Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Penny (O'Brian) Cooke, ball player (1919-2010)

Penny (O'Brian) Cooke's daring head-first slide into third base earned her a photograph in a 1945 edition of Life Magazine.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 24, 2010

Penny Cooke joined a small, wartime exodus of Canadian women, many from the prairies, who went south to play professional baseball.

Cooke, who has died, aged 90, enjoyed a brief career in the American Midwest in a pro circuit later featured in the Hollywood movie, “A League of Their Own.”

Decades passed before the athletes of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League received their rightful recognition as sporting pioneers.

The popularity of the 1992 movie generated interested in the real-life players on which the screenplay was loosely based. In the movie’s aftermath, an exhibition about the league was created by the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y.

All 64 Canadian-born players, about one-tenth of the league’s all-time roster, were inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame at St. Marys, Ont. Cooke and a daughter traveled east for the ceremony in 1998.
Like many of her peers, her playing career ended as she pursued the more traditional female role of homemaker.

She was born as Mary Harriet Marteniuk on Sept. 16, 1919, to a family of Ukrainian ancestry at Smoky Lake, Alta. As a teenager during the Depression, she found work sewing zippers onto uniforms — for city work crews and for the military — at the Great Western Garment Co. factory on 97th Street in Edmonton.

Skill with a softball bat earned her an extra $2 per week on local diamonds. She joined her friend Lucella MacLean on a team in her hometown of Lloydminster, Alta. The pair then got jobs as taxi dispatchers in Saskatoon, where they played on the Pats team.

In 1943, MacLean went to Chicago where chewing-gum magnate Phillip Wrigley had created what would become the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Wrigley, who owned the Chicago Cubs, was concerned the wartime collapse of minor-league teams, as men were called away to war, might leave him with a ball park without an attraction.

The league began with four teams. The players signed contracts in which they agreed to comply with the rules of moral conduct imposed by the league. The players wore uniforms featuring skirts. They traveled accompanied by female chaperones, attended charm school, and were instructed in the proper application of the cosmetics in their mandatory beauty kits.

The league won converts among die-hard baseball fans, as the young woman showed great skill and determination, even sliding though their bare legs inevitably suffered bruises and scrapes.

Two years later, Cooke signed with the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Daisies, an expansion team in a league that now had six teams and a growing audience.

By then, she was known as Penny O’Brian, a name she used after a short-lived marriage about which her family knows little.

At just 5-foot-1 and 110-pounds, she was so slight a figure that teammates quickly dubbed her Peanuts. Capable of playing the infield and the outfield, she displayed a slick glove, though suffered at the plate, her batting average a disappointing .216 for the 1945 season.

A larcenous disposition made her contributions to the team's offence more dramatic. She stole 43 bases over 83 games, undoubtedly to the consternation of opposing catchers.

The Daisies’ roster of 15 players included seven Canadians — Regina pitcher Agnes (nee Zurkowski) Holmes; Winnipeg pitcher Audrey (Haine) Daniels; Arleene (nee Johnson) Noga, a farmer’s daughter and infielder from Ogema, Sask.; Yolande (YoYo) Schick (nee Teillet), a Metis catcher from St. Vital, Man., whose grandfather was the younger brother of rebel leader Louis Riel; and, the Callaghan sisters of Vancouver, Margaret and Helen, the latter described as the female Ted Williams for her terrific hitting.

Cooke’s speed placed her atop the batting order as the leadoff hitter, though she batted second later in the season. Not known as a power hitter, she did manage a home run off a Racine (Wisc.) Belles pitcher in July.

When Life Magazine featured the league in a photographic essay published in an issue dated June 4, 1945, the rookie was shown making a dramatic, dirt-churning, head-first slide into third base.

At season’s end, she returned to Canada, where her daughter had been cared for by a sister. In 1944, she had married a salesman named Earl Cooke. Back in Lethbridge, Alta., she played amateur softball in summer and basketball in winter, winning a league scoring championship in hoops in 1951-52.

After the family moved to Edmonton, she operated a restaurant purchased by her husband near Victoria High School. After his death in 1969, she ran a lunch counter at a mattress factory.

In 1981, she moved to the West Coast, returning eventually to the food business by working as a cleaner at the Motion Foods catering business launched by a daughter and grandson in North Vancouver.

After the movie was released, she was interviewed on the radio by her son-in-law, the broadcaster Bill Good. She offered praise for “A League of Their Own,” though insisted the standard of baseball played by herself and her peers was greater than that depicted by the actors.

She enjoyed the belated recognition for her athletic feats, though, on meeting the director Penny Marshall, Cooke said, “I don’t know what’s the big deal. I only played one year.”

Cooke died on April 29. She leaves a son, Bob Cooke; daughters PenEarle Albers and Georgy Good; three grandchildren; two great-granddaughters; and, two sisters.

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