They were star athletes before they played pro ball

As players were signed to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, they began a rigorous period of training to prepare them for their new life on the ball field and off.

Chicago sports pages were filled with stories of the League’s long-term plans, the girls’ uniforms and ‘charm school’ sessions, the team managers pulled from the ranks of the major leagues, the towns that would host the first four teams and, incidentally, the girls’ workouts on the baseball diamond.

As part of the pre-season hype, one newspaper began a series of profiles of individual players, illustrating in the process why many of these young women succeeded so well in graduating from amateur softball to professional baseball.  One can also find the motivation for the articles in the byline of the writer — Alma Overholt, Wrigley Company Staff.

The series began with Ann Harnett, the first player signed to the new league. The headline read ‘World’s Outstanding Third Baseman, S-B [Softball] Loop Mainstay.’  (At some point in her career, she picked up the nickname ‘Toots’, but that may have been later because it isn’t mentioned in the May 1943 article.)

Ann Harnett, AAGPBL player

Ann Harnett showing off her at-bat form.

Ann was from Chicago, ‘born a ballplayer.’ In her high chair, wrote Overholt, toddler Ann ‘kept a ball tucked under one arm as she ate with the other. To remove it brought screams of protest.’

Ann Harnett reportedly chose her own high school, the Immaculata Girls’ School, far enough away that she had to leave at 6:00 in the morning, and resisted pleas by her parents to go somewhere in the neighbourhood. The reason for her choice? Immaculata had a beautiful gym and fine athletic equipment.

At Immaculata she was for three years captain of the all-star basketball team, for four years captain of the volleyball team; won the junior and senior badminton title in both doubles and singles; was an officer of the student body all four years and sergeant at arms during her senior year.

Before she signed with the league, Ann played softball ‘on practically every championship team,’…and was drafted to play with the Montgomery V8s for the world’s championship in Chicago at Soldier’s Field.

No profile of a player was complete without a summary of all their other tastes and talents. In Ann’s case, she was described as ‘a stately girl with honey colored hair and smiling blue eyes’ who  favored sporty or severely tailored clothes.

Harnett making coffee

Harnett making coffee using her unique recipe, which the reporter managed to link to the war effort.

She has a fondness for opera although she enjoys good jitterbug dancing. She is a marvelous whistler. Another accomplishment is coffee-making. Her favorite recipe calls for an egg broken over the dry grounds mixed to a paste and freshly boiled water poured over them. It makes the coffee go further too, these ration days, she says.

Not included in Overholt’s article was the fact that Harnett helped with recruitment of other softball players in 1943, and supposedly she had a hand in designing the League uniforms. Her last year playing professional baseball was with the 1947 Peoria Redwings. One source has it that she became a nun but there seems to be no further reliable knowledge of her life after she left the League.

The second player featured was Clara Schillace, billed as the ‘wing-footed outfielder’ and ‘softball heroine.’

Schillace as a child beat her brother in a race and he decided that any girl who could beat him running should be in the Olympics.

So the family started to train Clara, first in the 50 and 100-yard dashes. Her father put heavy work shoes on her feet during her workouts on the track. Brother Joe appointed himself ‘manager’ and staged an exhibition race against Helen Stephen, Olympic champion….Later she … reached the finals in the Women’s National meet.

Clara Schillace, AAGPBL player, outfielder

Clara Schillace was one of the first four women signed by the League. She left after the 1946 season to marry and become a full-time educator.

Clara, reveals the writer, is a teacher, a supervisor of physical education for four schools in St Charles, two grade schools, a junior high and a high school. 

“The youngsters idolize her.”

While she was at Northern Illinois State Teachers’ College, Clara was president of the Women’s Athletic club and she played field hockey, basketball, tennis, golf, badminton, swam, bowled and was a star at archery.

Clara Schillace, AAGPBL player, catching ball in mid-air

Clara Schillace, talented outfielder, makes an easy catch.

“Her ambition is to receive a doctor’s degree in physical education, then to settle down and raise a flock of youngsters of her own.”

In fact, she essentially did realize that goal. After the 1946 season, Clara Schillace married and became Claire Donahoe. She earned a master’s degree in education and followed her husband, an international development worker, to Germany, Iran, Ethiopia and Bolivia where she taught school, had three sons and a daughter and coached softball.

Clara Schillace died in 1999 at the age of 76.

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About Lois Browne

I'm a mystery writer, blogger and traveller.
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One Response to They were star athletes before they played pro ball

  1. E Wayne says:

    My Mother In Law Jeanette Feuerstein Wayne played in Soldier Field with the Montgomery V8’s and on a couple of other teams including the Chicago Downdrafts. She also was a friend of Clara Schillace and attended college with her. They often came into town to play on the weekends.

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