Women baseball pioneers steal show at All-Star event - East Valley Tribune: Columns

Women baseball pioneers steal show at All-Star event

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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: Tuesday, July 12, 2011 11:25 am | Updated: 3:05 pm, Tue Jul 12, 2011.

At first, I didn't recognize the lady standing behind the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League booth at Saturday's All-Star Game Fan Fest.

I didn't notice the name tag the grandmotherly figure wore as she sported a T-shirt that said, "There's no crying in baseball." Two other silver-haired ladies, Shirley Burkovich and Maybelle Blair, stood nearby, bantering with their admiring fans - two older gentlemen who flirted and laughed with the youthfulness of schoolboys perhaps trying to get a date.

The trio had just finished signing autographs for three hours attracting crowds larger than the Major League Hall of Famers who people stood in line for nearly two hours to get signatures and a handshake.

Looking down at my notebook while taking notes and interviewing the enthusiastic and laughing woman, I asked, "What's your name?"

"Katie Horstman."

I looked up in shock and amazement and smiled at her.

"You signed a baseball and book for me about 20 years ago when I visited you at Minster (Ohio) Elementary School when you were a gym and health teacher there," I said.

"You're kidding me!"

No, I wasn't.

In the early 1990s, I made the 30-mile plus trip to Minster north of Dayton, Ohio, to meet Horstman and have her autograph a baseball and the book, "Women at Play," which was one of a handful of books published in the wake of the 1992 movie, "A League of Their Own." The motion picture was inspired by the women who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that existed from 1943 to 1954.

At that time, America's young men were fighting a war, Major League Baseball's ranks were depleted and the nation needed heroes and a distraction on the homefront. The women who aspired to play professional baseball - and did so with much flare for more than a decade - emerged to play in front of large crowds in modest ballparks in once-flourishing Midwestern towns that now comprise the Rust Belt of the nation. The players lived their motto: "A woman's place is at home only when she is at bat, behind the plate or scoring a run."

At 76, Horstman is one of the younger alumni from a part of America's little-known history that is fading as its members are dying off before their stories can be preserved.

Horstman, who spends her winters in Palm Desert, Calif. and still lives in Minster, Ohio, was a pitcher, catcher and third baseman for the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Daisies from 1951 to 1954. In 1952, her manager was Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx, who was played by Tom Hanks in "A League of Their Own," the film that also featured Madonna and Geena Davis. Today, Horstman has her own bobblehead - a figure that shows her in uniform as she looked in her playing days from six decades ago.

"We're so happy to be here," Horstman said. "A lot of us are getting older and can't get around as much as we used to. A lot of us are in our 80s, and some of us are 90. We had great fun when we played."

There are at least six women who live in Arizona who played in the league, including Sophie Kurys of Scottsdale who played for the Racine Belles for eight years and often led the league in stolen bases. Other former players known to be living in the state are: Nikki Fox, Barbara Payne, Ann Petrovic, and Mary Lou Douglas.

Many of the women players were all-stars in their own right, but unlike Major League stars, they never became household names.

As a teenager, Horstman milked Holstein cows by hand - a chore that strengthened the flexibility of her wrists to swing a bat - and often played baseball with her five brothers on the family's farm before a scout for the women's league spotted her skills and helped her realize her dream of playing professional baseball at age 15.

"It was my dream every night to play baseball," Horstman said. I never thought it would happen to me, but it did. I would always tell kids, ‘Dream big and do what you want to do, and it'll happen.' I never thought it would happen to me, but it did."

Like the 1927 New York Yankees, the Fort Wayne Daisies had their own "Murderer's Row" - a batting lineup of four hard-hitting players - including Horstman whose batting average was over .300. The Daisies won the league championship each year Horstman played, but they always lost in the playoffs, never advancing to the league's World Series.

Horstman's starting salary for a "rookie" was $55 a week - pretty good money then, and the stars of the league made $200 to $250 a week. They traveled by bus and train, stayed in nice hotels and their meals were paid for.

"When we went to Newton, North Carolina for spring training, a guy told me, ‘Hey Yankee go home!' I said, ‘I'm not a Yankee fan - I'm a Reds fan.' Then he said, ‘So, you're a Communist?' I had never heard of such a thing - I led a pretty sheltered life on the farm."

Today, there are no formal restrictions that prohibit women from playing Major League baseball, but women cannot play on men's college baseball teams, and play softball instead.

No women currently play Major League baseball, and Horstman said she believes that it should stay that way.

"I think women should have our own league," Horstman said. "That would end the argument. We're not saying we're better or stronger than men. We're definitely not as fast, but we sure did have the fundamentals to play the game."

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