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Rockford Peaches Celebrate 75th Anniversary

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Even though the Rockford Peaches haven’t played since 1954, the victorious professional women’s baseball team still lives on in our hearts. Reminisce with past players and fans and preview what’s on deck for Rockford’s baseball legacy.

This photo of the Rockford Peaches is believed to be the 1949 championship team. (Photo provided by Midway Village Museum)

This photo of the Rockford Peaches is believed to be the 1949 championship team. (Photo provided by Midway Village Museum)

One day in the early 1940s, when Betty Cassioppi was a young girl, she opened the local newspaper to see an advertisement for the Rockford Peaches. The all-women’s baseball team was playing at Beyer Stadium, just 1.5 miles away from her house.

Every day, Cassioppi and her friends would walk or bike to the stadium to see if the women were practicing. If not, they’d go back home.

But if there was a game, it was going to be a great day.

“I remember yelling and screaming while watching them in the stands,” Cassioppi laughs. “We were in the ninth grade, or something like that, and we had a lot of energy. We used to go every night and stay until the last player left. We were really big fans.”

One time, her sister even had some of the players over for a luncheon.

“I don’t remember who all came, but I know [Dorothy ‘Snookie’ Harrell] was there. She was my favorite player.”

Now almost 87 years old, Cassioppi still adores the Peaches. She keeps a scrapbook full of old photos and newspaper clippings.

“I just want to remember everything that happened,” she says. “All of the games were really exciting. It was nice to see women play.”

A Brief History

In 1943, women’s baseball began as an escape from the war engulfing the world.

Phillip Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs, suspected that Major League Baseball might be suspended due to World War II. His idea to keep baseball alive? Create an all-women’s league.

Wrigley invested $200,000 to provide salaries, uniforms, spring training, publicity, chartered buses, hotel accommodations and recruitment to what became known as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).

The Rockford Peaches were one of the first four teams in the AAGPBL, playing in Rockford for all 12 years of the league’s existence. The Peaches won four championships (1945, 1948, 1949, 1950) and three second-place victories – a feat unsurpassed by any other team in the league.

Each team had 15 players, mostly women from amateur softball leagues. At its peak, there were 15 teams. Each team had a manager and a chaperone; managers were usually men who had played professional baseball, while chaperones were women who supervised the players, making sure they followed the league’s rules.

A regular season had roughly 125 games and lasted from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Fans could attend as many as eight successive home games before waiting patiently, tuning into their radios, as their favorite team went on the road.

The AAGPBL ended in 1954, in part due to the invention of television. The war was over and people could watch major-league games at home. Attendance slacked and AAGPBL finances dwindled, until team owners voted to suspend the league. The Major League Baseball suspension that Wrigley anticipated never actually materialized.

But decades later, the Peaches still live on in the hearts of their fans.

In 1988, the entire AAGPBL was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in New York. In 1992, the popular film “A League of Their Own” hit the big screen to huge box office success, detailing a fictionalized account based on the Rockford Peaches.

Next on deck for women’s baseball? Big plans await for Rockford.

Women Who Played the Game

Shirley Burkovich, 85, and Maybelle Blair, 91, were once players in the AAGPBL. They still have sharp memories about the adventure.

“I always played baseball with my dad and brother, and one day, they had an article in the newspaper saying there were going to be tryouts for the All-American Girls,” Burkovich recalls. “I was only 16 years old, so, I was a little hesitant about going down. But my brother took the day off of work and said we can just sit in the stands and watch.”

Once Burkovich saw the other girls, she couldn’t resist walking down the bleachers to try out. A couple of weeks later, a telegram arrived at her Pittsburgh home. She had been summoned to report to spring training in Indiana. The year was 1949.

“My dad and brother were so happy, but my mom was worried. We had never heard of a girls’ baseball league,” Burkovich says. “But, my mom bought a train ticket and went with me to Indiana, where we met the chaperone and manager. They assured her everything was on the up and up, and I could stay!”

Blair was 21 when she joined the league in 1948. Similar to the plotline in “A League of Their Own,” a scout came to her town looking to recruit players.

“I was out playing softball and, just like in the movie, a scout came and asked me to play professional baseball,” Blair says. “I told him, ‘Aw, forget it! There isn’t such a thing!’”

Blair was living in Inglewood, Calif., at the time. The scout explained to her that the league would be playing in the Midwest.

“I said to him, ‘OK, but still, forget it. My mother would never let me go.’ He asked if he could talk to my parents, which I told him was a waste of time,’” Blair remembers.

Blair’s mother was strongly opposed to the idea of her daughter joining a women’s baseball team. That is, until she heard that her daughter would be paid $65 a week.

“And then my mother said, ‘George! Go crank up the car!’” Blair laughs. “I was making more money than my father.”

For both Burkovich and Blair, leaving home was a little scary, but mostly exciting. They stayed with host families who treated them like family.

“I had never even had a slumber party with any girlfriends, so it was pretty rough on me,” Blair says. “But, I was so excited, I didn’t think much about it. I could hardly wait to get there.”

