The state of Illinois celebrates its bicentennial in 2018, and subsequently, another milestone celebration is to take place: The 75th anniversary of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Why is the 75th of the AAGPBL significant where Illinois is concerned you may ask? The answer is because Illinois’ own Rockford Peaches were one of the original four teams in the league.
In recognition of both the state’s 200th and the Peaches’ 75th, a feature story is set to appear in Celebrate Illinois: A Bicentennial Retrospective, a special edition of Shaw Media’s own Neighborhood Tourist magazine this June. The following are nonlinear excerpts from the piece:
Heading into 1943, baseball was in jeopardy amid the throes of World War II. With resources being shifted to the war effort and pro teams’ rosters depleted due to military induction, the professional game was in danger of being stopped. It was during this uncertain time that Major League Baseball executives stepped in to pursue a creative way to help keep America’s pastime continuing. Chewing gum magnate and then-owner of the Chicago Cubs, Philip K. Wrigley, along with Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey among others, hatched their solution: The AAGPBL. Four Midwestern teams made up the original league: The Racine Belles, South Bend Blue Sox, Kenosha Comets, and Rockford Peaches.
The Peaches played their home games at venerable Beyer Stadium, located at 245 15th Avenue in Rockford. They were one of only two teams to play in every season of the AAGPBL’s 12-year history (South Bend Blue Sox) and were also one of the most successful, having won championships in 1945, 1948, 1949 and 1950. During that time the Peaches regularly drew large crowds to Beyer and became both a local and national sensation. With their team name derived from their unique peach-colored uniforms (actual peaches were used in the dye to make them), fans were joyed to watch them play the game – in its best, hardnosed form – but with some extra on-field theatrics where applicable. When asked about the latter, Peaches player Eileen Burmeister shrugged, and with a thick layer of self-deprecation, said “If God meant for us to play baseball, he would’ve made us any good at it.” The league became so popular in fact, that the original plans to end it in conjunction with the war’s completion in 1945 were shelved and the AAGPBL continued until 1954.
In the ensuing decades after the league’s end, much of its appreciation had sadly waned. That is, until Hollywood stepped up. While it was largely a work of fiction, Penny Marshall’s wonderful 1992 movie A League of Their Own reminded the masses what the Peaches and the AAGPBL meant to baseball and America. The influence this pop culture parallel of an important historical time had on people like Laura Daniels, a high school English teacher from Joliet and aficionado of the Peaches, was palpable. “After seeing the movie, I began to learn more about the real-life teams in the league. As a baseball fan, I found their backstories fascinating.” Daniels said. The movie ignited nationwide renewed interest in the league and the genuine respect found therein by people like Daniels was common. “As a curious little girl at the time, I found confidence and began to have genuine admiration of these women. We should be so lucky to have had that much historical impact literally built in our own backyards.” The movie was a smash, and it reminded folks that nearly 50 years earlier, the real Peaches were just getting started.
Wrought with the fright of the war, a part of America’s greatest generation answered the call in a different, remarkable way. Though the scale of the cultural impact these women had on the game of baseball as well as the nation itself wouldn’t be fully realized until years later, the Rockford Peaches and every other team in the AAGPBL showed everyone how America’s game is truly more than just a game.
Happy 75th, Peaches!
… full story coming June 2018.
Photo Credit: http://www.aagpbl.org/index.cfm/teams/1943/rockford-peaches/2