Monday, June 18, 2018

The Chicks at the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Today, we continue our review of the Milwaukee County Historical Society's recently-closed exhibit "Back Yards to Big Leagues: Milwaukee’s Sports and Recreation History" with a look at the display devoted to the Milwaukee Chicks.

The Chicks were Milwaukee's entry in the All-American Girls Professional Ball League. Joining the league in 1944, its second season, the Milwaukee club went unheralded at the box office but was strong on the field, winning a championship in their first season, which would turn out to be their only season in Milwaukee.

When I heard about the "Back Yards to Big Leagues" exhibit, I knew the Chicks had to be included. And frankly, the thing I was most hoping for was a clear look at the Chicks' uniform patch. I knew it was based on the official civic seal of Milwaukee—all of the early AAGPBL logos were—but I couldn't tell more than that from the few photos in circulation.

In those photos, we can see a white outline tracing the city seal's distinctive four-lobed design, but beyond those broad strokes none of the details are distinghuishable. It's just a black blob. And fair enough; the city seal is complicated enough on its own. It's not at all clear how all that detail would translate to an embroidered patch. Perhaps the Historical Society's exhibit could finally shed some light on this historical curiosity.

The display was promising, just down from those for the Brewers and Braves, right across from the equally short-lived Milwaukee Bears.

The Chicks section only consisted of most of a small wall and half of a display case facing it. But still, it contains the most information on the Chicks I've ever seen in one place.

When it comes to telling the story of the Chicks, you need to start with the name itself. Early AAGPBL names were more unofficial than anything; uniforms had city names on their patches, not team names. When the league advertised games, it was billed "Milwaukee vs. Kenosha", not "The Chicks vs. the Comets". And when it came to the Milwaukee club, the original intention was to call them the "Brewettes", a kid-sister to the club with which they shared Borchert Field. But that didn't take, mercifully, and the Milwaukee Journal came up with its own name for the team.


The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) Milwaukee Chicks were dubbed the Schnitts ("short beers", i.e. Little Brewers) by the press while the owners decided the team name. The team came up with the nickname Chicks based on their manager, Max Carey, and a popular children's book, Mother Carey's Chickens.

The Chicks are known as "the most successful, least loved team in Milwaukee history." Despite playing in front of tiny crowds at Borchert Field, the team went 40-19 in the regular season, including an 11-game winning streak, and made the league championship. However, due to the Milwaukee Brewers being in the American Association playoffs, the Chicks had to play all seven of the championship series games in Kenosha. Nonetheless, they hung on to win the series. Alas, the Chicks left Milwaukee after the season due to "red ink and anonymity in the form of a near empty ballpark." The team moved to Grand Rapids where they remained until the AAGPBL ended in 1954, winning two more league championships.
Beside that caption, the exhibit's largest photo. This one features Chicks star Connie Wisniewski conferring with her catcher.


Connie Wisniewski, pitcher and outfielder, was a four-time AAGPBL All-Star. She won all four games for the Chicks in the 1944 League Championship series, the first pitcher, male or female, to do so in professional baseball leagues. She won four of the five games she pitched and gave up only two earned runs in 35 innings in the series.

Sadly, this particular picture isn't from Wisniewski's time in Milwaukee, but from sometime after the Chicks had moved to Grand Rapids. So we don't learn anything about the Schnitts' uniform patch.

To round out the wall display, the Historical Society has assembled a photo gallery.

In the upper-left corner, a scan of the Chicks' scorecard. With a gorgeous Otis Shepard cover.

Next to the scorecard, moving left to right, a team photo of our Milwaukee heroines.

Slight gaffe there in the caption: the Chicks were obviously 1944, not '43. Still, a gorgeous photo. Unfortunately, it doesn't tell us much about the uniform logo.

On the other side of the team photo, a scan of the scorecard's central page. This one is unscored, but shows the team lineups for a game against the South Bend Blue Sox, one of only two teams to play in the same city for the league's entire history (the other being the Rockford Peaches).

On the bottom row of photos, left to right, we start with a picture of hard-hitting Schnitts catcher Dorothy "Mickey" Maguire. As with Ms. Wisniewski, this photo comes from later in her career, when Maguire was playing for the Muskegon Lassies.

Photographs of Maguire's swing are iconic, and are credited as being an inspiration for Stanley Bleifeld's 2006 sculpture "Woman at Bat". Honoring all the women who played in the AAGPBL, the statue is located in Cooperstown, right next to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Next up in our display, a picture of Mother Carey and his pitching staff.

Very nice look at the hurlers, but it still doesn't tell us much about the Chicks' uniform patch. Same white outlines, same black blobs.

Finally, we come to the last picture in this little gallery. The lower-right corner is anchored with a glamorous studio photograph of the AAGPBL's first four signings from 1943, pictured wearing uniforms emblazoned with the league's original logo.

It speaks to the scarcity of Milwaukee Chicks images that even this exhibit, perhaps the most comprehensive ever devoted to the subject, has to supplement with a generic league photo.

Opposite the wall display, a display case rounded out the Chicks' portion of the exhibit.

The women share space with a Negro League Bears reproduction jersey, and some Brewers artifacts, leaving a little over one-third of the case devoted to the Chicks.

First, a thick scrapbook, open to a large cutting from the Milwaukee Journal.

The Schnits (sic) (Little Beers), who will play for Milwaukee in the Girls' All-American Professional Ball league, are shown here. Players who had been training at Peru, Ill. were divided among the league's six teams. Manager Max Carey talks to his girls in the picture. They are (left to right): Front row—Vivian Anderson, Emily Stevenson, Josephine Kabick, Olga Grant. Second row—Thelma Eisen, Viola Thompson, Judy Dusanko, Delores Klosowski. Third row—Dorothy Maguire, Shirley Shultze, Betty Whiting, Alma Ziegler. Top row—Lafern Price, Dorothy Hunter (chaperone), Connie Wizniewski. They will work out Friday afternoon at Borchert field (admission free) and will play their first game Saturday. (Journal Staff)
What I wouldn't give for a peek at the rest of that overstuffed scrapbook.

Next to the scrapbook, we have an original scorecard. The cover graphic is even more gorgeous than the scan on the wall.

But beneath the scorecard... oh, my. The Holy Grail.

Grails, plural. That's right: not just one, but two original Chicks uniform patches. I wanted a clear photograph, and boy did I get one.

These patches are wonderful. So much so that they deserve an article all their own. Which is exactly what we're going to do. Stay tuned.

But for now, it's just amazing to see these women get their due. If they were the "least loved team in Milwaukee history" during their time at Borchert Field, the least we can do it remember their contributions now. Kudos to the Milwaukee County Historical Society for making them an important part of this exhibit.

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