Burkovich played in the league for three years as a utility player. Wherever they needed her – infield or outfield – she was there. She shuffled between the Muskegon Lassies, Chicago Colleens and Springfield Sallies before playing for the Rockford Peaches in 1951, her final season.

“I was so happy to have the opportunity to play that I didn’t care where I played, as long as I got the chance,” Burkovich says. “I loved every second of it. I loved every city we played in, especially Rockford because, of course, when it’s your home city, it’s a little more special.”

On the other hand, Blair jokes that she hated the Peaches.

“I liked Rockford, but not those darn Peaches,” Blair laughs. She was a pitcher for the Peoria Redwings during the 1948 season – her only year in the league.

Both women have warm memories surrounding their time in the AAGPBL, but none of these memories revolve around tremendous plays or big moments in a game. More than anything, they just remember how much fun they had.

“My biggest highlight was when I got into my uniform – I thought I was the cutest girl that ever lived,” Blair says. “I was so proud of myself in that little dress. And then, when I put on my cleats and got to walking, you could hear that ‘click, click, click’ on cement and it was just music to my ears every time. When I was wearing my cleats and uniform, it was the realization of a dream. I got to play professional baseball.”

Burkovich also had a moment of awakening when she put on her uniform.

“The first time I put it on at spring training, it was the realization that I wasn’t just playing in the street with a bunch of boys anymore – I was playing on a professional girls’ team,” she says. “That was a big thrill.”

But Burkovich’s all-time favorite moment happened later, in 1988, when the National Baseball Hall of Fame recognized the AAGPBL.

“To me, that was icing on the cake for our league,” she says. “Just to have that recognition. We’re in there with the likes of some of the greatest baseball players ever.”

There were also some not-so-warm-and-fuzzy memories, however. Since the women played in dresses, they could get pretty scraped up from sliding on gravel. They called their injuries “strawberries,” since the angry, red-colored skin abrasions were coated in pieces of gravel.

“One of the most terrible things – except, we didn’t realize it at the time – was that we didn’t have sliding pads,” Blair recalls. “You can still dig the gravel out of my legs from the strawberries I’d get. We were tough. We had to play hurt. You definitely weren’t on the DL list for a broken fingernail.” [The DL list – or disabled list, is a method to remove injured players from the roster to make room for healthy players.]

After baseball, both women continued to work professionally. Burkovich briefly returned home to Pittsburgh before moving to California to work at Pacific Bell Telephone for 30 years. Blair worked for 35 years at Northrup Aircraft, where she became the first female manager of transportation.

“The last year I played in Rockford, it was kind of a transitional time for me,” Burkovich recalls. “I knew the league was not going to go on much longer. We could all tell. But it was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make. I was single, and I thought, ‘I’m probably going to have to support myself, so I’d better look for something with more security.’ So, I made the decision to leave in 1951 and not come back for the final two seasons. I know I made the right move.”

Blair credits her time in the AAGPBL for her continued success in life.

“It’s all thanks to sports,” she says. “Sports helps girls learn how to get along, it helps their health; it helps everything. We had so many doctors and educators come out of that league. And, so many girls in sports today will get out and move on to become CEOs. The doors are wide open for women now, and we’re so proud of that.”

Neither Burkovich nor Blair ever married – they both felt called to a different vocation.

“We have all these little girls who we’re trying to help,” Blair says. “I think there was a plan for us. We’ve devoted our time to women being able to play baseball, and you can’t imagine how wonderful it’s been.”

What’s Next for Women’s Baseball?

In 2014, a group of frustrated women got together for pizza and beer. Out of it, they created the International Women’s Baseball Center (IWBC), a nonprofit with the mission to protect, preserve and promote all aspects of women’s baseball, both on and off the field. Burkovich and Blair are both board members.

“Women have played the game from day one,” says Dr. Kat Williams, IWBC president. “We’ve played, coached, umped – we’ve always been involved. And internationally, women’s baseball is huge. The U.S. is behind, compared to other countries, and we need to change that.”

And of all the cities in the country, IWBC wants Rockford to be the center of it all.

“A lot of people in Rockford don’t know this, but Rockford has historically been called the Cradle of Baseball,” Williams says. “There’s a rich baseball history here. The Cubs started here as the Forest City Nine. And A.J. Spalding, of Spalding Sporting Goods? Began in Rockford. The industrial league here was second to none in the early 20th century, and then, of course, there’s the Peaches.”

Plus, Rockford is in the center of the county, which makes it an easy location for players to travel to.

The IWBC had a series of events in Rockford from May 30 to June 3, raising money and awareness about its mission. (Maybe you saw “A League of Their Own” at Davis Park’s Friday Night Flix series, or attended the “Diamonds, Denim and Stars” fundraiser event at Coronado Performing Arts Center).

The nonprofit’s goal is to raise enough funds to create a museum and education center focused on international women’s baseball. Located right across the street from Beyer Stadium, it will have museum exhibits, multipurpose rooms for umping clinics and after-school programming, plus a national research facility so that all documents and manuscripts concerning women’s baseball can have a home.

