Meet the western Pennsylvania women who played in the All-American Girls Professional League
Grab your baseball gloves and head to the sofa. A new television series shot in Pittsburgh and based on the All-American Girls Professional League premieres this week. Fourteen women from western Pennsylvania played in the real-life league during the 1940s and 50s in teams across the country.
The new series is an updated remake of the 1992 classic "A League of Their Own" and was filmed at locations including CCAC’s Boyce Park campus and East Carson Street on the South Side. It’s based on the Rockford Peaches, one of more than a dozen teams in the league, and the overall experience of the trailblazing women.
The league was formed in 1943 by Philip Wrigley (of the Wrigley gum family), according to Anne Madarasz, director of the western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Heinz History Center. With many would-be ballplayers serving in World War II, Wrigley wanted to keep the sport in the public eye and pitched the idea of having women’s teams.
“It was really seen as substitute entertainment,” Madarasz said. “But for about a dozen years, this was a professionally organized baseball league for women athletes that played a whole season of 100 or more games a year.”
More than 40 women from Pennsylvania joined teams that were primarily based in the Midwest, including 14 players from western Pennsylvania. They included Troy Hill native Betty Jane Cornett, who played for the Peaches; Armstrong County native Dorothy “Dot” Kovalchick of the Fort Wayne Daisies; and Norma Jean Whitney, a member of the Chicago Colleens.
All the team names, like Racine Belles and Muskegon Lassies, emphasized the supposed femininity of the players. The women had strict rules, wore short skirts and were chaperoned during seasons.
“So there was a sense of, ‘yes, we want them on the field of play to be great athletes,’” Madarasz said. “But we also want them to be women first and athletes later.”
Recruiters would often travel to major cities to find players. Madarasz said many were already part of organized softball leagues, and others, like Dot Kovalchick, played for men’s teams (she was on her father’s, “The Kovalchicks”).
After a few rounds of tryouts, the women would pack up and head to whatever city they’d be playing in for the season. The league's impact on these players, Madarasz said, was significant: Many women wouldn’t have had the opportunity to travel and have the experiences they had were they to have stayed home. Plus, it inspired many to pursue higher education.
“Thirty-five percent of the women that played in this league went on and got college degrees,” she said. “About 8% of them got graduate degrees, which is a big difference from that time period. So you had women who played in this league who went on to become lawyers, doctors.”
The games were popular. According to the league, attendance peaked in 1948 when 10 teams brought in 910,000 fans. Local newspapers and national magazines covered the games, including Pittsburgh. A 1949 article in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph profiled Dolly Pearson, a Hazelwood resident who played for the Lassies and the Peoria Redwings.
“Although only 16, Dolly was classed as one of the best outfielders in the league last year,” the article reads. “Swimming, horseback riding, laundry work and writing letters occupy the time of the players during the day and Dolly now is considering taking up golf.”
While players were in the public eye when they played, their stories were often forgotten until the 1992 film, "A League of Their Own," directed by Penny Marshall. Madarasz said the movie “gave them visibility again for the first time.”
The new television series, premiering Friday on Amazon, promises to bring in more diverse stories, including those of the queer and Black players. And yes, there’s still “no crying in baseball.”