CHICAGO — Tennessee Jackson, in Chicago, and Red Mahoney, in Houston, could hardly contain themselves. The two retired ballplayers, gray-haired and in their 60s now, had just received the happy news: The Hall of Fame had decided to include them in a special Cooperstown exhibit, tentatively scheduled for 1989.
"This is so wonderful," said Jackson, a reserve outfielder who hit just .220 with three major league clubs in the 1940s. "All of a sudden, everyone wants to know about us."
Mahoney, an even weaker-hitting utility player, whooped like a lottery winner. "I tell 'em, 'Man, we could play ball.' "
This seems implausible, considering their skimpy numbers, but then, those two players faced unusual pressures. Jackson's first name is Lillian. Mahoney's is Marie.
Four years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, and 29 years before passage of the initial Title IX legislation aimed at giving women equality in athletics, Jackson and Mahoney had already taken the field.
They were among the several hundred young women who played during that brief period between 1943 and 1954 when there were three major leagues--the National, the American and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).
The game these women played was good old country hardball. They threw knock-down pitches and low-bridged the shortstop on the double play. They jawed with umpires, played hurt and were tossed out of games. They gambled and drank. Millions paid to see them play.
How good were they? Charlie Grimm, then manager of the Chicago Cubs, said after watching shortstop Dorothy Schroeder of the South Bend (Ind.) Blue Sox, "If she was a boy, I'd give $50,000 for her."
There was little talk of the AAGPBL once dwindling attendance forced its demise after the 1954 season. But last spring, PBS televised a half-hour remembrance of the league.
By May, rookie outfielder-second baseman Casey Candaele, the son of Helen Callaghan, a star outfielder for the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Daisies, was batting leadoff for the Montreal Expos. In June, Dr. Janis Taylor, an assistant professor of film at Northwestern University, completed a half-hour documentary about the league, titled, "When Diamonds Were a Girl's Best Friend."
Then came the news from Cooperstown. The museum plans to mount an 8 x 8-foot exhibit, recounting the history of the AAGPBL.
"When we were playing, we didn't realize what we had," confessed star Daisy pitcher Dottie Collins from her Fort Wayne home. "We were just a bunch of young kids doing what we liked best. But most of us recognize now that those were the most meaningful days of our lives.
"Times have changed. I don't think we could ever have a league like that again. The bond between the girls is now very, very close."
Philip K. Wrigley, of chewing gum fame and longtime owner of the Chicago Cubs, conceived the AAGPBL. His motivation was not women's rights, but money.
Fearing that President Roosevelt would cancel the 1943 major league season because of the war effort, he seized upon the idea of a women's softball league as an alternative means of filling his stadium.
Even then, there was nothing particularly novel about the idea of women playing ball. Time magazine counted 40,000 women's softball teams in 1943, and noted that several barnstormed across the country, courting fans with such hoydenish names as Barney Ross' Adorables and Slapsie Maxie's Curvaceous Cuties.
Wrigley, a stolid moralist, was after something different. He envisioned a league of All-Star Gidgets--hard-nosed ballplayers who dressed and acted the way his Doublemint gum twins would when they came along.
Jane Wyman would have been perfect for the AAGPBL, had she been adept at baseball. Wrigley planned to install franchises in small, Midwestern industrial cities, and promote them as morale-boosting entertainment for war-weary factory workers. In April, 1943, after getting the support of then-Brooklyn Dodger president Branch Rickey, another bottom-line baseball man, he began tryouts at Wrigley Field.
That morning, more than 200 of the nation's top women ballplayers reported to the ballpark. They were shocked to discover that their baseball credentials were almost secondary to their grasp of social skills.
"Every day after practice, Mr. Wrigley sent us to Helena Rubenstein's charm school to learn how to put on makeup, how to put on a coat, and how to get in and out of a car, or chair," recalled Lil Jackson, in Chicago. "Back at the hotel (the Allerton), he made us wear skirts. If you dressed in slacks, you had to use the servants' elevator.
"The whole idea was to make us as 'fem' as possible. Anybody with a boy's haircut was rejected. If you just looked mannish, you weren't accepted."
In the end, not many were. Just 65 players made the final cut. They were divided into four teams of roughly equal ability, and shipped off to Rockford, Ill.; South Bend, Ind., and Kenosha and Racine, Wis., to play the league's 108-game schedule.