"Fearless" Mary played big-league ball
long before Title IX
In 1943, girls didn't play sports. With the exception of local softball leagues, they were encouraged to be cheerleaders, dancers, good cooks and smart mothers ? but never athletes. When the U.S. became embroiled in WWII, however, desperate times called for unusual measures. That's when women started playing hardball.
Mary O'Meara was manning the infield for a Catholic Youth Organization softball team in her small Ohio hometown when a scout from the All-American Girls' Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) spotted her. It was 1951 ? eight years after Cubs owner and chewing gum magnate Philip Wrigley founded the league ? and women's baseball had become a popular pastime for Midwesterners. Ticket sales were high, and the players' popularity was soaring.
Accompanied by her parents to the Indiana tryouts, 16-year-old Mary bested 145 other women for a spot as a rookie on the South Bend Blue Sox. Her contract: $50 a week, road trip expenses paid?and charm school lessons mandatory. She rented a room in a South Bend family's home and traveled with the Blue Sox from April to September, finishing high school in Ohio during the league's off-seasons. For the first year, "I held the other girls' cigarettes when they went up to bat!" laughs Mary, now 74.
Today, the AAGPBL is legendary, thanks to the 1988 induction of all 500 players into the Baseball Hall of Fame and director Penny Marshall's 1992 film "A League of Their Own." That stuff in the movie about wearing makeup and having their hair done for games? All true, says Mary.
"We had to look like ladies but play like men."
She was an outfielder until the league folded in 1954. ("I'd do anything to catch that ball!" says Mary, a trait that earned her the nickname "Fearless.") Disorganization among the ranks, male players returning to pro baseball, and the growing popularity of television proved too much for the AAGPBL to handle, so the players went back to school, to their families, or to jobs as teachers, secretaries and stewardesses. After a year-long stint in an exhibition league, Mary went to work for American Airlines until her 1958 wedding.
But she never stopped playing ball. After she and her husband moved to Wisconsin and started raising their four children, she played on several local teams. Her slow-pitch team's fourth and last championship win in 1996 marked the end of Mary's softball career. She hit homers, caught flies and rounded the bases until she was 62 years old. When Marshall's movie came out, Mary's teammates finally understood why she could throw so well!
"I didn't really know the significance of the league while we were playing," Mary says. And even though it took more than 30 years to be recognized by the Hall of Fame, she knows "that was one of the greatest things we ever accomplished." After all, the league helped pave the way for millions of young women who today enjoy the freedom to play all kinds of sports.
Truth is, Mary will always be a ballplayer. When the league ended, "I was just getting started," she says. "I could've gone on forever."
Fortunately, her legacy will.