Former pro is 95 and living life like only she knows how

August 5th, 2022

Maybelle Blair had been living with a secret. For 95 years, the professional baseball player in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and lifelong women's baseball advocate had kept a crucial piece of herself hidden away -- afraid of the consequences and hate she'd receive if she admitted who she was publicly.

But on stage at the Tribeca premiere of the new Amazon series “A League of Their Own” earlier this summer, Blair realized this was her time. Before the assembled crowd, Blair finally felt comfortable enough to come out.

“I hid for 95 years, trying to hide my gayness,” Blair told me in a recent Zoom interview, her signature white bouffant and sport goggles on, her baseball bat cane hooked behind her chair. “It was hard during my period, because we'd be either fired from our jobs or we would be discharged from service. It was just things that we just couldn't do. We couldn't live our lives.”

The new show, co-created by Will Graham and Abbi Jacobson, is not just a retelling of the classic film, but an update, looking to share the queer stories and racial strife that Penny Marshall’s film couldn’t when it was released in 1992. Blair, whip sharp and always ready to share a joke, consulted on the show as one of the last living links to the short-lived league. You couldn't find a better spokesperson if you tried.

“When I was up there on the stage when we had the Tribeca premiere, Amazon gave me the opportunity to tell my story. And it was such a relief,” Blair said. “I was sitting next to Will Graham, and I sort of looked at him and I thought, ‘Maybelle, why don't you tell it? You can do it because it's here on screen now. Tell your side.’ So I did. And it was such a relief.

"It was like if you've ever had an incident or something and you could just feel the blood drain out from you. I knew that I did the right thing because I knew these little girls or boys that are playing baseball and they're trying to hide it. I want to let them know, 'Hey, it's OK. You can do this. You can have a life of your own. You don't have to worry about it like I did for 85-90 years.' People don't realize how many gay people are actually out there that are trying to hide their sexuality. And it's basically a crime that you can't live your life."

Maybelle Blair at the ESPYs. (Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images)

Born in Longvale, Calif., in 1927, Blair has always had baseball in her blood. It's the one constant in her life.

"I don't know anything else but baseball, and I love baseball," Blair said.

Growing up, her father and brothers played on a team called the Blair Nine, but she was relegated to scorekeeping duties when her brother played with friends outside the family home.

"Every half-inning I'd have to go out and report the Cubs score. That was the only team we'd get on the radio because we had the Angels here. It was their Triple-A team in my day," Blair said. "I'd have to go report every half-inning, then I'd have to go back in and sit and take notes, and away we go again. After the game was over, maybe when they were gonna have batting practice, they'd call me out and say, 'Sis, come out and play now!' I'd grab my mitt and all I'd do is go out there and shag balls, but I enjoyed every minute of it."

From there, she formed her own softball team as a fifth grader, forcing the other girls to come out and practice with her day after day. It eventually led to a teacher connecting her with another school down the road so she could continue playing with some people who were similarly obsessed with the game.

"At recess I'd make all the girls stand up and I would hit them pepper and throw back. When I finally got out on the field, I asked them all to stay after school and practice with me. I finally got pretty good," Blair said.

All that work she put in paid off, and by the 1940s -- while still in high school -- she was playing semi-pro softball for the Pasadena Ramblers up and down California. They would stop for games on military bases and take on men's teams that would do their best to beat the Ramblers, with plenty of bragging rights on the line.

"They would form their team, then we'd go down there, play 'em and beat them half the time," Blair said. "Just the soldiers or the sailors or whoever we played, we were all over those guys! They could hardly handle it when we got through beating them. It was a lot of fun for them and it was a lot of fun for us."

Playing primarily second base and with a good bat, too, Blair caught the eye of a scout with the Chicago Cardinals softball team, so she headed to Illinois for the hefty sum of $60 a week. While there, Max Carey saw her performance and signed her to join the Peoria Redwings of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League as a pitcher in 1948. There was a problem, though: Blair had hurt her leg and could hardly move on the field. She tried to cover it up, but opponents soon found out and started laying down bunts against her with reckless abandon.

