Mo'ne, women's baseball pioneers tip cap to Jackie

April 15th, 2022

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

That quote hangs on the wall at the back of Building 42 at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex, and it carries a powerful message from the man himself. That same quote hung at the back of Mo’ne Davis’ team bus years ago, and it’s stayed with the 20-year-old trailblazer throughout her career.

“We’d see it every game, and just realize that his life was that important because it impacted our lives,” Davis said Thursday.

Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947. On Friday, Major League Baseball will celebrate the 75th anniversary of his revolutionary Major League debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was only fitting, then, that nearly 100 girls ages 11-13 are gathered at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex this weekend to do a little trailblazing of their own.

The girls -- handpicked from 25 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and Canada -- have two huge things in common: They love baseball, and they’re really good at it.

While the Trailblazer Series weekend is about talent evaluation and exposure, companionship and lots of playing baseball, Thursday afternoon brought with it an extra treat: an hour-long panel discussion with female baseball greats Davis, Maybelle Blair and Jeneane Lesko.

Blair and Lesko were members of the original All American Girls Professional Baseball League, on which the movie “A League of Their Own” was based. Davis played in the 2014 Little League World Series and was the first girl to earn a win and throw a shutout in tournament history.

The impact of their contributions to advance females in the sport was certainly felt among the girls in attendance, who eagerly asked questions, snapped photos and collected autographs from the trio. While the women’s experiences spanned more than 60 years, their message to the girls was the same:

If you love the game, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t play it.

“Baseball has been the last sport that is a major sport in the United States to gain equality, and playing baseball, it’s always been a fight against, ‘OK, you’re 10 now, you go to softball,’” Lesko said. “We’ve had a lot of support from Major League Baseball in these last 10 years, and we’re really, really fortunate to have that. And, of course, Jackie Robinson broke barriers, and all you kids are breaking barriers right now. You can do it … and we hope to see that happen before we go, right, Maybelle?”

Lesko, 87, and Blair, 95, were on the original front line. They have been fierce advocates of equality in the sport for decades and have seen the number of female baseball players grow exponentially in that time. Even now, they tirelessly travel the country supporting the cause, with Blair often reiterating her goal to bring a girls’ baseball facility to Rockford, Ill., that’s every bit as nice as the current LLWS site in Williamsport, Pa.

Why? Because every female should be able to experience what she had.

“My favorite part [about playing in the AAGPBL] was being able to play baseball,” Blair said. “That is my very favorite part because when you put on your spikes and you’ve got your uniform on, there’s nothing like going out there and touching that grass and saying, ‘Thank God I could play baseball.’

“I absolutely love softball, but I loved baseball. Baseball was in my blood, and it will always be there. … [Baseball] was more like family.”

“If it wasn’t for [Jackie Robinson], my team couldn’t play,” Davis reflected. “Just like these women [Blair and Lesko] up here, I wouldn’t be able to play and inspire you guys, and you guys are here playing now to inspire the next generation.”

The bonds forged here will only grow …
With such a wide range of backgrounds, many of the girls at the Trailblazer Series were strangers when the eight teams were divided early Thursday afternoon, but that didn’t last long.

One of the best things about the weekend, players across the board reflected, is the feeling of camaraderie they don’t always get playing on boys’ teams. It was evident in one dugout after a player struck out during Thursday’s game, when her teammates swarmed her with high-fives, praise and at least one enthusiastic, “I’m proud of you!”

The weekend marked seventh-grader Katelyn Dilworth’s first trip to Trailblazer Series, but she’s no newbie to baseball. The 12-year-old plays on three travel teams in Arizona, as well as a local football team. Dilworth has eagerly used the opportunity not only to make new friends but to network, listen and embrace the bond.

“I like meeting all the older girls and hearing about their journeys,” she said. “And just seeing other people going through the same stuff I am.”

On Thursday, perhaps the best tell of just how impactful this weekend is for girls in baseball was felt by Alexia Van Snick, who worked the final half-inning for her squad. After a single and an error put two runners on with two outs, she tapped into something greater.

Van Snick plays travel softball and baseball, and wears No. 42 in softball in honor of Robinson, her favorite player. She also admitted to being very impressed by Blair, Lesko and Davis, so when one coach urged her to “channel Maybelle and Mo’ne Davis!” Van Snick couldn’t help but smile before inducing a harmless groundout to end the game.

The pitcher, whose family drove 17 hours from Ohio to attend the weekend, turned 12 on Thursday. Her roommate for the weekend plays on another team, but her big day didn’t go unrecognized by her new teammates.

“There you go, birthday girl!” one of her teammates hollered at the final out, then led the team in singing “Happy Birthday” in the postgame outfield huddle.