ROCKFORD, Ill. -- Not even half an hour after the day’s first baseball activities got underway, lightning led to the cancellation of what was to be a fun-filled day. But even as grey clouds and gloomy skies hovered above Beyer Stadium, the smiles of children eagerly awaiting to participate in Major League Baseball’s Play Ball event othat doubled as an homage to the late Penny Marshall could not be diminished.
Beyer Stadium, once home to the women's Rockford Peaches from 1943-1954, was the site for all of Sunday’s fun activities hosted by Major League Baseball and the International Women's Baseball Center.
"This past year we’ve done about 40 Play Ball events,” said Kim Ng, senior vice president of baseball and softball development for MLB. “It’s really to introduce baseball into different communities and really try and get the community invigorated about the game and getting the kids out there playing no matter what form, whether it’s a structured league or just out here with bats and balls.”
There were five different stations set up across the field in which the kids participated: Ball & Bat, Fly Balls and Grounders, Agilities, Run the Bases and a Home Run Derby.
This Play Ball outing was also in conjunction with the weekend-long remembrance of Marshall and the women’s baseball celebration. Marshall was the director of the highly acclaimed 1992 movie “A League of Their Own.” Marshall, who passed away less than a year ago at age 75, inspired many people from several generations, such as Bethany Moreland, whose daughter participated in Sunday's event.
“I was probably in fourth grade and it made me want to be a ballplayer,” Moreland said. “I knew that I had talent playing ball, but that’s what made me want to play hardball because I didn't know I had a choice before.”
Moreland is also a coach for a 6-8-year-old all-girls baseball team that competes in a boys baseball league here in Rockford. One of her favorite moments from this weekend celebration was when the girls from the baseball team escorted members of the original Rockford Peaches.
Tracy Reiner, Marshall’s daughter who played Betty Horn in "A League of Their Own," gave each of the girls a pair of Penny Marshall’s glasses.
An event like this does not just happen, though, and that is where the mayor of Rockford, Tom McNamara, led the way.
“We’re home of the Rockford Peaches, so baseball is ingrained in our city's culture and our history,” McNamara said.
He mentioned that hundreds of volunteers provided countless hours of dedicating their time to provide this event for the community. However, this is not the end goal. Rockford’s mayor has his eyes set on accomplishing even greater achievements for the history of women’s baseball and the history of baseball in Rockford.
“The most immediate goal that we have is that we want to hold and host the International Women’s Baseball Museum,” McNamara said. “That’s what we’re working towards. We had one of the first big fundraisers for it this past Friday and that’s going to be right across the street from here.”
As McNamara works to redevelop the community, he aims to make Rockford a place kids can be proud to call home. McNamara worked closely with Jim Keeling, the chair of the Board for the Remembrance of Penny Marshall.
Keeling played an enormous role in planning, fundraising, and preparing for this weekend of celebrating women’s baseball while remembering Marshall. Rockford has been selected as the site for the International Women’s Baseball Center Museum right next to Beyer Stadium.
"We are raising a million dollars to build the outdoor museum and to put a permanent exhibit into a public space in Rockford over the next couple of years,” Keeling said, adding that there are several items being placed throughout the area near Beyer Stadium and the museum.
“One of the main pieces of the outdoor museum will be nine pylon signs that are like giant baseball cards, 9 feet tall, 3 feet wide,” Keeling said. “The first one is to honor Penny Marshall and ‘A League of their Own’ and the Rockford Peaches, which was our team and a big part of the Rockford brand, quite frankly, the pride of our community.”
As for Marshall’s legacy, Keeling said it can’t be understated.
“A major leader in the development of women’s rights in our country,” Keeling said. “She brought this story forward, it would have been lost in history, of these women that played professional baseball in the 1940s and 50s. Out of that comes our world champion soccer teams and world champion athletes of all kinds. We always had the talent, but they just didn’t have the opportunity.”
This fun-filled weekend was hopefully just the start for not only Rockford, but other communities across the country. MLB’s Play Ball is set to continue to promote getting out and playing ball.
“Today we just want to get the kids out there and playing and having a good time,” Ng said. “This is what it’s all about.”