(As for how she'd describe her pitching: "You’ve heard of Nolan Ryan, haven’t you? He had nothing on me. You believe that too, don’t ya?" Blair said with a laugh.)

Eventually, Carey had to tell her that her services were no longer required until her leg was healed.

"He kept me around for courtesy’s sake, I guess, for another couple weeks, and then he called me in his office and he said, 'I hate to have to tell you this, but I’m going to have to release you. But would you please come back next year when your legs are well? Because we can certainly use you,'" Blair told Grand Valley State University in 2009.

Unfortunately, that time would never come, but she later returned to second base for a short period with the New Orleans Jacks in 1951. With the war over, though, the AAGPBL would soon fold in 1954 and Blair had to choose between baseball and a good job escorting VIPs for Northrop Aircraft.

"The people enjoyed [women's baseball] during our period until the ballplayers came back, and then they actually wanted to go see the ballplayers. I mean, the real good ones like Joe DiMaggio, Bobby Feller, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams -- those are ballplayers that they wanted to go watch and the attendance for the girls went down. It was time for us to put on our aprons and go back and have babies and cook," Blair said. "That didn't go over well with a lot of us."

While Blair may not have played professionally for long, she has never left baseball behind -- "Because what else is there but baseball and softball, you know?"

She has continued to work tirelessly to promote women's baseball and help support young women who want to get out there and play the game. She is good friends with Justine Siegal, the first woman to coach professional men's baseball and the founder of Baseball For All. Blair's been a constant presence at the annual Trailblazers Series, being sure to bring her glove for a quick game of catch with every ballplayer who wants one. And she is continuing to push for the International Women's Baseball Center to be built in Rockford, Ill., as a place to help grow the game and celebrate the groundbreakers who came before.

"Now there's the opportunity. The doors are opening up, but we've got to get our foot there and kick the heck out of that door and let's get it going," Blair said.

The center will not only help train and educate ballplayers, but Blair wants to help train women umpires, too. She wants there to be women's leagues all around the country -- just like when the AAGPBL was in its heyday.

"We're trying to build a home there in Rockford, Illinois, for the International Women's Baseball Center," she said. "[It] will include baseball for women from all over the world, not just the United States, so they have a home of their own where they can come and play and be themselves and have a league of our own again, because that's what we need. We need our own league, we don't need to have to compete with men, because we're not."

Blair has great hope for the future, though, as more women like Rachel Balkovec and Katie Krall are hired in the professional game. She wants to see more women follow in the footsteps of Kim Ng, who was the first woman to become a Major League general manager when she took over the Marlins in 2021.

As with all things, though, the center needs money if its dream will be realized.

"At the top of our front page, there is a big button -- a red one, I think it is -- and you press hard, and [enter a] credit card that hasn't been all used up. And you use it up and donate. Or, if they want, they can just make a big check out to IWBC and send it to me and I'll see that they get it," Blair said with a laugh -- though in no way does it feel like she's joking.

Before we wrap up, Blair shares with me her favorite baseball memory -- one that is crystal clear in her mind like it just happened yesterday. It's hard to hear her and not share in her dream and hope to see it realized.

"The best memory I ever had in baseball was when I walked into the locker room and they gave me my dress and my uniform," Blair said. "I got all dolled up and I thought it was the cutest darn thing in the world. I got into that and put on my spikes. Then I started to walk out, to go to the tunnel to go down to the field. And that clickety clack -- you know the spikes against the cement -- isn't that beautiful music? I walked right down there and I said, 'Maybelle, you're finally getting to play professional baseball,' which I'd never ever dreamed up in our day.

"Even today, the girls don't have that chance, and this is what we would like to see: A home of our own there in Rockford and a league of our own. Wouldn't that be wonderful?"