Friday, July 12, 2019

On Pins and Needles

One of the most famous elements of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League's legacy is the uniform.

You remember the scene from A League of Their Own; with the tryouts at Harvey Field complete, and the four team rosters set, the newly-minted professional ballplayers are introduced to their uniforms. And the reaction is strong.
"You can't slide in that!"

"That's a dress!"

"It's half a dress!"

"Excuse me, that's not a baseball uniform."

The women are bluntly told "If you can't play ball in this, you can't play ball with us," and that's the end of their objections, if not the end of their problems.

In real life, the short-skirted tunics were similarly emblematic of the league, and similarly challenging to its players.

League founder Philip K. Wrigley gave the job of designing the AAGPBL's uniforms to Otis Shepard, who had served as the art director for both Wrigley's eponymous chewing gum empire and his Chicago Cubs. Shepard had overhauled the Cubs' uniforms several times, starting in 1937, and had introduced many innovations to the sport: the first zippered jersey, the first vest, the and first (and still only) pleated pants, and in 1941 the game's first powder blue road uniform. Uni Watch published a great breakdown of Shepard's work for the North Siders a couple years ago.

Shepard turned his considerable talents towards the creation of something entirely new: a women's baseball uniform that connoted both athleticism and upper-class sophistication. The resulting uniform was intended to showcase the femininity of its players, to erase any concerns that the ballplayers were unladylike in the minds of either fans or the parents of young women wanting to join the league.

Photo credit: Northern Indiana Center for History Collection

The most obvious issue with the tunics was the lack of protection it offered the players' legs. The women quickly coined a pleasant-sounding nickname—"strawberries"—for the painful scrapes caused by sliding into a base; wide road rashes with ground-in dirt.

Less obvious was the problem that Shepard's tunics caused players in the field. They quickly found the extra material around their legs interfered with movement. And the skirts had a lot of extra material, as you can see in this Getty photo from a July 26, 1947 game between the Racine Belles and the South Bend Blue Sox:

Getty Images

Pitchers in particular found the billowing skirts interfered with their pitching motions, so many of them would take steps to reduce the size of the skirt. Some responded by raising the hem of their skirts a few inches, removing a large chunk of material that way. Others chose to fold the excess over into a flap and secure it either by sewing or pinning it in place.

This 1944 team photo shows one of the homemade customizations:

Right there, in the middle. See the pinned flap?

You can also see one in this Milwaukee Sentinel photo of pitcher Josephine Kabick.

We see most of the Chick pitchers pinned their skirts. In this photo from the Cooperstown archives Kabick is standing next to fellow hurler Viola Thompson, and they both have their skirts pinned.

National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Kabick has one fold, from her right to left, while Thompson has two, converging in the middle of her skirt.

Chicks ace Connie Wisniewski, seen here on the right posing with Josephine Figlo, was another consistent pinner.

National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Looking at this photo, the contrast between the two skirts is obvious. Figlio's is marked with folds and flaps, while Wisniewski's is more streamlined.

The chaperones were in charge of enforcing the uniform regulations, but they didn't seem to mind that particular modification, as it was so often seen. The AAGPBL's Rules of Conduct appear to have been silent about on these sorts of modifications. They don't specifically prohibit wrapping and pinning the tunic's skirt. Rule 12 comes the closest:
Baseball uniform skirts shall not be shorter than six inches above the knee-cap.
This certainly implies that players were shortening their skirts, and that the league knew it. Six inches above the knee would seem to verge close to miniskirt territory, but given the amount of implied sex appeal of Shepard's original design, that might not have bothered the league too much.

The phenomenon was widespread; uniforms in the collection of The History Museum (South Bend), the Grand Rapids Public Museum, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown reveal similar hand alterations.

There's an old line about Ginger Rogers having to do everything that Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels. Well, Connie Wisniewski was asked to do everything Spud Chandler or Bob Feller did, only in a skirt. And it's clear that the players of the AAGPBL did whatever they could to make the skirts less cumbersome. I love these subtle modifications, a testament to the ingenious spirit of these baseball pioneers.

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