Today I’m going to tell you a story you may not believe about a 21 year old woman (called gal for the rest of the article because let’s pretend it’s 1943 as it was) from West Fork, Arkansas who became a major league baseball player. Now it takes a lot of steps for this to happen.
Remember, it’s 1943 and there’s a danger there won’t be any more baseball because of the shortage of men players. A man with a lot of pull by the name of Wrigley put the league in motion for women. You know, Wrigley Chewing Gum, Wrigley Field in Chicago? He founded the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) turned out tons of promotion and by summer of that year it was wildly popular, especially in the mid-west.
Now comes my tale. I received a call from a man in West Fork asking me if I would like the story of his aunt, who was a pitcher for the Grand Rapid Chicks. After tryouts in Springfield she was immediately snapped up. She’d played baseball all through high school and was on a small local team. Now she was a major league star.
When I arrived at his house he dragged out a suitcase, you remember what those are? Not backpacks or duffel bags. It was filled with memorabilia his aunt had kept including hardballs signed by some big league men players. Oh, it seems that though the threat of losing men’s baseball had been rumored, it never happened, but the gals kept right on playing for ten years.
Her name? Mildred Earp (pronounced Arp) The first year she became a stand-out hurler for the Grand Rapids Chicks, going 20-8 with a 0.68 ERA, to set a new league record.
Mildred, by then nicknamed 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. Mid made the All Star team twice during her short career. During her career, she commanded such feats as retiring the first 21 batters, winning game four on a shutout and performing with a 4-hitter in game 7 to win the finale 1-0.
And there on the floor at my feet lay clips of all the articles written about her during that time, plus everything she’d kept that was dear to her about her time spent playing women’s major league baseball.
This was serious baseball. According to the 1940s -1950s Women Baseball Archives, teams played a 112 game series and then the winners played in a world series.
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 she showed up for spring training. That was pretty good money in those days, and it was even better money for a woman to earn.
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’s team won league championships in 1947 and 1953 and made the playoffs every year of their existence.
Tim Wiles, Director of Research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum Cooperstown, New York had this to say about these gals:
“Millie and the other ladies of the AAGPBL not only lived a fascinating chapter in baseball history, but they are great ambassadors for the game today, tirelessly signing autographs and doing all they can for the next generation of baseball fans.”
Eighty-eight of the women who took part in this program are recognized in the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame. That tiny pitcher from Arkansas, Mildred Earp is one of them.
The Arkansas Naturals Triple A Baseball Team based in Fayetteville, once asked Millie if she would throw an opening pitch for the team, but sadly, she was physically unable to honor the request. She will always be remembered for the outstanding part she played in the brief glory of women’s baseball.
I held one of those baseballs with reverence and awe. Holding history in one’s hands has always affected me in such a way. I was allowed to lug that suitcase home to sit among the mementos and experience the past of this baseball hero and write my story. To listen to the crowds’ roar and experience Mid’s excitement as she rose from a small-town gal to an all-star baseball pitcher. I only wish I could have met her.