WOMEN, BASEBALL, & OTHER QUIET MIRACLES

by Lane Emmons

Coach Armstrong could pitch the ball at about 70 miles per hour.  Underhand.  She was about five foot four and 120 pounds, but could form bruises the color of deep purple cabbage on our thighs and upper arms.  Batting practice was  brutal. The imprint of softball stitches on our skin were commendable alternatives for the tattoos our parents scoffed at--the markings of a true warrior. But even a field of Joan of Arcs gets tired and, frankly, over it. And just when we thought we had reached our limit, practice was over.

When all the balls were picked up and dusk dropped the temperature to the low 90’s, we would wobble to the parking lot hoping for some matronly sympathy, but even our mothers were merciless.  Mine would scream as she rumbled up in her clunker of a Volvo, “it’s good for you!”

 

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“The frailest creature on the diamond is frequently the male umpire.” –The Saturday Evening Post, 1942

 

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Things that can happen during the time from which the ball leaves the pitcher’s fingertips to when it thwacks into the pocket of the catcher’s glove (this moment lasts for approximately one second):
Someone, somewhere, blinks.
An ‘i’ is dotted.
A calm heart thumps twice.
A knuckle is popped.
A kiss is ended.
The top to a pen is snapped back on.
Lipstick is smeared by a bump in the road.
A grey hair is plucked out.
The knees of a toddler buckle.
Someone says yes.
A gun is fired.
The breath before the music starts.

 

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[A baseball field in a small town or a big city.] The stands are not full enough to produce the familiar clamor of ball fans.  The spectators that are there are hot.  They are sweating through their linen shirts and wool slacks.  They wish they were not wearing suspenders.  The sun is fire, and the glare off the green grass heats up the wire rims of sunglasses.  They are not there to watch the game.  They are there to keep their minds off of Nazis on a beautiful summer day.  But every so often the wooden slats of the stadium rattle against the roar of airplanes.     

 

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“Even today, when spring comes around, I think, ‘Gosh, years ago I’d be getting ready to go to spring training.’  The smell of the earth coming alive again, it just brings back memories that make you want to go get out your baseball mitt.”

Shirley Stovroff,
                    South Bend Blue Sox
                        1948-1952

My mom was, and still is, my biggest fan. She played ball with me whenever I wanted to. She always asked me if I wanted to shoot hoops before dinner. She never missed a game. I knew mothers, certainly mine, hold an importance that is embarrassing to admit when we are young.  But now, when life is real and your mother is far away, we cling to what we can, we try so hard to remember what they told us that fateful day the game didn't go our way.
    

Casey Candaele, former Major Leaguer who played for the Astros, the Expos, and the Indians, learned how to be an outfielder from his mother, Helen Callaghan, who played five seasons for the All-American Girl's Professional Baseball League.  The athleticism in my family has been passed down through three generations of women, starting in the 1920s, when photography was far from accurately capturing sports and made everyone look the same*  until you looked twice.    

Susan Cohen Emmons and Lane Emmons - Old Plantation Road, Atlanta, Georgia | Spring 1988

My grandmother sits in front of her television for 12+ hours a day.  Once a renowned tennis player, she now chooses to shuffle her still-able feet.  Sometimes she will get up to walk a few feet to the computer, sit down again, and start up another game of solitaire.  

 

She doesn't even garden anymore.  She says she is too old.  
    

This woman is not too old to do anything.  This is a woman who could do anything.  

* Ghostly.  

Dottie Schroeder, catcher | 1948

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1. By the summer of 1943, 10 million men had joined or been drafted into the United States military, female employment in defense industries had grown by 462 percent since 1940, and 280 women were invited to Wrigley Field for the final try-outs for the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. 60 were chosen, all white. 
  

2. Dottie Schroeder was the only ball player who was a member for all twelve seasons of the AAGPBL.  Dottie had a lifetime batting average of .211 and a face you could fall in love with.    
    

3.  1953, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson becomes the first female pitcher in the Negro League.  
    

