These OG legends of AAGPBL are still driving the movement

March 8th, 2023

This article was originally published on on March 22, 2022. Shirley Burkovich, who played in the AAGPBL and had a speaking part in the movie “A League of Their Own,” passed away on March 31, 2022. Maybelle Blair turned 96 on Jan. 16 and continues to be an advocate of girls baseball, and is a regular presence at MLB’s signature girls baseball events.

You’ve no doubt seen the movie at least a handful of times by now and are well-acquainted with Dottie, Marla, Mae and Betty Spaghetti. You rooted for the Peaches, and couldn’t believe that Kit actually Pete-Rosed her sister at home plate. You laughed out loud when Jimmy Dugan finally silenced "Stilwell Angel" with a perfectly aimed glove that bounced right off the little brat’s face.

But those were just fictional characters with made-up names doing made-up things for the sake of entertainment. None of it was real.

Or was it?

The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was indeed a very real thing. Born out of necessity during World War II, the league ran from 1943-54. The Rockford Peaches -- yes, the very same ones from the movie -- won a league-leading four championships.

“A League of Their Own” is a mostly fictional account, though. So, who were the ladies who served as its real-life inspiration? And were those women -- a handful of whom are still around today -- as tough and cool as their silver-screen counterparts?

Maybelle Blair will be the first to tell you -- heck, she’ll even show you if you’ve got a glove handy -- that she’s every bit as on fire for the sport as she was when she pitched for the Peoria Redwings back in 1948.

“Have you ever put on a pair of spikes?” Blair asked MLB Network in 2018. “Not that rubber stuff. You put them on, and you walk down the cement, and you can hear ‘click, click, click, click.’ It’s like music. Somebody can write a song about that.”

Blair turned 95 on Jan. 16, and you’re sorely mistaken if you think that means knitting and rocking chairs. She and fellow AAGPBL alum Shirley Burkovich, who turned 89 on Feb. 4, are on a mission to make sure that the new generation of baseball girls has the same opportunities -- more, even -- than the ladies of the original wartime league did nearly 80 years ago.

Outspoken supporters of the need for a modern girls baseball league rather than forcing females into coed baseball leagues or funneling them toward careers in softball, the two women travel around in support of the new wave. They routinely spend all day in the sun cheering on whatever workouts, expos or tournaments they can attend, with Blair offering anyone within earshot to have a catch.

That group included softball Olympian pitching star Jennie Finch, who traded throws with Blair during a Trailblazer tourney in 2018. Don’t let Blair’s cane fool you, because she can easily ditch that wooden support (it’s made from a baseball bat … but of course it is, right?) and toss around the ball with friends.

“This is what we’ve wished for since ‘A League of Their Own’ ended,” said Burkovich, who starred for four teams as a utility (wo)man and pitcher from 1948-51. “Something for these girls to have the same opportunity that we had -- to play baseball. That’s why it’s so important for us to come out here, encourage them and just have a great time.”

What started with a movie quickly evolved into a movement. Today, there are girls’ baseball teams and tournaments all around the country. The MLB GRIT: Girls ID Tour has grown each year since its inception and hit five cities in 2022. The tour offers free one-day evaluation workouts for female baseball players ages 12-17 that are, according to a press release from MLB, "specifically designed to identify female baseball players to place the highest potential performers for additional girls’ baseball development opportunities, including the Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series and Elite Development Invitational."

The series culminates in a Super Bowl of sorts for the sport -- the Trailblazer Series, held April 13-17 in Vero Beach, Fla. -- that invites the top teen girls’ baseball athletes from around the country for a weekend full of competition.

Females who once topped out at the Little League level before being ushered into softball are now forming club teams in college. This season, eight women played on their respective Division I NCAA baseball teams. Even better, the country saw its inaugural Women's College Club Baseball Championships this past weekend, with the University of Washington Huskies clinching the first title.

The recent boom in the sport, encouraged by organizations such as the pioneer non-profit Baseball for All, is music to the ears of the women’s baseball OGs. Back then, ladies like Burkovich and Blair played the game because they loved it. They weren’t trailblazers or leaders of a revolution; they were simply ballplayers who cherished the game every bit as much as their male counterparts.

For years after it folded, the hype surrounding the AAGPBL was relegated to small reunions among the players, who gathered once a year to rehash glory days largely since forgotten among anyone but them. But when “A League of Their Own” came out in 1992, these women suddenly had a platform and a renewed purpose. Blair, Burkovich and the gang are prepared to run with it as long as they can.

“I think it’s the most wonderful thing in the world to give these girls the opportunity to play the game that they love,” Blair said. “Not softball: These girls want to play baseball, and Major League Baseball has finally come along and has given them the opportunity. Now we want to keep it going and ready to have these same opportunities that Shirley and I did. It’s the most wonderful part of our life.

“If girls want to play softball, that’s wonderful, because I love to play softball also, but baseball is in my heart, and so many of these girls [are the same].”