Mary Baker

Canadian catcher Mary Baker (1919–2003) holds the record for most games played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. From 1943 to 1952, she appeared in 930 regular-season games and made the all-star roster twice. In 1950, she served as player-manager of the Kalamazoo Lassies. She was the only female in the history of the league to be offered a contract to manage a team.

Atalented athlete, Mary “Bonnie” Baker was also a vivacious woman whose natural charisma helped draw attention to the fledgling All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II. Baker was born Mary Geraldine George on July 10, 1918, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, into a family of five boys and five girls. Although one brother died as a toddler, she and her siblings spent much of their free time playing ball together. In elementary school, Baker was said to have broken a school record when she tossed a ball nearly 345 feet, and by high school, she was playing softball, basketball, and track. After high school, she married Maury Baker and worked at the Army & Navy department store as a clerk, doing some modeling on the side. She continued playing ball as a member of Army & Navy's company-sponsored softball team—the A&N Bombers—and she made an appearance at the 1943 World Softball Championships.

Recruited for Women's Pro League

After the United States entered World War II, Major League Baseball, the first professional baseball organization in the United States, began losing its star players to the military. Chicago Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley feared that the league might collapse, so he came up with the idea to launch a hybrid game of softball-baseball that could be played by women and entertain U.S. factory workers still employed stateside. By founding the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), Wrigley established a women's ball league that could play in Major League Baseball stadiums if the men's league had to close. When AAGPBL scouts saw Baker play at the World Softball Championships, they invited her to attend tryouts at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

About 280 women participated in the inaugural spring training and selection camp held in May 1943. In the end, 60 women were selected for four teams with 15-member rosters. The first four teams were placed in midsized cities with war industries—South Bend, Indiana (the Blue Sox); Racine, Wisconsin (the Belles); Kenosha, Wisconsin (the Comets); and Rockford, Illinois (the Peaches). The average player salary ranged from $45 to $85 a week, good pay for the time.

Baker signed a contract with the South Bend Blue Sox and played her first game against the Rockford Peaches on May 30, 1943. She spent most of her time behind the plate but also played second base. During the league's first season, women played with a 12-inch softball and pitched underhand from a distance of 40 feet. By contrast, a baseball has a circumference of about nine inches. The bases were 65 feet apart. The women were allowed to lead off and steal, which constituted a rules change from the softball leagues many of the players were familiar with. In her rookie season, Baker batted.250 and smacked in 31 RBI's. She struck out only six times in 256 at-bats and made the all-star team.




Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo





Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo

Developed into Model Player

Baker was 23 when she joined the AAGPBL and she quickly became the face of the league, appearing regularly in publicity shots. Femininity was a high priority for Wrigley, who believed he would attract the widest fan base by mixing sex appeal with sports appeal. Baker provided the ultimate combination: A former model, she was feminine in appearance but gave a masculine performance on the field. During spring training in 1943, cosmetics mogul Helena Rubinstein arrived to provide charm school training for the players. Rubinstein coached the players on make-up and posture, the goal to promote a “girl-next-door” image of league athletes.

The press loved Baker and promptly nicknamed her “Bonnie,” a term used to describe a fair and attractive woman. As Merrie A. Fidler wrote in The Origins and History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, “Baker epitomized the image of skilled performance combined with femininity the league attempted to convey to the public. Thus, she was often the center attraction in the league's national publicity features.” She was trotted out for autograph sessions, appeared on radio shows, and was featured in advertisements for local stores in South Bend and Kalamazoo. Years later, in 1952, she maintained enough celebrity status to appear on the television game show What's My Line?

The league uniforms also emphasized the players’ femininity. Uniforms consisted of a one-piece, short-sleeved, belted tunic that flared like a ballerina skirt and hung just above the knee. The uniforms buttoned off to the side to make room for the large team crest logo across the front. Players were allowed to wear satin shorts under their skirts—to retain their modesty—but the sliding shorts that prevented scrapes from skidding across the dirt were prohibited. The uniform was finished off with tall socks and spikes. While impractical, these uniforms did not hamper their play. This was no “powder puff” league—drag bunts and squeeze plays were part of the women's game.

The league also enforced a strict code of conduct. Contract rules forbid players from wearing slacks at any time. They could not smoke or drink in public and had to seek a chaperone's permission before attending social engagements. The players were also instructed to touch up their make-up between innings. Despite her high visibility, Baker bucked the rules. “She was a smoker … big smoker,” her daughter Maureen Baker told Rory Barrs for Canada's National Post. “There was a no-smoking rule in the dugout, so some of the girls would go around to the back of the dugout, and slip her cigarettes so she could smoke.”

In 1944, Baker banged out 88 hits in 373 at-bats for a.236 average. She also stole 92 bases. The following year, Life magazine featured her grinning through her catcher's mask in a photo spread promoting the league. That same year, Baker had 93 hits in 394 at-bats for a.236 average.

In 1945 World War II came to an end and the Major Baseball League resumed play. Baker's husband, Maurice Baker, also returned home from service with the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the couple had agreed that she would stop playing when he returned. Seeing the joy she found while playing, however, Maurice supported her decision to continue in the league. As a married woman, she was an anomaly; among the 144 league players of 1946, only 12 were married.

