Baseball has been called America’s pastime, but in 1942 people wondered what would happen to the game. America was at war then and about half the professional baseball players were fighting overseas. Many thought that would be the end of professional baseball at least until the war was over. But Philip K. Wrigley, chewing gum magnate and the owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team had an idea. Women were taking on new roles working in factories producing tanks, ships, and other gear needed for the war effort. Why couldn’t they play baseball Wrigley wondered? He became the force behind the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Ball League (AAGPBL). The League began playing in 1943 and over 500 women would take the field over the twelve seasons of the League’s history. They played baseball, not softball, as the players so often needed to explain.
Diana Star Helmer first wrote about the “girls” of the AAGPBL in her book Belles of the Ballpark published in 1992. Her research included interviews with players. That gave her plenty of anecdotal information to tell a lively story about bus trips, curfews, and the delicate balance between playing hard and acting like ladies, which was expected at the time. The book was named to the New York Public Library’s “Books for the Teen Age” list.
Belles of the Ballpark is now enjoying new life with a second edition released this month by Summer Game Books. Diana’s husband Tom Owens, who is a writer and baseball fan, helped with the new edition which has almost doubled in size. New information includes interviews with players and other people involved with the League. It also includes sections about the researchers who have introduced new generations to the League. I asked Diana some questions about research for her book and how this second edition came to be.
What led to your initial interest in the All-American Girls Professional Ball League?
Our first year out of college (1988, Iowa State University, journalism) Tom was hired as co-editor and I was editorial assistant for Sports Collectors Digest, located in Wisconsin. This had been Girls League territory all those years ago, and Sharon Roepke of nearby Michigan made a set of players’ cards that she sent to the magazine. I remember the SCD ad man sauntering by my desk and tossing the cards down. “You’re a girl. You might be interested in these,” he said, not sounding completely complimentary.
Diana in an authentic game-worn Peoria Redwings uniform in 1990.
Tell us about the research for “Belles.”
Research in the late 1980s meant no internet. If there were no books on your topic (there were none at the time on the AAGPBL) then one dug through library archives for old newspaper clippings. This might mean going to the relevant towns.
Ah, if only we hadn’t moved to Washington state just after I learned of the League, and just before I sold the book idea to a small, fairly new educational publisher for young readers. So, instead of just driving to Racine and Kenosha, as I could have done when working for SCD, I had to fly back.
Luckily, before moving, I had done an SCD article on the League and met the incomparable Anna May Hutchison. She invited me to stay in her home for an entire week after the book deal was sealed, opening not just her home but her heart. Without Hutch, the book would be vastly different and, I believe, suffer for that.
Sharon Roepke started me on this journey with her baseball cards, and was the first person I contacted, via telephone, to learn more. Sharon put me in touch with Anna May. I will always be gratefully in debt to her for that, and for her devoting so much of her life to this story and, by extension, to us.
As someone who likes her husband to be far away and very quiet when I’m writing, I have to ask: What is a typical writing day like when there are two writers at work? Also, how did you handle working together on Belles of the Ballpark?
I wrote the first edition, but I sometimes asked Tom for help on the game-action writing. He has been a life-long baseball fan, and I am a Johnny-come-lately.
We were first asked, “How can you stand working with your SPOUSE?” when we were both hired at SCD. The question is almost invariably accompanied by the claim, “I could never WORK with MY . . .”
For us, it’s always just been part of marriage, and some spots take more getting used to than others. But we have been blessed, for about 25 years now, in having two-story homes where we have had offices on different floors. We retire to our separate corners to work. If one of us has a question or discussion point (or wants company for a snack), we approach the other in his or her room and say, “Can you listen?” Sometimes the answer is, “Yes. What’s on your mind?” Sometimes the answer is “Just a second,” or “Five minutes,” or “Fifteen minutes.” The asker can then decide whether to wait nearby or just leave and try later.
The whole thing has probably been a bit tougher for Tom, who can listen to the radio while he works. I really like silence (well, birds don’t bother me . . .) So, if Tom wants to start cooking when I’m working, he has to do without music or baseball, for the kitchen is on the same floor as my office.
This plan, which we’re still perfecting, worked well for the second edition of “Belles.” We decided what material would be added, then divided the tasks. Each of us researched and wrote what was “ours,” then let the other serve as editor. We have learned, over the years, about our own writing styles (strengths and weaknesses) as well as each other’s. Remembering to apply this knowledge is invaluable! Tom, for example, knows he sometimes switches pronouns, and isn’t upset if I mention it. I will use $2 words when I could do well with ten cents, and I admit it when Tom catches me out.
It’s always great to see an out-of-print book get new life. How did this new edition come about?
In 2014, I decided to start key-punching “Belles” into my current computer. I don’t know why, really. I had recently begun self-publishing on Kindle, and thought it would be nice not to let this book be forgotten.
Two amazingly serendipitous things happened early in 2015. First, Tom discovered a “new” publisher devoted to baseball, Summer Game Books. SGB has done a number of reprints of baseball classics. It seemed like a match made in heaven and, after we got to know them, our hopes proved to be true! We love working with the people there, and they are able to offer marketing and design options that would be difficult for us on our own. The publisher delighted us by issuing the new edition in e-book and paperback.
The second lucky thing is that the film, A League of Their Own, which did not exist until after my book was first written, continues to attract attention. The movie has introduced so many people to the idea of the Girls League over these intervening years. Our publisher, Walter Friedman, has a young daughter who loves the film! The subject of the AAGPBL used to be a complete unknown. Hollywood changed that.
What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
“Write the book you want to read.” Fantastic advice that I’m afraid I cannot credit.