4.  J. Howard Miller's "We Can Do It!" poster is often thought to be Rosie the Riveter.  The original Rosie, created by Norman Rockwell, is using Mein Kampf as a footrest.  

 

 

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Philip Wrigley started the league in the early 1940s in hopes of keeping the sport alive while the male ball players were overseas.  He did not have faith that the girls he hired would bring in enough profit with just their skill.  For female ball players, the snap-click of pumps strutting across a hardwood floor in an elegant ballroom was the sound of spring training. Mr. Wrigley required his players to attend charm school.  To him, femininity and skill were of equal importance.  To the girls, learning how to walk like a lady proved frivolous when running bases, and short skirts produced foot-long strawberries on the backs of their thighs.  Was the league trying to overcompensate for the innate masculinity of the sport? Or maybe the goal was to sell product.  Consumerism was considered patriotic during wartime—and what is easier to sell than the female form?  

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Philip Wrigley started the league in the early 1940s in hopes of keeping the sport alive while the male ball players were overseas.  He did not have faith that the girls he hired would bring in enough profit with just their skill.  For female ball players, the snap-click of pumps strutting across a hardwood floor in an elegant ballroom was the sound of spring training. Mr. Wrigley required his players to attend charm school.  To him, femininity and skill were of equal importance.  To the girls, learning how to walk like a lady proved frivolous when running bases, and short skirts produced foot-long strawberries on the backs of their thighs. Was the league trying to overcompensate for the innate masculinity of the sport? Or maybe the goal was to sell product. Consumerism was considered patriotic during wartime—and what is easier to sell than the female form?  
    

Cut to Jean Aronstam Cohen, my mother's mother:  Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, almost six feet tall, not as naturally pretty as she thought she was, but she made it a point to look good.  She stopped playing basketball when she felt it was time to do so.
    

Cut to Adiel Ribero Emmons, my father's mother: Born and raised in Bahia, Brazil, around five foot three, her waist like the split in a floorboard.  But really, language fails her.  She was stunning.         

Jean Aronstam (my grandmother),  ​​The ​Temple on Peachtree, Atlanta, Georgia | 1945

Both women come from hot climates that encourage rules.  When the air is molasses-thick, sugarcane-thick, and the grit of city rivers seams laugh lines, broken rules are dangerous.  Specifically, the rules that women are born into.  Women should not wear pants, women should not go to college, women should not vote.  A woman should not grab the arm of another woman out of a want (need) to kiss her.  If a woman is married she should not think about the man with the coffee whose pants didn’t fit quite right but his eyes were a big house on an old beach.

 

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“I don't want no ad libbing.  I want my real thing.”
-Toni “Tomboy” Stone on the media playing “fast and loose” with the facts of her life and career.

Toni Stone (July 17, 1921 – November 2, 1996), also Marcenia Lyle Alberga, ​the first of three women to play men's professional baseball

Toni's parents wanted a cure for her athleticism. Being a girl who was excellent at sports was unnatural. Ungodly. The took Toni to their priest with the hope that he would talk some sense into her. The conversation resulted in the priest recruiting Toni for the boy's church baseball league. Toni went on to a career in the Negro League--choosing to play with men because, financially, she knew she was worth more than the women's league was offering. "It was hell." When we know what we were meant to do, I suppose hell is where the heart is. Toni's career was one of near misses. Each team she was traded to had seen the likes of the Hank Aaron's and Satchel Paige's of the world just a season before she joined. The last team she played for was compared to the Harlem Globetrotters--and a female clown to add to the troop! What an opportunity for the managers. However, the playing time Toni was awarded was not taken lightly. Clowns do not boast scars on their wrists from being spiked by a base runner. She knew that her career was defined by spectacle, but Toni was a woman who knew exactly who she was. "People weren't ready for me," she once said in an interview. How many times in our history have entire movements remained in their packaging because people "weren't ready?"

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From the All-American Girls League Code of Conduct:

1. ALWAYS appear in feminine attire when not actively engaged in practice or playing ball. This regulation continues through the playoffs for all, even though your team is not participating. AT NO TIME MAY A PLAYER APPEAR IN THE STANDS IN HER UNIFORM, OR WEAR SLACKS OR SHORTS IN PUBLIC.


