Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Diamond days gone, she's still in a league of her own

Marge (Callaghan) Maxwell and her sister, Helen, played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which inspired the movie, A League of Their Own. Maxwell also starred as a softball player in Vancouver.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
Nov. 7, 2007

For years, Marge Maxwell left untold a story about her life she thought no one cared to hear.

She married, gave birth to two boys, divorced, juggled jobs while raising her sons. She worked in a drugstore, took in foster children, served as a dietary aide at a care home. All were posts where one expected to find a woman.

Mrs. Maxwell is, by her own admission, a chatterbox. Yet for nearly 40 years, she never talked about the time she spent in the batter's box as a professional baseball player.

While men fought overseas, she did battle in a tunic and a skirt on the baseball diamonds of the American Midwest. She fielded grounders for the Belles and the Daisies, smacked doubles for the Redwings and the Blue Sox. After she kicked off her cleats and hung up her leather glove, the memories of her time as a pro athlete were left as untouched as the scrapbooks she stored in a cedar chest for safekeeping.

Even her sons didn't know Mom had once been a ball player, as had her younger sister.

“It just wasn't something we talked about,” she said.

The tale of the sisters would inspire a Hollywood movie, a notion that would have seemed preposterous when they first agreed to play for pay.

Mrs. Maxwell turns 86 next month, her diamond days long behind her.

She buried her little sister more than a decade ago, and tries to make the most of the extra innings she has been afforded. She is no longer as reluctant to talk about being a belle of the ball game, as long as she's asked. Bragging is not part of her game.

Margaret Callaghan was born on Dec. 23, an early Christmas gift for her parents in 1921. Her sister, Helen, came along 15 months later.

The girls grew up in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, where they played softball, lacrosse and basketball at school and in nearby public parks. The Callaghan sisters were a blessing for the Western Mutuals softball team, which played at Centre Park at the corner of Fir and Broadway. Marge had a trustworthy glove, while Helen was a demon on the basepaths.

In 1943, their team played exhibition matches across the Prairies on their way to Detroit for a championship tournament. The Mutuals defeated teams from Cleveland and Moose Jaw before losing to the defending champion Jax team of New Orleans.

The sisters returned home, where they learned they had been scouted during the tournament. P. K. Wrigley, the chewing-gum magnate who owned the Chicago Cubs, had decided to launch a women's league of his own as a business rival to the so-called Glamour League already in operation in Chicago.

Both sisters were invited to attend spring training. Helen headed south, but Marge needed government approval as she held an essential job in a war industry.

With young Canadian men serving in the armed forces, Marge had been hired as a squad leader at the Boeing plant on Sea Island, just south of Vancouver, where bombers were built. She wore boots, a kerchief on her head, her diminutive figure clothed in coveralls.

Her job was to supervise the women stamping numbers on parts, ensuring their eagerness, or their carelessness, did not damage the sheet metal.

“I felt we were doing something worthwhile,” she said, “while the kids were over there fighting.”

Her father, a truck driver, urged her to join her younger sister as soon as possible. Midway through the summer of 1944, she was at last granted permission. She traded the plant's dull uniform for the colourful uniforms of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Baseball offered a freedom not to be found in a factory, even though both shared a need for precision and repetition – a bolt screwed properly here, a ground ball scooped correctly there. A factory was an exercise in predictability, whereas the diamond offered the promise of random, even bizarre, events. Why, even the grass itself could hide a pebble leading to a bad hop, transforming a routine ground ball into a plot-turning device. Besides, one paid more than the other.

“At home, I was working eight hours a day, six days a week, and I was earning $24 a week. Baseball paid $65 a week.”

She joined her sister on the Minneapolis Millerettes, a team that did better on the field than at the box office. It abandoned the Twin Cities to play all of its final games on the road. The homeless squad was jokingly referred to as the Orphans.

At the end of the baseball season, she returned to Vancouver to work at the Hudson's Bay Co. store downtown, where she priced merchandise in the stockroom.

The following season she was playing third base for the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Daisies. The team was managed by Bill Wambsganss, a major leaguer whose 13-year career was remembered then as now only for his having the good fortune to turn the only triple play in the World Series, an unassisted one at that.

About a tenth of the players in the All-American league came from Canada. They received instruction in the arts of remaining feminine, including classes on properly applying makeup. They were schooled in etiquette, as well as in executing the hit-and-run. The players wore skirts, mandated by league rules to be no more than six inches higher than the knee. Each club had a matronly chaperone responsible for ensuring good behaviour on the road.

Of course, the young players got up to their share of high jinks.

“We did a lot of short-sheeting,” Mrs. Maxwell said. “We'd hide brassieres, or slip a rubber snake into a chaperone's bed. We were always sneaking out on dates. How could they keep track of 19 girls at once?”

In 1947, the entire league held spring training in Havana, where the novelty of women ball players attracted larger crowds than those attending the games of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The women became favourites of the baseball-mad Cubans.

Helen Callaghan was so adept at the plate and on the basepaths that she was dubbed a “feminine Ted Williams.” Marge Callaghan had a longer career, playing for South Bend, Ind., Peoria, Ill., and Battle Creek, Mich., before retiring after the 1951 season.

Soon after came marriage and children. Over time, an exciting sojourn seemed to have been a dream.

That changed after she appeared with her sister in a documentary that in turn inspired a Hollywood movie of the same name. After the release of A League of Their Own in 1992, folks were keen to know more about the “girls of summer.” Bits of the story of the Callaghan sisters were to be found in the characters played by Geena Davis and Madonna.

The original documentary was prepared by Kelly Candaele, one of Helen's sons. Another of her boys, Casey Candaele, broke into the major leagues with the Montreal Expos. It was the one time when a big leaguer could be accused of playing like a girl and take it as a compliment.

All these years later, after Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and women's lib and Ms. Magazine and Gloria Steinem; after a woman has served as prime minister and another woman can run for U.S. president as the most qualified candidate, a fan would be hard pressed to find women playing baseball for money.

Mrs. Maxwell and her late sister (Helen died of cancer in California in 1992, aged 69) were recognized recently by the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame for their pioneering roles. They joined basketball's Kathy Shields and badminton's Sandra Stevenson as this year's honorees in a program called, “In Her Footsteps: Celebrating B.C. Women in Sport.”

For her part, Mrs. Maxwell was delighted to meet the figure skater Karen Magnussen. “I'd watched her skate for years and here she was asking me to pose with her for a photograph. Imagine. Her admiring me?!

The roster of the league's veterans gets shorter every season, as old players get their final call-ups. More than a half-century has passed since Mrs. Maxwell last swung a bat. Baseball is just numbers without stories. She never imagined anyone would ever care to hear hers.

“I never set the world on fire,” she said, “but I had a lot of fun.”

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