Use the smaller-sized text Use the larger-sized text Use the very large text

Curators' Favorites

Racine Belles Movie Costume

Racine Belles baseball uniform costume worn in the 1992 movie, A League of Their Own.
(Museum object #2008.145.1.1)

By the time the motion picture A League of Their Own opened on July 1, 1992, most Americans had forgotten or never knew that for a brief time there had been a women's professional baseball league in the United States. But with this hit movie, director Penny Marshall brought the league and the players back into the spotlight. The film fairly accurately portrays the lives of the manager and players of the Rockford (Illinois) Peaches in 1943, just as the league is being formed. During the movie the Peaches play the Racine (Wisconsin) Belles several times. The Belles costume in the possession of the Wisconsin Historical Museum was worn by an extra and appears briefly about 1 hour and 5 minutes into the movie, as the actress walks off the field into the dugout clearly showing this costume's number #37 on her back.

Philip Wrigley of gum manufacturing fame and fortune conceived of the All-American Girls' Softball League in 1942 as World War II and its drain on manpower threatened to close down Major League Baseball. Wrigley saw Rosie the Riveters move into factories, and figured girls could move onto the baseball field as well. He recruited softball players from all over the country, but the first four teams were all in the Midwest—the Rockford Peaches, the Kenosha (Wisconsin) Comets, the South Bend (Indiana) Blue Sox, and the Racine Belles. At the end of the first season, Wrigley changed the name of his league to the All-American Girls' Professional Ball League (AAGPBL), as the game his league played became a hybrid of softball and baseball.

Wrigley did not think baseball fans would be interested in seeing tomboys play the sport, but might be intrigued, as the league manual put it, to see "baseball, traditionally a men's game, played by feminine-type girls with masculine skill." However most of the best players were tomboys, some with rough manners and little interest in appearing feminine. To "improve" their appearance and to turn them into ladies, players attended a charm school run by make-up entrepreneur Helena Rubenstein, at least for the first two seasons. They also had to follow strict rules requiring them to wear lipstick and skirts at all times; to never smoke, drink, or swear in public; and "to dress, act, and carry themselves as befits the feminine sex."

This emphasis on femininity extended to the uniform the players wore. In the 1930s and 1940s amateur and semi-professional softball team uniforms for women usually had consisted of satin shirts, shorts, long pants, or traditional baseball attire. The AAGPBL, however, insisted that their players wear dresses. The dress, designed in part by Mrs. Wrigley, was a belted tunic with a short, flared skirt in pastel colors worn with shorts of a matching darker shade. The dress buttoned up the front on the left side leaving space on the chest for a circular team logo. The girls were told to hem their skirts no shorter than 6" above the knee.

Some the players later admitted to being embarrassed playing in skirts, but wanted to be in the league and play baseball so much that they overlooked the inconvenience. Former player Dorothy "Kammie" Kamenshek of the Rockford Peaches recalled, "The first year was very difficult because [the skirts] were too flaring and too long. You'd go to stoop for a ground ball and the skirt would be there. But we accepted it." The most serious difficulty of wearing the skirts was, as one historian of the AAGPBL put it, "the skirts made sliding into base an exercise in masochism." Awful abrasions, known as "strawberries," rarely had a chance to heal before they would be torn open again.

Although Wrigley left the league after the first season, others stepped in and kept it successful for the rest of the decade. In the early fifties the league began to falter and several teams closed down. The Racine Belles moved to Muskegon, Michigan in an attempt to keep the team afloat, but it along with the rest of the league went out of business in 1953. For the next 40 years the AAGPBL was relegated to a historical footnote until A League of Their Own opened and made over $107 million. Interest in the professional girl's baseball league has remained high ever since.

[Sources: Fidler, Merrie A. The Origins and History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2006); Johnson, Susan E. When Women Played Hardball (Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1994); Browne, Lois. Girls of Summer in their own League (Toronto, Canada: HarperCollins Publishers, Ltd., 1992); Yearbooks and Scorecards of the Racine Belles online at www.wisconsinhistory.org.)

LAB


Posted on October 16, 2008

This article appears in the following categories:

select text size Use the smaller-sized textUse the larger-sized textUse the very large text