Women ballplayers to gather for a reunion of their own - East Valley Tribune: Columns

Women ballplayers to gather for a reunion of their own

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Mike Sakal’s column runs on Fridays. Contact him at (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com, or write to Mike Sakal, East Valley Tribune, 1620 W. Fountainhead Pkwy., Suite 219, Tempe, AZ 85282

Posted: Thursday, October 13, 2011 12:02 pm | Updated: 1:58 pm, Thu Oct 13, 2011.

In just a few days, when about 50 women from throughout the nation converge for a reunion to reminisce about their glory days of playing professional baseball decades ago, one of the league's greatest players will not be among them.

Instead, Helen Nicol "Nickie" Fox, 91, of Tempe, a pitcher in the former All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that spanned 11 years and two wars, will play it safe at home.

Fox said she will not travel to San Diego, where former players of the women's league will host their annual reunion from Oct. 18-22 to catch up with teammates and joke about the pains of growing old.

Fox, a 5-foot, 3-inch right-handed pitcher, won 31 games and lost only eight in her rookie year and had a lifetime earned run average of 1.89. She first played for the Kenosha (Wis.) Comets and later the Rockford (Ill.) Peaches. As recent as two years ago, she played golf and often threw out the first pitch at numerous baseball games where she was received with rock star popularity.

"I have problems with my legs, and I'm not too steady," Fox said. "I know there will be a lot of riding and a lot of walking, and I can't do it anymore. I've had several falls without warning, and if I go and fall down, who knows? That could be it."

The number of reunion attendees, who now range in age from their late 70s to early 90s, have dwindled every year since the former players started holding reunions in the late 1980s. The women's league existed from 1943 to 1954 and inspired the Hollywood movie "A League of Their Own" 20 years ago.

The players once numbered slightly more than 600 when the league peaked with 12 teams in 1950. But today, only about 25 percent of them are still living, according to information from the league's website. At least five of the former players live in Arizona: Fox; Sophie Kurys (Racine Belles and Battle Creek Belles, 1943 to ‘52) of Scottsdale; Anna Petrovic (Kenosha Comets and Minneapolis Millerettes, 1944) and Betty Tucker (Peoria Redwings, Fort Wayne Daisies, Rockford Peaches and Grand Rapid Chicks, 1946 to ‘49), both of Tucson; and Barbara Payne (Springfield Sallies and Muskegon Belles, 1948 to ‘51) of Surprise. Their league is remembered in a special wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Large crowds filled ballparks in once-bustling working class towns throughout the Midwest to see how the women fared while playing in skirts and spikes.

"The brand of ball we played was pretty high class," Fox said. "A lot of fans came to our games. The women never played against the men - that was a no-no. We were built differently than the men, and that would not have been good."

Before she played professional baseball, Fox, a native of Ardley, Alberta, Canada, made $9.50 a week working for the Hudson Bay Co., a department store. She also played numerous sports including hockey, basketball and softball.

Fox was a 23-year-old pitcher for the Army-Navy Pats, a department store softball team in Canada, when she was scouted by Chicago Blackhawks hockey player Johnny Gottselig. Gottselig was instrumental in getting her signed to an $85-a-week contract to the Comets for manager Marty McManus, a former player for the St. Louis Browns.

"It was a surprise," Fox said of being scouted to play in the women's league. "I knew nothing about the league, but others had heard about it. Not a whole lot had been written about it early on."

Fox was one of a handful who played nearly all 11 years of the league's existence. The women's league was the brainchild of then Chicago Cubs Owner Philip Wrigley when it was believed that Major League Baseball was going to be suspended because many players were serving in the military during World War II. Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the green light for the men to continue playing baseball during the war, the women's league already had gained too much momentum not to give the ladies their turn at bat.

Fox said she was making about $100 a week about the time she quit playing. She finished her pitching career with 1,076 strikeouts, 163 wins and 118 losses for a .580 winning percentage, according to statistics on the back of her baseball card. She's a member of both the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame.

"I noticed that the league was folding, and servicemen were returning, so I figured I'd better get out there and get another job," Fox said.

"I enjoyed playing very much, and I enjoyed meeting the people ... A lot of people said, ‘I bet you had fun.' We did, but it was a job. We took the game seriously."

• E.V. Life runs on Fridays. Contact Mike Sakal at (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com or write to Mike Sakal, East Valley Tribune, 1620 W. Fountainhead Pkwy., Suite 219, Tempe, AZ 85282

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