Story Originally Published in the Life Care Leader 2018 Edition
On Monday, July 12, 1943, the Sox sent a rookie pitcher to the mound in the first half of a day/night doubleheader. The fresh-faced teenager lost the game, but cemented a place in baseball history.
Her name was Ruth Born, and she wasn’t playing for those Sox. She was pitching for Indiana’s South Bend Blue Sox, one of four teams in the inaugural season of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball league, a league popularized by Tom Hanks’ 1992 move “A League of Their Own.”
The league was the brainchild of Chicago Cubs owner and chewing gum magnate Philip Wrigley. With America engaged in World War II, baseball executives were concerned that Major League Baseball would be suspended because so many fans and players - including greats like Ted Williams and joe DiMaggio - were being drafted and serving overseas. At the same time, the men and women supporting the war effort on the home front were working harder and longer hours. They needed entertainment and a way to take their minds off the war.
Wrigley’s answer was to start a professional girls’ league, playing a hybrid of baseball and softball. Softball was one of the most popular sports in America at the time, so he sent scouts around the nation and up into Canada, searching for standout female softball players to try out for his new league.
Bay City, Michigan-native Ruth Born was one of the lucky recruits. Born on Aug. 8, 1925 to Henry and Lily, Born began playing softball as soon as she was old enough to swing a bat. She also loved to help her father, a produce farmer. Her hours on the farm soon paid off on the diamond.
“The farm work really built up my arms,” she mused. “I worked hard and had a lot of muscles from lifting squash, celery and radishes all day long.”
Born’s father decided she needed a sturdy backstop to practice pitching at home. He thought his fishing shanty would be a great target, but soon second-guessed himself: his hard-throwing daughter developed a fastball that smashed the floor of his shanty into smithereens.
“Dad was good-natured about it,” said Born. “He was just surprised!”
In the years that followed, Born found opportunities to play softball wherever she could. One of her proudest moments is the memory of leading her team at Riegel Elementary School to win the city playground championship four straight years. She also started playing for the local Moose Club when she was just 13, which was quite an honor because she played on a men’s team. With her on the mound, the team won the Inter-City championship for three straight years.
In 1943, Born spotted an advertisement about the upstart girls’ league and wrote to the league office for more information. She was offered a tryout and earned a place on the South Bend Blue Sox - one of only 60 roster spots in the entire league that year. She took a train to Indiana and joined the team midway through the season, which had started in May. She couldn’t join the team earlier because she and her older sister Christine, were needed on the farm.
“I was only 17 years old, so my mother had to sign for me to play,” said Born.
An underhand hurler, like all of the AAGPBL pitchers in the league’s early years, Born says her pitching style was simple, but effective: “We didn’t use the windmill back then, but I still had a good fastball and a changeup that really broke their backs.”
Life with the Blue Sox was a far cry from life on the farm. Born and her teammates practices or played seven days a week. The pay was good - about $75 a week - but the girls had to follow strict rules to uphold the “all-American” image the league wanted to put forth.
Players attended Charm School, which was quite an education for Born and other girls from rural backgrounds. Their charm school guide covered everything from beauty routines to clothes to etiquette.
Additionally, the league’s Rules of Conduct ensured the girls acted with grace both on and off the field. Failure to follow the rules meant stiff fines.
Players were prohibited from smoking, drinking and wearing shorts or pants in public. Their hair was to be shoulder length or longer; shorter hair had to be in curls. Off the field, modest makeup was always required, and each girl was to have her own AAGPBL beauty kit available to her at all times.
Team uniforms also perpetuated the all-American girl image, featuring short-sleeved, pastel-colored dresses with flared skirts and contrasting belts, knee-high socks and ball caps. The short skirts were impractical. They often got in the way when pitchers like Born did their wind-ups, and sliding into bases usually resulted in nasty strawberries. But to Wrigley and other league executives, image was everything.
“They were selling a product,” explained Racine Belles second baseman Sophie Kurys. “They wanted us to be feminine and (at the same time) play like Joe DiMaggio.”
The 1943 season started Memorial Day weekend, and the early games were sloppy, as the girls got used to the new league rules and playing with new teammates. However, by the time Born joined the Blue Sox in July, excitement over the league was booming.
“At first, (the fans) came out of curiosity,” explained Born’s teammate Dottie Schroeder. “But when they saw how good we were, they were hooked.”
Newspapers around the country started promoting the “Queens of Swat” and “Belles of the Ball Game.”
Born and her teammates stayed with host families in South Bend and became local celebrities.
“There were always a lot of people there to watch us and cheer us on,” said Born. “Our fans included Major League players, who we got to know. They came to our games, and I went to their games.”
It was an amazing experience, but Born felt overwhelmed.
“I was in over my head,” she explained. “I realized I was out of my league, and I wanted to continue my education.”
When the season ended in September, Born decided to hang up her cleats. Hoping to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots, she earned her pilot’s license, but at just over 5’3”, she was deemed too short, so in 1945, she enrolled at Valparaiso University to study psychiatric social work. She became one of the first professional athletes to ever attend Valparaiso. While there, she played intramurals and even pitched for the Valpo men’s summer league softball team, a feat that was a rare accomplishment for a girl of any age.
“I was a bit of a novelty,” she said. “But they needed a pitcher!”
After graduating with a degree in social work in 1947, Born spent several years, pitching for the Valpo Queens, a fast-pitch women’s softball team. She led them to back-to-back Indiana state runner-up finishes in 1951 and 1952 and helped them reach the Amateur Softball Association Championship playoffs in her first seven years with the team.
Eventually, Born moved to Chicago and attended Loyola University. After completing her master’s degree, she stayed in the area and spent the next 25 years working for the federal government in child welfare.
“I did whatever needed to be done for families and children,” she said. “I helped people who needed money, and, at times, I had to take people to mental facilities. When I retired, I was in charge of child welfare over a six-state area.”
Although Born’s job was demanding, she still found time to travel and stay involved in her community, joining a league of women voters and serving on several Lutheran boards.
Of course, she had time for sports, too. She enjoyed playing basketball, tennis, volleyball and, especially, golf. On June 9, 1973, she experienced her greatest moment on the links: she shot a hole-in-one. It’s an accomplishment she still takes great pride in!
In her lone season with the AAGPBL, Born posted a 4 - 5 record and a respectable 3.59 ERA. It was enough to etch her name in history. The AAGPBL lasted 10 more years and opened countless doors for women in sports. The league is honored with a permanent exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, listing the name of every girl who broke barriers and played in the inaugural 1943 season, including Born.
Today, Born lives at Life Care Center of Valparaiso, Indiana. In addition to her recognition in Cooperstown, she has also been inducted into the Valparaiso University and Bay City halls of fame.
Ironically, during an exhibition game in 1931, another female teenage pitcher named Jackie Mitchell struck out future Yankee hall-of-famers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in a single inning. It was an incredible feat for anyone, yet alone a young girl, but a few short days later, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned women from professional baseball, saying it was “too strenuous” for them.
An embarrassed Ruth chimed in: “I don’t know what’s going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball. Of course, they will never make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.”
Less than 15 years later, Ruth Born and her teammates took the field and became the girls of summer. They proved that girls do have elite athletic skills and the stamina to perform at the top levels of any sport. Ruth Born showed us what we’ve always known: diamonds really are a girl’s best friend.
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