July 25, 2016

Mostly clear

Hall of Famer entertains crowd in Westfield Center

WESTFIELD CENTER — Lois Youngen was in a league of her own Thursday evening at LeRoy United Methodist Church.

Looking like she could still get behind the plate and catch a perfect game, the vibrant 79-year-old entertained about three-dozen listeners with stories from her four-year playing career in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Lois Youngen

“We were expected to look like Betty Grable and play ball like Joe DiMaggio,” said Youngen, a 1951 LeRoy High graduate who last week was formally inducted into the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame.

To illustrate her point, Youngen told how skirts designed by the wife of league founder Philip Wrigley — and depicted in the movie “A League of Their Own” — got shorter every season.

Not because the players were trying to lure more male fans — though that was never discouraged — but because the shorter the skirt, the easier it was to execute baseball fundamentals.

“It was obvious Mrs. (Ada) Wrigley had never played baseball,” Youngen said. “Every time you bent over (to field a ground ball), all you got was skirt. If you’re playing second base, that’s not good.”

By the time Youngen started her career in 1951 — the league was founded in 1943 — the skirts had gotten so short they barely went past the waist, with tights on underneath them.

“We developed the mini-skirt,” Youngen said. “Don’t let anyone tell you different.”

Largely a fan of “A League of Their Own,” Youngen said players almost never slid headfirst, like Madonna did repeatedly in the movie.

“How dumb was Madonna to do this?” she said with a laugh. “Her chest was valuable.”

Youngen, who went on to a 36-year teaching and coaching career at the University of Oregon, told dozens of stories like that to a captive audience.

A number of those in attendance were childhood friends from the Burbank area, with Youngen, who now lives in Eugene, Ore., calling virtually all of them by name as they arrived.

In a question-and-answer period after her hour-long talk, Youngen said she made $55 a week all four years she played, which ended up being enough for her to pay for four years of college. She said the superstars in the league made upwards of $500 a month.

All players got $3 a day meal money while on the road, and since a good pot roast cost between $1.25 and $1.50, players could “squeak out 35 cents spending money” if they were crafty.

That savings, of course, was offset by the hassle of buying baseball equipment, which wasn’t easy because nothing was designed for women at that time.

“Louisville Slugger did not buy us 500 bats for the year,” Youngen said. “You walked into a store, you tried ’em out and you bought one.”

A catcher who stood about 5-foot-4, it was even more difficult for Youngen to find shin guards, chest protectors and masks that fit her properly.

“I had bits of shin guards and lots of duct tape,” she said. “Nothing was made for women.”

Youngen, who caught the last perfect game in AAGPBL history, played for the Fort Wayne Daisies, South Bend Blue Sox and Kenosha Comets, with players on those teams traveling by bus on road trips.

When the bus driver stopped at a truck stop for a bathroom break, all players had to put on a skirt before exiting, even if it was 3 a.m.

“We were never, ever, ever, ever allowed to be seen in a pair of blue jeans,” Youngen said.

On the positive side, the teams stayed at the best hotels in the small towns in which they played.

“I have a few towels to prove it,” Youngen said.

Youngen centered much of her talk around “A League of Their Own,” a movie she said the AAGPBL players union sold the rights to for $100,000.

While the film made millions, it also immortalized the approximate 550 women who played in the league. All are now recognized in an exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

“As women, we always thought big,” Youngen said. “We said, ‘We’re going for the Hall of Fame.”

Hall proprietors originally tried to honor just the stars of the league, but the AAGPBL would have none of that.

“When we played, our motto was, ‘One for all and all for one,’” Youngen said. “We said, ‘You’re either going to take all 550 of us or none at all.’”

Of the women who played in the league, less than 200 are still alive, so surviving members like Youngen are doing their best to pass on the AAGPBL’s history to younger athletes.

“Most of the girls in the league probably would have rather played ball than eaten,” she said. “Getting paid was just a bonus.

“We really did love to play. That meant everything to us.”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.