As World Series Begins, Recalling WWII's Diamond Girls
Tonight the 115th World Series begins, and whoever you’re rooting for, it’s remarkable to think that this is the first time in 86 years that America’s “National Pastime” will feature a team from the nation’s capital.
In those 115 years, Americans fought two world wars (as well as others in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan). We slogged through the Great Depression, marched for civil rights, rescinded the right to drink adult beverages -- then restored it -- welcomed tens of millions of immigrants to these shores, and finally embraced women’s suffrage. We elected, protested, impeached, or mourned 20 U.S. presidents. Yet, except for one strike-marred season, we always found time for the autumn classic, which a fictional Ring Lardner character memorably dubbed the “World Serious.”
“The one constant through all the years,” wrote novelist W.P. Kinsella, “has been baseball.”
If you know the movie “Field of Dreams,” which is based on Kinsella’s book “Shoeless Joe,” you probably remember James Earl Jones reciting these lines in his voice-of-God timbre: “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”
But it is not “Field of Dreams” I’m thinking of this morning, or Shoeless Joe Jackson, but another movie, “A League of Their Own” -- and another baseball immortal, Jimmie Foxx.
* * *
On this date in 1907, Dell and Mattie Foxx welcomed a baby boy into the world. The Foxxes were tenant farmers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and the child they named James Emory grew into a muscular three-sport star at the local high school. He was just 18 when he left the Eastern Shore for Philadelphia, which then had an American League team. In Philly and later Boston, Foxx put together a 20-year career that was one of the best in major league history. As his Cooperstown testimonial reads:
“During his career, he was one of the most dominant offensive forces in the majors as he put together twelve 30 home run seasons and thirteen 100 RBI seasons. He captured three American League MVP Awards, was selected to nine All-Star teams and took home the American League Triple Crown in 1933. When he retired in 1945, his 534 career home runs were second to only Babe Ruth and the most by any right-handed batter in big league history.”
Nicknamed “the Beast,” Foxx hit the ball so far that even after he passed away at age 59, former competitors marveled at his strength. “When Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, he and all the space scientists were puzzled by an unidentifiable white object,” deadpanned fellow Hall of Famer Lefty Gomez. “I knew immediately what it was. That was a home-run ball hit off me in 1937 by Jimmie Foxx.”
But Foxx has been largely erased from the memories on that great American blackboard, replaced by more recent stars. Four-and-a-half decades after he retired, however, he made an interesting comeback. You had to know your baseball to get it, but in “A League of Their Own,” Jimmie Foxx is the inspiration for manager Jimmy Dugan, memorably played by Tom Hanks.
Like most Hollywood movies, Penny Marshall’s classic takes great liberty with the facts, amalgamates real-life characters, and invents whole new story lines. There is no Dottie Hinson, for example. Or rather, she’s based on two or three women who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, among them the great Dorothy Kamenshek, whose nickname wasn’t “Dottie,” but “Kammie.” And while there’s no record of Jimmie Foxx giving a famous “There’s no crying in baseball” speech, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was very real, and lasted 10 years. What’s more, after he retired, Foxx did coach one of the teams.
In the movie version, the Racine Belles beat the Rockford Peaches in the first “Women’s World Series,” which went seven games. In real life, it was called the league championship, and Racine beat the Kenosha Comets in a best-of-five series. But those details are not important. What is important is that in the great “steamroller” of American history, Title IX opened the doors for millions of girls and women to play all kinds of sports. And their path was illuminated during World War II by a couple hundred intrepid female ballplayers.
Many of them are gone now, along with most of their Greatest Generation cohorts. But not all. Two veterans of the AAGPBL, Maybelle Blair and Shirley Burkovich, are still around -- and still promoting baseball. Maybelle Blair is 92. Shirley Burkovich is 86, which means she was born in 1933, the year Washington was last in the World Series. Both women have been active in trying to build a center for women’s baseball in Rockford, Ill., where the Peaches played. Both also prefer baseball to softball, the game most girls and women play today and which the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League played at its inception -- until the women insisted on playing hardball.
“There’s nothing like baseball,” Shirley says. “Nothing.”