2.  Smoking and drinking are not permitted in public places.


3.  All social engagements must be approved by the chaperones.


4.  All living quarters and eating places must be approved the chaperones.


5. Each club will establish a satisfactory place to eat and a time when all members must be in their individual rooms.  In general, the lapse of time will be two hours after the finish of the last game, but in no case later than 12:30 a.m.


6.  In order to sustain the complete spirit of rivalry between clubs, the members of the different clubs must not fraternize at any time during the season.

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There are rules in baseball that no one talks about, but when they are broken, the game cannot continue until the culprit is reprimanded.  What some fail to realize, even coaches and managers, is that without the rules, baseball is a different game.  I would like to think that had I been alive during the time of broken rules, I would have included myself without hesitation.  I would like to think that had my grandmothers known about the All-American Girls League, they would have left their high-society bubbles to support other women doing what they each had the courage to do, though they lacked the passion to dive into the unknown.  It must have come down to fear.  To do the opposite of what is expected of you, to redefine convention, to live by your own terms—these things take acts of bravery.  It takes people like Toni Stone.  Why was she different?  Why did she sit on the bench, day after day, among men who hated her, just to play the game?

All American Girls Professional Baseball League members performing calisthenics: Opa-locka, Florida | 1948

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“It's supposed to be hard.  If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” – A League of Their Own

    

Some mornings, when my breathing changes and I know I'm no longer asleep, I think about baseball.  I think about how I want baseball to be what I do that day and that month and that year and for each year after that because Toni Stone was right, it is an addiction.  I wish I had something to blame for my lost dream.  I wish I had parents who thought sports were for boys or I wish I was not strong or I wish I just didn't like baseball because all of these things would be better than being a spectator. Do you play catch?  Or have you ever felt the crack of wood or metal  exploding against leather?  Have you seen baseball in the glow of the late afternoon when the breeze comes and first base is in shadow?
 

It's hard for me to walk now.  It's not apparent.  I do not limp or move slowly.  Stairs can be tricky and the sounds my knees bellow out on the descent are snarl-inducing, but day-to-day stuff is more of a quiet hell.  I suppose I'm pretty fortunate to be a writer—it's a great way to whine.  If one's complaints sound like poetry, does it make readers less likely to roll their eyes?  Here's the point: to watch me move, a stranger would never guess that in high school I destroyed my chances of ever participating in any kind of competitive knee-bending activities as an adult.  Walking is not competitive but it is necessary and it is hard for me now.  But there is an unexplainable part of me that loves the creaks and pops. The pinches and moans. The twanged nerve. The crunch.  It's as if each wink of pain flashbulbs a memory.  Today I took a funny step off of a curb and my right knee (the “bad one”) twisted and suddenly: 
    

I was squatting behind some 180 pound high school sophomore.  She would have gone to some school with a name like St. Francis or Mount Zion or Holy Innocence.  She would have blonde hair and heavy eye-makeup (for the big game, of course).  Her hair would be tied back with a ribbon matching her school's (church's) colors.  Her massive arms would be pink and dangerously close to seeping sweat onto me.  It most definitely would be hot.  I was behind this girl and behind a full-face masked helmet and behind a chest protector and behind shin and knee guards, yet the seconds before each pitch I was as exposed and trembling as a freshly sewn-up heart.  Thwack. Spine-tingling nerve reflexes web out of my hand up my forearm and explode through my elbow.  Strike.  The blonde is angry.  No one swings at the first pitch, I think.  More people should swing at the first pitch.  

The players on the field are required to focus on both what is happening in each specific moment and anticipate the future. Where am I positioned now and where will I be when that girl smacks the snot out of that ball?  It's a second of silence.  The pitcher's shoulders drop, her lungs empty, and adrenaline sears through the veins of every player on the field.  Pupils dilated, muscles flexed, breathing paused, fists find their way one final time into the mitt.         

