Mildred Earp made history when she tried out for a big league baseball team back in 1943.
Until I met her cousins, I had no idea that women played big league baseball, but they did, and tiny “Mid,” as she would soon become known, was one heck of a pitcher. By the way, her name is pronounced Arp, unlike the famous lawman Wyatt. During her career, she shot down the first 21 batters, to win a shutout. She went on to become a stand-out hurler for the Grand Rapids Chicks, going 20-8 with a 0.68 ERA, to set a new league record. She made the All Star team twice during her short career.
Wait, how did women end up playing major league baseball? It’s always thought that women played softball only. It all came about because of World War II. As baseball season approached in 1943, Phillip K. Wrigley received word from the Office of War Information that the 1943 Major League Baseball season might be suspended due to a manpower shortage. Most of our men were overseas fighting in World War II, placing America’s favorite sport in danger.
P.K. Wrigley was a man well known in the sport of baseball. In 1932 he succeeded his father as president of the Chicago Cubs, and of the Wrigley chewing gum company, and continued until his death. Though innovative in many ways, he was responsible for keeping Wrigley Field free of lights.
When notified of the probable suspension of major league baseball games, Wrigley had an idea. He began work on what was to become the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL.) The new “Girls Baseball” was promoted as wholesome family entertainment for war workers. As it turned out, the major league games went on, but the die was cast and women’s baseball was born.
It might seem like a pretty crazy idea, but it worked. The gals who were recruited were tough and hard working. It wasn’t long before people in the mid-west were following these teams with avid excitement. During the scant ten years the sport lasted, some of the most talented women in the male-oriented sport of baseball were featured.
This tiny bit of dynamite then known as Millie attended school in West Fork, Arkansas, where she was a natural athlete, taking part in all sports. At the time all the small towns had men’s baseball teams, and she played on the men’s team. She attended the University of Arkansas and majored in physical education and biological sciences. Then she heard about the AAGPBL holding tryouts for the women’s league baseball team, and journeyed to Springfield, Missouri to take part. She was immediately snapped up by the Grand Rapids Chicks. She would soon make a name for herself. Not content to set records, she would then break them.
Mid continued as an outstanding pitcher against teams with names such as Fort Wayne Daisies, South Bend Blue Sox, Racine Bells and Rockford Peaches — movie-goers will recognize this team as the one featured in the film A League of Her Own.
In spite of this tough sport, women who played baseball in the league attended charm school and wore short skirts to play. When they traveled they had chaperones and curfews. Millie’s contract allowed for expenses such as the Pullman ticket for train travel, meals on the road, and room and board in cities other than that of her home team.
A newsletter advised the girls how to be popular and contained beauty kit recommendations. Girls were taught a morning and night beauty routine, a physical fitness regime and how to deal with the public. Certain styles of clothing were advised while they were on the road. A dark suit, blouses that were easily laundered, skirts, blouses and sweaters, sports jackets and sport coats, plus a dress or two for social functions. Slacks were not permitted for street wear, but depending upon other recreation and sports activities, the girls could include shorts or sportswear for tennis, golfing togs, swim suit, etc.”
In the league, women were paid weekly from $40 to $80 and as high as $125 per/week in later years. Millie’s first contract read that she would receive $50 per week, plus $50 for each week. That was good money for a time when jobs for women were pretty restricted.
Over the ten years of the league’s existence, women’s rules evolved to match regulation baseball. Balls shrank from softball to baseball size, the pitcher’s mound and base paths were lengthened, and pitchers started throwing overhand. The Chicks played the game with enthusiasm and local fans in Grand Rapids responded accordingly. Once, a crowd of 10,000 turned out for a championship game. Always a strong team, the Grand Rapids women won league championships in 1947 and 1953 and made the playoffs every year of their existence.
Eighty-eight of the women who took part in this program are recognized in the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame. The tiny pitcher from Arkansas, Mildred Earp is one of them.
The women’s league was short lived, but while it existed these tough women made history.