Hit, Stole Bases Well

In 1946, the league approved side-arm pitching in a move that brought the game closer to baseball. The change made it a pitcher's league, as batting averages dropped. Only six of the eight teams had a collective batting average of .200 or higher. Baker easily adapted to hitting the submarinestyle pitching, and in 1946, she led the league's batting title race until the last few weeks of the season. She finished with 93 hits in 394 at-bats for a .286 average, which put her in second place, tied with Racine Belles second-baseman Sophie Kurys. Besides her hitting, she was ferocious on the base path, stealing 94 bases in 94 games that year to lead the league, and she made that year's all-star roster.

In 1948, the AAGPBL instituted overhand pitching and expanded the base paths to 72 feet and the pitching mound to 50 feet. In addition, the ball size was reduced to 10 3/8 inches, moving the game even closer to baseball. The league peaked in 1948, with ten teams drawing one million in ticket sales. Baker hit .233 that year, and the Blue Sox finished third of the five teams in the eastern division, tallying a record of 57 wins and 69 losses.

In 1949, the league used an even smaller and livelier ball and increased the pitching distance to 55 feet. The intent was to make the ball travel faster and farther and crack on the bat just like in the major leagues. Hitters struggled with the change and no batter topped the .300 mark. Baker had her worst season at the plate with 88 hits in 408 plate appearances for an average of .216. She did, however, draw 50 walks, giving her an on-base percentage at .338. The Blue Sox finished the season with 75 wins and 36 losses and advanced to the playoffs, where they were defeated in the second round by the Rockford Peaches.

Tapped to Manage Team

During her playing days, the 5-foot-5, 133-pound Baker was best known for her defensive skills and her feisty, competitive nature: She broke her hand twice and got knocked unconscious once. She liked to argue with umpires and stomp in the dirt if she thought the calls were not going her team's way. “She was a tough competitor,” recalled Fort Wayne Daisies infielder Arleene Noga in a discussion with Tom Hawthorn of the National Post. “Like catchers do, she kept her team's spirits up.” League commissioners took note of Baker's behind-the-plate leadership skills and traded her to the Kalamazoo (Michigan) Lassies partway through the 1950 season so she could manage the team. She was offered an official contract and served as the league's only full-time female manager. A few other women managed teams on an interim basis but were never offered management contracts. In 1951, when the league adopted a ban on female managers, Baker maintained that it was because former Major League Baseball playersturned-AAGPBL managers like Max Carey and Jimmie Foxx did not like getting beat by a woman.

Baker spent the 1951 season on maternity leave, giving birth to her only child, Maureen. She returned to the Lassies the next year, helping the team finish with a record of 49 wins and 60 losses. Baker retired after the 1952 season with a career .235 batting average. Over her nine seasons, she had logged 776 hits, stole 506 bases, drew 404 walks, and struck out 210 times in 3,308 at-bats. By this time the league was already in decline, and it folded two years later, in 1954.

After retiring from baseball, Baker returned to Saskatchewan. She continued to enjoy ball and coached the local American Legion women's softball team to the World Championships in 1953. Her husband died in 1962, and within a few years of his death, Baker began working as a sportscaster for Canada's CKRM radio. Later, she became manager of the Wheat City Curling Club, a position she held for 25 years. Baker died on December 17, 2003, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. She was 84 years old.

Immortalized on Big Screen

Maureen Baker did not hear much about her mother's ballplaying days until 1992 when A League of Their Own hit movie theaters. Complete with an all-star cast that included Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Rosie O'Donnell, and Madonna, the film presented a fictionalized yet historical account of life in the AAGPBL. Davis's character—the glamorous yet gritty Dottie Hinson—was said to have been based on Baker, although the character may have been a composite of several league players.

“When League of Their Own came along, they got a lot of notoriety …. There were newspaper articles and lots of people interested in her story,” Maureen Baker recalled to the Regina Leader-Post. This interest continued, and in 2015, Baker was posthumously honored with a garden and mural at the Central Park ballfield in Regina, where she had been both a player and a coach. Playing in the AAGPBL remained her most memorable experience, however. According to Paul Spasoff of the Saskatchewan Shellbrook Chronicle, Baker once told a reporter, “It was the most exciting time of my life. I didn't know how long it would last, but I didn't care. I was realizing a dream.”

Books

Berlage, Gai Ingham, Women in Baseball: The Forgotten History, Praeger, 1994.

Fidler, Merrie A., The Origins and History of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, McFarland & Co., 2006.

Periodicals

Globe & Mail (Canada), December 22, 2003, Dawn Walton, “Canadian Ball Star Gave U.S. Someone to Cheer,” p. A1.

National Post (Canada), December 22, 2003, Tom Hawthorn, “A Beauty of a Ballplayer,” p. S8.

Racine Journal Times (WI), December 18, 1946, “Bonnie Baker, Ruth Lessing Star Catchers.”

Shellbrook Chronicle (Shellbrook, Saskatchewan, Canada), June 16, 2006, Paul Spasoff, “Regina Catcher Turns AAGPBL into a League of Her Own,” p. 8.

Online

National Post online, http://news.nationalpost.com/ (May 16, 2012), Rory Barrs, “Women in Sports History Get Turn in Spotlight.”

Regina Leader-Post online, http://leaderpost.com/ (August 7, 2015), “Regina Baseball Legend Mary ‘Bonnie’ Baker Honoured.”❑

(MLA 8th Edition)