“That doesn’t exist right now for women’s baseball,” Williams says. “Phase two for the building involves getting some batting cages outside.”

The IWBC already has the land. Now, it’s just a matter of raising enough money for the new building.

“It’s not just about preserving the past; it’s also about using the past as a way to motivate and inspire girls,” Williams says. “Also, it’s not just about baseball. It’s about the importance of sports, education and opportunity.”

On May 30, the IWBC launched a “Baseball Coin Bank” campaign as a fundraising effort. The campaign is based on 2,500 coin banks (think of a piggy bank, except baseball shaped) that were distributed by the Kiwanis Club of Rockford, the volunteer partners for the campaign, and available now at all Illinois Bank & Trust locations in Rockford. The public is invited to “fill” their coin bank and return it by Aug. 1.

Each returned coin bank earns a coupon to enter a drawing, happening on Aug. 2. The top prizes are tickets to a Cubs/White Sox game on Sept. 22, with an overnight for a family of four donated by Lindstrom Travel. Smaller prizes include tickets for four to see the Rockford Rivets minor-league baseball team, and a 6-venue pass for two from the Rockford Park District.

With money from the fundraising efforts, IWBC’s goal is to have its new building up in three years. The next step? Completing the educational programming, which will be accessible online to Rockford Public Schools, free of charge, long before IWBC’s building is complete. The curriculum is related to sports and based around STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math). Jesse Lovejoy, who created the San Francisco 49ers museum, is leading the project.

Also, for the second year in a row, IWBC is organizing the largest girl’s baseball tournament in the country, right here, in Rockford. It’s called “‘Baseball for All Nationals,” and it’ll take place Aug. 2 at both Beyer Stadium and Mercyhealth Sportscore 2.

“Last year we had 250 girls, and it was an estimated half-million dollar economic impact on Rockford,” Williams says. “These girls came from all over the country. They were so blown away and excited. We made sure everybody got to play a game at Beyer Stadium in honor of the Peaches.”

Williams emphasizes that baseball, in fact, is not softball.

“People think they’re equivalent, but the only equivalency is that there’s a bat and a ball. And the bat and the ball are different,” Williams says. “But people think, ‘Oh, girls play softball, boys play baseball.’ Well, that is a creative myth.”

So why do girls play softball and boys play baseball? It goes back to Title IX, which was passed in 1972, says Williams, a history professor at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., and the author of two books.

“Title IX requires there be equal treatment in sports between boys and girls at all educational locations funded by federal money,” Williams explains. “It’s after Title IX that you really start seeing girls’ and women’s basketball in school sports. I think it’s one of the most important legislative acts in this country since the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, because so many opportunities were opened up to girls.

“But, the drawback is that this idea of baseball and softball being equivalent sprang forth,” she adds. “So, if schools had a baseball team for boys and a softball team for girls, they were doing their job. And nothing against softball at all, I love it, but it’s just not baseball. Baseball is a different game. If you play it, you’ll understand.”

“Look Like a Woman, Play Like a Man”

This summer, to honor the Rockford Peaches’ 75th anniversary, the IWBC has launched an all-natural makeup line called “SPoRT,” with a signature lipstick called “Peach Diva” and three shades of nail polish as part of the “Girls of Summer” collection. All profits from the makeup line benefit IWBC. In the future, there will be blush, eye shadow, mascara and foundation.

“We’ve been asked if we feel comfortable bringing this back because we’ve come so far, and women today don’t need to wear makeup if they don’t want to,” says Sheryl Hall, co-chair of the Rockford Peaches 75th Anniversary Planning Committee. “But, the difference is, we present it as a choice. We focus on healthiness with natural makeup.”

It was different during the 1940s and ’50s, when players were told to “look like women and play like men.” The AAGPBL had strict rules concerning etiquette, even requiring players to attend “Charm School” during its first two years.

The players were expected to look like ladies and portray a “wholesome character” at all times – both on and off the field. Skirts and makeup were required whenever the girls were in public.

The rules also dictated that “boyish bobs” were not permissible, and hair should be long and well groomed. Makeup was always required, with rules stating, “Lipstick should always be on.” Smoking and drinking were not permitted in public places, with hefty fines should a player break the code. Plus, all social engagements had to be approved by a chaperone.

The fines were $5 for a first offense, $10 for a second, and suspension would result from a third.

At the time, Burkovich and Blair weren’t bothered by the rules.

“We had girls who came off the farm,” Burkovich says. “Even though I never went to charm school, I think it helped the girls.”

“In those days, I thought it was a good idea because people didn’t quite understand,” Blair adds. “It was a different era – people weren’t ready for women in slacks all the time. We had to wear our dresses and look like ladies at all times. If we didn’t, people wouldn’t come out and watch us.”

Playing in a dress wasn’t a big deal, either.

“It didn’t bother me at all – it was all one piece and very comfortable,” Blair says. “It’s different today, but if you put yourself in the time, it makes sense.”

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