A Player of Our Own
Twenty-five years ago this summer, the film A League of Their Own was released. Directed by Penny Marshall and featuring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks (with Madonna in a lesser role), the movie was an instant hit which has reportedly earned $107 million (my own daughters wore out their VCR copy). The movie has now influenced several generations of women athletes while it continues to inspire young girls to excel in sports and other areas of life.
A semi-fictional depiction of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the 1992 movie told a story about the historic eleven seasons from 1943 to 1954 when women played baseball on a few teams—mostly based in the upper Midwest—and proved they could be dedicated athletes and draw big crowds. With a combination of grit, showmanship, and dedication to their sport, the approximately 500 women who played in the league during its short history had been somewhat forgotten by the time A League of Their Own was released.
In the heyday of the women’s league, among the players on the premiere team, The Rockford (Illinois) Peaches—and in the very first season—was Elmira, New York, native Clara “Babe” Cook. Born in Pine City, Clara was the youngest of eleven children (hence the nickname, which predates any subsequent comparisons to that other baseball “Babe”), and grew up on Pennsylvania Avenue (the current Route 328). She attended Pine City Elementary School and played sandlot baseball after school with her brothers in the Van Kurens’ field. According to accounts written after her death in 1996, Babe, while in her late childhood, was spotted by a Mr. Riley from the Remington Rand company and asked to play on a Rand team, which she did throughout her teens.
After graduating from Southside High School in Elmira, Babe went to work at the Remington Rand plant, continuing to play ball for the company team. Not long after, in 1943, a talent scout for the Rockford Peaches recruited her to play for the new girls’ league.
The AAGPBL was the brainchild of Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley (of chewing gum fame) who was concerned that major league ballparks across the U.S.A. were going to fall to ruin with so many young men off fighting in World War II. It was also felt that women playing ball could be an entertaining distraction from the war. The film shows the skirted uniforms required to keep the teams “feminine.” The charm and etiquette classes the players were required to take after their practices were a real part of the lives of those in the league, no matter how well they could play ball.
Babe played for two years on three different teams (the Peaches, and, from Wisconsin, the Kenosha Comets and the Milwaukee Chicks). A lefty, she pitched 203 innings and was on the Milwaukee team when they won the league championship in 1944.
The AAGPBL had begun with four teams in its first year and eventually grew to a peak of ten teams who played in front of nearly a million fans in 1948. After that, the men came home from the war and women in all kinds of professions returned to the kitchen. By the mid-1950s, television made it possible to watch major league games right at home, and attendance at live events of all kinds started to dwindle.
But Babe had already returned to Elmira in 1945, and to her job at Remington Rand. Ten years later, in 1955, the company was sold to the Sperry Corporation, and she moved to California to work for an aircraft company. Upon retirement, she returned to the Southport area of Elmira where she continued to encourage and coach young women interested in baseball and pitching, becoming interested in fishing as well.
In 1974, she pitched in a co-ed “Old Timers” game at Eldridge Park, and in 1975 was inducted into the Metro-Elmira Sports Hall of Fame. She is also part of Women in Baseball—a permanent display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, designed to honor the AAGPBL. She died in 1996 and is buried in Elmira.
As short-lived as it may have been, Babe Cook’s baseball career remains a local tie to a historic period that continues to inspire women all over the world.