National Women in Baseball Day honors teams like Muskegon Lassies

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PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE AAGPBL PLAYERS ASSOCIATION

 

by Cynthia Price

 

Many Muskegonites have heard of the Muskegon Lassies baseball team, but few know how really ground-breaking that all-girls team was.

Now, in honor of the first game played in The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) on May 30, 1943 – when the South Bend Blue Sox played the Rockford Peaches, and the Kenosha Comets faced the Racine Belles    the AAGPBL and MLB/Major League Baseball have started National Women in Baseball Day.


The AAGPBL has been memorialized for movie audiences in A League of Their Own, starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, and Michigan’s own Madonna, which fictionalized the Rockford Peaches. For many, the film is all they know of the league, which was started by Phillip K. Wrigley of chewing gum and Chicago Cubs Field fame. (Fortunately, people say that it is fairly accurate.)


In honor of the diamond anniversary, the MLB will feature original AAGPBL players throwing out first pitches and giving interviews. To honor these pioneering women, they are asking anyone who supports women in baseball to get a photo of a group forming a human V.  The one shown in the photo was formed by original players at a Milwaukee Brewers game during their reunion in 2000.


“Well, we always formed a V around home plate when we came out onto the field,” says Terry McKinley Uselmann, who played her entire one-year career in the AAGPBL for the Muskegon Lassies, in 1949.


Several teams were added over the years to the original four noted above, including the Grand Rapids Chicks, the Fort Wayne Daisies, the Chicago Colleens, and the Springfield Sallies. In its peak year, 1948, the league teams attracted 910,000 visitors.


Wrigley’s original idea was to have women play because the men were at war, similar to the Rosie the Riveter idea. However, Wrigley insisted that the girls, who were from all over the U.S. and Canada, wear skirts and lipstick. “Play like a man, look like a girl” was allegedly the motto.


“We couldn’t wear anything over our legs, we had to wear these dresses,” said Betty Patryna Allen Mullins (whose real first name is Doreen, but her Ukrainian mother had difficulty pronouncing it). “I
?didn’t really mind, but some got scraped up and would’ve preferred pants. When I see these women college players now, they’re much larger than we were. They’re good athletes, but we could outhit them,” she adds, laughing.


After being chosen, the young women were also sent to charm school.


According to Mullins, the players were required to audition every year, and could very well be chosen by different teams. Originally from Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, she played third base for the Grand Rapids Chicks, the Fort Wayne Daisies, and the Lassies — the last for only three months.


“I missed my husband. We met when I was on the Grand Rapids team, but he was from DeKalb [Illinois]. The travel then meant we never saw each other when I was in Muskegon, and when he lost his job he went back to DeKalb. I was lonely, so I followed him after a few months here,” she says.


She was married to Roger Allen for 51 years – “That’s a long time but it was a good time,” she says – until his death, and then married Don Mullins, who has also since died.


The 87-year-old went back to school when she was 46 and had a satisfying career working with developmentally disabled children, raised three children, and says she has had a happy life.


Uselmann says she loved the sport, but “As a rookie, you weren’t very well accepted. Everybody was afraid you were trying to take their jobs.”
She started out playing on a minor league team in Chicago, so she had experience when she entered the league at age 22. She notes that the girls stayed in separate homes around Muskegon, and though she says she found the city “a very pretty place,” she decided the life was not for her.


She went into the navy, married and raised a family of five with several athletic children, and became a physical education teacher after getting both her bachelor’s and master’s from DePaul University. She is still active at the age of 90, ushering at the Allstate Arena and working at a golf course.


Both Mullins and Uselmann look forward to the reunion in September, one of many the AAGPBL has held.


There were over 600 women in the league over its 11 years (it disbanded in 1954). Two sisters from Muskegon played for the AAGPBL: Donna Cook has passed away, but Doris Cook is still living at Seminole Shores. They were featured in a previous Examiner series by Marc Okkonen.


It is rumored that the AAGPBL will be the subject of an Amazon Original Series.

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