Brawls and broken bones featured in AAGPBL early years

One of the better known photos of the AAGPBL is a set up of Marie Wegman with her finger in the face of umpire Norris Ward, taken at 1948 spring training in Opa-locka, Florida when Wegman was playing for the Fort Wayne Daisies. Marie Wegman and umpire Norris Ward at AAGPBL spring training in Opa-Locka, Florida 1948

It’s funny and it’s intended to be, but it ignores the nastier side of confrontations during AAGPBL games, especially when the stakes were high.

In 1943, the new All-American Girls Softball League was all about getting fan support, and intense rivalries and volatile tempers produced the sort of theatre on the diamond that attracted crowds.

Unfortunately, it could also get argumentative managers and hothead players thrown out of the game – or even worse.

Umpires could also recommend that the individual be fined. Johnny Gottselig, Racine Belles coach, once told reporters that he had received notices of $25 or $50 deductions from his paycheque for ‘umpire fines’ without knowing which umpire and which incident had led to the penalties.

Players’ fines tended to reflect their smaller paycheques. On one occasion, Gottselig was fined $60 for arguing with an umpire while one of his players involved in the same dispute was fined only $5.

Grand Rapids Chicks, AAGPBL, night game, arguing with umpire

Can’t see clearly under stadium lights? Tough! Make better calls.

Sanctions were unevenly applied in other ways, especially when the mouthy manager was someone who habitually complained.  Johnny Gottselig was kicked out of a game for smoking in his own dugout, an act frowned on in the major leagues, but not against the rules in the girls’ league.

It was a decision that earned the umpire a lot of finger-shaking in the press for “silly” decisions.

In a late June game in 1943 between the league-leading South Bend Blue Sox and the Kenosha Comets, both teams were jockeying for position.

South Bend’s Bert Niehoff and Kenosha’s Josh Billings both harangued Umpire Al Gembler. Billings, who according to news reports provided some “caustic remarks from the bench to those he had tossed at the umpire a few minutes before,” must have been a final straw for the hapless umpire who ejected him from the game.

In the next inning, Comets’ catcher Helen Westerman joined her manager when she sassed umpire Charlie Ullenberg about a close play.

“The Comets were fit to be tied by this time,” said the news report, “and more of them stormed and raged at both umpires, but none of the others got the bounce.”

Things came to a head in the 8th inning, when the Comets’ Mary Lester tried to steal third with two down. Blue Sox third baseman Lois Florreich caught a throw from catcher Mary Baker that put Lester out.

But Florreich had stepped directly in the path of the runner to do it, and the resultant crash knocked her cold. She stayed in the game, however, and South Bend won 3-2, maintaining its lead in the standings.

Havoc reigned in the bleachers as well as on the field

It wasn’t just on the field that tempers flared. Fans could get out of control too.

By late August of 1943, the big question was who would win the second half of the season to play the first-half champions, the Racine Belles, for the year’s championship?

South Bend was in the lead when they met the Rockford Peaches for a five-game series on the Peaches’ turf.  South Bend won the first three games and local fans blamed the umpires.

The Kenosha News reporter wrote that umpire Charles Ullenberg made some “weird decisions.” He ejected Gladys ‘Terrie’ Davis, the Rockford shortstop, from the first game of a double header, and then sent her to the bench in the second game for protesting a called third strike.  (Davis, it should be remembered, was on her way to becoming league batting champion.)

It was at that point that the bottle tossing started, the reporter wrote, the fans desisting only when [Peaches] Manager Eddie Stumpf appealed to them to stop.

On the following day, fans worked up a head of steam over a number of umpire decisions until the 9th inning when South Bend’s Mabel Holle hit a line drive to the Peaches’ Milly Warwick at third. Warwick whipped the ball to first trying to get South Bend’s Johanna Hageman out, but miscalculated and overthrew.

Mabel Holle played left field for Kenosha Comets in 1943 before moving to the South Bend Blue Sox

Mabel Holle’s hit in the final inning of a close game sparked a series of plays that resulted in a near riot.

The umpires allowed Hageman to continue to third base. She later scored the winning run to ensure South Bend maintained its front-runner status.

“The crowd surged on to the field,” the newspaper reported. “Later they waylaid Ullenberg and Porter en route to the dressing room and the management had to spirit the two umpires away from the field to avoid further violence.”

Umpires criticized from all sides

It seems that everyone blamed the umpires. The Racine newspaper wrote in 1944 that “umpiring in the girls’ pro league at times drops to a ridiculous level…” And after the season ended, at a meeting of officials of the four original clubs, League president Ken Sells and new owner Arthur Meyerhoff, it was noted that League management was responsible for improving the calibre of umpires.

The umpires were defensive. Bob Kober, who began working League games after 10 years umpiring in the minors, told a reporter that umpiring the girls’ game was more difficult than working mens’ games.

The girls’ game, he said, was faster because of the shorter distances and with the underhand pitch “the ball seems to come out of the ground.” The shorter base lines and slower ball means “ball and runner get there about the same time. An umpire can’t loaf a minute,” he said.ehab

Whatever the reason for what League management considered unseemly behaviour, especially from its players, things were going to get worse before they got better. That story next time.

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About Lois Browne

I'm a mystery writer, blogger and traveller.
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