New York Female Giants | 1913

I shift my weight from the ball of my right foot to the ball of my left foot, then back to the right. Creak.  Pop.  I've been here, at the second pitch, more times than I can invent a number for, but I can feel my nerves start to take hold.  It's a guttural rumble from somewhere along the outskirts of my ribcage that reminds me this is when the game starts.  Again.  That is why baseball is hard.  Each pitch is the beginning of a new game.  The blonde knows this and, judging by her tightened grip around the bat, she is not leaving the field until she wins.  


Woosh.  Thwack.  

 

Had the blonde's bat come in contact with that pitch it would have seared through earth's atmosphere.  The ball would have become part of the community of objects that are fated to orbit continually through the black.  But it didn't and the blonde's full-bodied effort was confined to the pulsing vein on the side of her neck.

Folks, the count is no balls, two strikes.  It is now or never for the blonde.  I'm still back here, behind the plate, waiting.  It's easy to let yourself get too comfortable back here.  It's easy to forget that your position can become the most crucial one on the field in a matter of seconds.  It's easy to let your feet fall flat.

 

Woosh.  CRACK.
    

And I'm up.  Knees scream from bent to standing; shaking.  It's a deep shot to left field.  The ball is high enough to be lost in the white sun but it will drop.  An out-of-the-park home run is unmistakable from the moment bat and ball make contact, and this isn’t that.  But this is going far, this is going to come down to a one-on-one battle between base runner and catcher.  

 

The ball finally dropped in the unprotected area between left and center field.  It dropped dangerously close to the fence.  By the time the center fielder snatched up the ball the blonde was rounding second like a train.  I should have known by her legs that she was able to propel herself with shocking speed.  I glanced at the third-base coach and his left arm was windmilling her all the way home! all the way home!  The visiting side of the stands was a collective roar of nervous cheers and pounding feet.  The ball made it to second base as the blonde was rounding third.  The churned-up red dirt of the infield had left the wet, post-summer air thick in my lungs, red flecks clinging to my eyelashes.  My teammate at second hurls the ball in my direction with the frantic strength that tends to accompany split-second decisions.     
    

The ball is overthrown.  I stretch.  Ball caught, grabbed out of glove, the train is rambling into the station station; the ground quakes. My arm out across the baseline like a crossing gate—a wooden pole of tendons and shaking muscles.
    

My hand, clutching the small white core of the world in that blink of a moment, sinks into the blonde's gut like a metal spoon into Jell-o.  The blonde is out but keeps hurtling forward, taking my hand with her, ripping apart the tendons in my wrist, twisting my torso towards the stands while my knees remain crumbling pillars facing the open field.  But the blonde is out.  The blonde is out.  

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I regain the flow of walking with a quiet hum of ache still coursing through my knee.  I continue, remembering how sweaty my arm looked and how swollen and tight the skin around my wrist was.  I remember thinking that the lighting was perfect—like, the-first-few-houses-of trick-or-treating perfect—but, shit, my arm hurt.  I remember someone taking my helmet off.  I remember looking up into the stands hoping to see my mom.  My mom never fed into injuries, she was always a “shake it off and keep on going” kind of mom, but still, I wanted her to at least see me shake it off.  I remember how happy Coach Armstrong was, and how she would scream her praise when she was especially ecstatic.  

 

When I remember these things it makes me a little sad.  It makes me sad in the way characters hugging with their eyes closed in movies do.  It's like a constant struggle to get it right.  We want so badly to be back in the arms of an imagined life. Grandmothers do not submit to society in an imagined life. Struggle is celebrated and not a pain memory. The joys of being a child who creates her own reality are actually obtainable and not an exhibit in her personal museum.  Nostalgia only exists because where we remember from is not where the memory occurred. Maybe it is easy to cling to these invented circumstances because the limit was never reached. We never let ourselves feel what hard really was.  Chances are, we did not become ball players.  Chances are, we kind of blew it.        

Fort Wayne Daisies player, Marie Wegman, of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League arguing with umpire Norris Ward: Opa-locka, Florida | 1948

Lane Emmons is a non-fiction writer and poet. She lives in Atlanta with her partner and their herd of dogs.

 

 

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