1943 to 1954, all the changes were in one direction, from softball to baseball, until the women's game became almost identical to that played by men.

South Bend is not the best known, nor the most successful team in the league's history. The Blue Sox, however, did win two championships, and featured one of the league's finest players. In the hands of Sargent and Gorman, the Blue Sox become a fascinating lot of baseball-playing women as they navigate a myriad of rule changes, dominating managers, and always the trials of playing in skirts that became shorter each season. The authors follow the team's exploits year by year and game by game, as well as the players' off-field adventures.

Sargent and Gorman succeed in evoking a sense of the time and of the people whose careers they chronicle. We come to know the players, and, just as the authors do, care for our favorites. Mary "Bonnie" Baker, "the photogenic star catcher," was traded to Muskegon in 1950 to bolster a floundering team. She took over as manager of a club with a 4-11 record and guided them to fourth place. Her reward was a new league rule prohibiting female managers. Betsy Jockum posted a league-leading .296 batting average in 1944; batting averages were low in the softball years. Pitcher Sue Kidd was a fifteen-year-old kid from Arkansas when she joined the Sox. Outfielder Lib Mahon drove in 400 runs in her nine-year career, before quitting in the home stretch of the 1952 season following battles with club executives and an overbearing manager. Charlene "Shorty" Pryer led the loop in batting and stolen bases one year. Shortstop Senida "Shoo-Shoo" Wirth delighted her fans by signing autographs by drawing two shoes.

The authors' understandable favorite was Jean Faut, the best overhanded pitcher in league history. Her record of 140 wins against 64 losses and a career 1.23 earned run average would be hard to top in any league. Twice (1951 and 1953) she was selected as Player of the Year. In 1952, all she did was post a record of 20-2 with an ERA of 0.93; how does that not merit player of the year recognition? She won 20 games in 1950, 1951, and 1952. Faut, who could also hit, played third base when not pitching. She captured a bating crown in 1949. Building on her statistics, Sargent and Gorman make a strong case for Faut being the league's all-time best.

There are villains as well as heroines. They are all male. Faut's husband, Karl Winsch, who managed the Blue Sox 1951-1954, comes in for the most criticism. He did manage the club to its only two championships, but players, with justification, found him quick tempered, dominating, irrational, and disdainful of women's feelings. In the end, his behavior led to a player revolt, and to his wife quitting the game she loved.

The Blue Sox won championships in 1951 and 1952. The most memorable of those years was 1952. Winsch, in a fit of anger, suspended second baseman Pryer. Four veteran starters then quit in protest of what they deemed unfair treatment of their teammate. With its roster reduced to a dozen players, mostly young and inexperienced, the team pulled together and somehow beat Rockford for the title in what the authors deem the Blue Sox's "finest hour."

For most of the team's lifespan, the Blue Sox played at Playland Park, which sounds idyllic, but was, in fact, in the middle of an auto racetrack. Most of the playing surface was in the track's infield, but home plate stood in the middle of the cinder track. Sliding home in skirts on cinders had to have taken a toll on players' skin. Betsy Jockum remembered it as being "pretty 'Ouchy.'" Unfortunately, Sargent and Gorman fail to explain how players navigated these dangers.

Throughout the book, the authors are careful not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. They monitor the status of the league on a yearly basis from its beginning as Philip Wrigley's brainchild, through its peak in 1948, and its gradual decline. The book's focus remains, appropriately, on the details of the Blue Sox's seasons.

Perhaps it is unavoidable, but in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it jars the sensibility to have women always referred to as "girls," Certainly the name of the league always included "Girls," newspapers referred to players that way, and the players called themselves "girls" or "kids." Perhaps nothing bespeaks the time better than this term.
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Author:Akin, William E.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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