The Philadelphia Phillies open this season with hopes it will be a big step forward in its years-long rebuilding process. The Phillies’ five-season run of sustained success, from 2007 to 2011, may be a distant memory after six seasons playing sub-.500 baseball, but it’s largely seen as the most successful stretch of professional baseball in the city’s history—rivaled only by the run from 1976 to 1983 that brought the Phillies their first-ever World Series Championship in 1980.
Absent from that conversation, when it’s held by Millennials, Gen Xers and even some Boomers, however, are two periods of professional Philadelphia baseball that were objectively far better. Between 1910 and 1914, the Philadelphia Athletics went to four World Series, winning three of them. They returned to the game’s biggest stage each year from 1929 to 1930, winning twice more.
And while the Peaches and Chicks she played for from 1947-1954 may have called Rockford, Illinois and Grand Rapids, Michigan, their respective homes, Argus, Pennsylvania native Ruth Richard also was part of an era of professional baseball so successful that most Phillies fans wouldn’t even dare to dream of it. Richard made seven pro ball playoff appearances during that span, winning a whopping four championships. Of course, she didn’t do it as a Major Leaguer. She did it as a member of the league commonly known as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).
Richard, now a Sellersville, PA resident, showed up to an Allentown AAGPBL tryout along with more than 200 other women in 1946 shortly after she graduated high school. Along with fellow Sellersville resident Gert Alderfer, Richard made the cut. The league folded after the ’54 season, and its memory, along with Richard’s part in it, was largely forgotten to time. Forgotten, that is, until Geena Davis portrayed a semi-fictionalized version of Richard in 1992’s A League of Their Own.
William “Liam” Kelly, a Bucks County baseball historian who once worked with the since-collapsed Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society, has had the opportunity to get to know Richard and some of the other women who inspired the movie. When the film’s version of the league gets off the ground, the players are ridiculed by fans for being women trying to play what was, ostensibly, a man’s game. But Kelly says this derision was, along with the sibling rivalry and love story, part of Hollywood’s efforts to dramatize the story. Hollywood got most of it right, though, including the uniforms.
“When they played around the country, there probably wasn’t a lot of resistance,” says Kelly. “There still was Major League Baseball, but people enjoyed the female players. One of the things I said to [Richard] was I know when the men played they had these heavy uniforms, and you ladies were playing in skirts. That had to hurt when you were sliding into a base. They had a lot of raspberries from playing ball, but they were some pretty tough ladies, and I think some pretty good hitters.”
How good were the best female big leaguers? Well, Bill Hockenbury spent some time playing in the Athletics’ farm system and even rode the pines for a bit with the big club during the same era the AAGPBL was active, but it was Hockenbury’s mother who may have been the best athlete in the family.
“He had a great sense of humor,” Kelly recalls of the late Hockenbury. “A heckler said, ‘Your mother was a better ball player than you were.’ And he agreed with him, said she was.”
Hockenbury’s mother had played for a pro Philadelphia women’s team (the Bobbies) that existed long before even the AAGPBL. In A League of Their Own, candy magnate Walter Harvey—a stand-in for real-world chewing gum tycoon Philip K. Wrigley—is one of the team owners who founds the AAGPBL to keep baseball popular while many of their male MLB counterparts are away fighting in World War II. That’s largely true to life, but the Bobbies were part of another pro women’s league, and Mary Hockenbury was far from its only player of note. Joining the team at only 10 years old in 1922 was North Philadelphia native Edith Houghton.
Houghton and the Bobbies weren’t just some local curios, either. “They had traveled to Europe and played in Japan, and they played a lot of games against men’s teams,” says Kelly. “She was that good. She was a baseball phenom.”
Baseball was a major part of Houghton’s life, and she even made it to the Majors. In 1946, the Phillies shocked the baseball world by hiring Houghton as MLB’s first female scout. She would stay in that position through 1952, signing 15 players to Phillies contracts. Houghton scooped up most of those players from Philadelphia high school teams. Around the same time, AAPGBL scouts were discovering and recruiting ballplayers from high schools around the country. Once there, however, they didn’t quite enjoy the same creature comforts their male counterparts, especially those of the modern era, would.
Kelly says the women’s travel arrangements involved “buses with no air conditioning and sometimes they would actually stay at people’s homes in the towns they stayed in. People would invite them, and they stayed there or at like a bed and breakfast-type thing. They didn’t have four-star hotels.
“Besides all the teams they had in the league, they also had a traveling team, and the traveling team would play a pretty rigorous schedule just like the league teams did. They played almost daily during the season.”
A League of Their Own was able to capture this reality so faithfully because it relied on Lavone A. “Pepper” Paire Davis, an AAGPBL player from 1944-1953, as a consultant. The late Paire spent a couple of seasons with the Racine Belles, who best the Peaches for the league championship in the movie. The Peaches, you recall, were the team Ruth Richard spent most of her career with. And what a career it was.
“Yeah, they won the championship a few times, and I guess the Peaches were like the Yankees,” says Kelly of Ruth’s Peaches and their four-championship dynasty. “They were so talented, and everybody wanted to be on their team, but they couldn’t all be on there. They had somehow been better than most of the other teams in the league, and Ruth played ’47 to ’54.”
As it is with most catchers, the game was not gentle on Richard, now 89 years old.
“She has had, I think, both hips replaced, both knees replaced and one shoulder,” says Kelly. “She’s the bionic woman. I think she’s 87 now, but she’s had all parts replaced, which is understandable because she was a catcher, and being a catcher is one of the hardest roles in baseball.”
If they wanted to play professional hardball, however, the women had to be ready to deal with, well, hard circumstances. The pay wasn’t great. The travel was brutal—one team that toured Central America had a schedule of 15 games in 15 days before getting some time off—and the accommodations were poor. The pay was a far cry from the tens of millions today’s MLB players make or even from the approximately $5,000 the Philadelphia Athletics of the time tended to pay their players annually. But it wasn’t about the money or the fame for these women. It was about love of the game, with many players transitioning into various softball leagues after their time playing pro hardball came to an end.
“If it’s something you do and you love it, it’s hard to give up,” says Kelly, who adds that Philadelphia Athletics player Gus Zernial knew it was time to call it quits when he overheard some kids trading 10 of his baseball cards for one of Mickey Mantle. “I can understand athletes, when they stay well beyond their career, just hanging around. It’s just hard to give up.”
Much of the core of the 2018 Phillies features players like Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins and J.P. Crawford are young enough that they’re unlikely to have to dwell much on knowing when it’s time to hang it up for years to come yet. But those days will come for each of them, eventually. When they do, they—and Philadelphia baseball fans everywhere—should be so lucky as to have experienced the kind of success the Philadelphia Athletics or the Rockford Peaches did in their heydays. Or to go on to be honored the way the entirety of the AAGPBL players were in 1988 when they were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Before her passing at 88 in 2013, Paire Davis remembered that feeling. “I know what it’s like for your dream to come true. Mine did.”