Hear that call! The time has come for one and all to Play Ball!
Who doesn’t love the early 90’s movie, “A League of Their Own,” starring Tom Hanks and Geena Davis? If you haven’t watched it, run out to your nearest video store (yes, I am one of those people who still rent DVD’s) … or take the normal route and download or stream it. Without giving too much away, the movie is a depiction of the early days of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) that Philip Wrigley founded after the start of WWII as a way to keep baseball alive while the majority of men were at war.
Watching the movie for the first time as a teen, I imagined being alive during WWII, wondering whether I’d be a Rosie the Riveter type or like Rosie O’Donnell’s foul-mouthed but hilariously funny character. Turns out I am neither of those today but instead am a grantmaker (definitely not foul-mouthed).
Fast-forward to around 2008 when I begin working for the Community Foundation of Elmira-Corning and the Finger Lakes. One of the first grants I remember reading was for the Southport Cinderella Softball League. The applicants intended for the grant help bring back the league after a hiatus of several years. Some committed volunteers from Elmira’s Southside didn’t want to let another year pass without a league for girls who want to learn how to play one of America’s favorite games.
As I read the grant, I couldn’t help but remember the movie, so I did a quick Google search to see if any local women had played in the first female professional baseball league. Success! Clara “Babe” Cook, an Elmira (specifically, Pine City) native, played for the 1943 Rockford (IL) Peaches, one of the league’s premiere teams. This was incredibly fascinating news!
Here’s what I learned: Clara took an early interest in the game and played sandlot ball with her brother and some friends. An employee from the old Remington Rand spotted Clara and urged her parents to let her play ball. After graduating from Southside High School, Clara worked for the Rand and organized a team for the company. It was at that time she was spotted by a AAGPBL scout who invited her to join the league.
One of the original sixty founding members, Clara “Babe” Cook was a lefty pitcher with a 3.40 ERA in 45 innings of work (1944). She played for the Kenosha Comets, Rockford Peaches and the Milwaukee Chicks from 1943 to 1944. While playing for the Milwaukee Chicks (below), Clara and her team mates won the 1944 league championship.
After playing for two years, Clara returned to Elmira and to her job at the Remington Rand. Ten years later, she moved to California, where she worked for an aircraft corporation. Elmira called her back home for retirement, where her passion and love for baseball continued. In Southport, she coached and mentored young women interested in baseball. In 1975, Clara was inducted into the Metro-Elmira Sports Hall of Fame (link to Chemung County Sports Hall of Fame). In 1988, she was part of the unveiling of the permanent display, Women in Baseball, at the Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown, NY.
When I watch the movie now, I have a real sense of pride knowing that one of our own played in the league. One of our own helped to keep baseball relevant and alive for people and families who love the sport during some very dark days. One of our own worked to inspire so many other young girls who played in sandlots on long summer days. I do wonder from time to time about whether Clara was like one of the characters from the movie. (Geena Davis’s character “Dottie” was one of my favorites.) But then I think she was just a girl from Elmira who loved baseball and that is good enough for me.