Filmmaker Adam Chu and the National Girls Baseball League
June 28, 2013
You don’t have to spend a lot of time with Adam Chu before you realize he has a healthy obsession with women’s professional softball, past and present.
I met him for the first time last Saturday before a Chicago Bandits game at The Ballpark in Rosemont, where he works as the Coordinator of Ticket Programs for Chicago’s pro softball team. As I approached, Adam was clutching a walkie talkie in each hand and assisting a fan face-to-face outside the Bandits office building at the ballpark gate.
Two hours before game time Adam was busy and enjoying himself.
“Actually seeing people, especially here at the stadium, is like an eye opening experience for me because I’ve been so sheltered the last three years,” he would tell me later.
The sequestration comes as a result of Adam’s day job. When he is not playing the role of ticket attaché for the Bandits, Adam is a documentary filmmaker. His background is in short form but now he is making the leap to feature length films. The project that has consumed him for the past three years is the National Girls Baseball League of the 1940s and 50s.
Never heard of it? Neither had I. Adam is attempting to rescue the league from obscurity and for good reason: it’s an important part of Chicago’s social and cultural history. That’s pretty evident from the innumerable photos, magazines, and press clippings Adam has uncovered—a small fraction of which, held in three large binders, he shared with me during our meeting—as well as interviews he’s conducted with former players and their family members.
The women’s baseball league that lives on in our national memory is the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (of A League of Their Own fame). Unlike the AAGPBL, the game played by teams in the National Girls Baseball League was underhand fast pitch, twelve-inch softball. But for promotional purposes, league operators called Chicago’s pro women’s circuit a “baseball” league.
“The league was strictly Chicago based,” Adam told me, with teams in suburban Des Plaines and Forest Park being trifling exceptions. Games took place at venues like Shewbridge Field and Bidwill Stadium on the South Side, Rock-Ola Stadium on the North Side, and Parichy Stadium in Forest Park.
Adam explained that Chicago in the 1940s, with its large population and rich softball tradition, was the only city in the country that could have sustained its own professional women’s league. “This is Chicago history,” said Adam, adding that college softball players at DePaul or Northwestern and professionals on the Bandits are walking a path forged by the women of the NGBL, who were “so prominent and pioneering in what they did.”
Prominent indeed. At its height, the National Girls League frequently drew thousands of Chicagoans to games, averaging about half a million fans per season following World War II. The NGBL offered higher salaries and required less travel than the Midwest-based AAGPBL, and so the Chicago league attracted ballplayers of the highest caliber.
Notably, the National Girls League welcomed talented players not invited to take part in the All-American League, which excluded women for reasons having nothing to do with their athletic skills.
Adam cited as an example Toni Stone, the famous second baseman of the Negro American League Indianapolis Clowns. Stone, an African American woman, was good enough to play on a men’s professional circuit, but was rejected by the All-American League, which had a reputation for accepting only women of a certain physical type.
“What’s different about [the NGBL] is that in 1951 they had an African American ballplayer; her name was Betty Chapman,” Adam informed me. “Also Nancy Ito, she was a Japanese-American ballplayer. They had Gwen Wong, she was a Chinese-American ballplayer. To me, [the NGBL] was more progressive, more diverse than the All-American League. Because it was all about the game, you know? It didn’t matter what you looked like.”
AAGPBL promoters were interested in maintaining the popularity of men’s baseball during World War II—the war had depleted Major League Baseball of some star power—by hiring attractive ballplayers in an alternative women’s league to appeal to a white male demographic.
According to Adam, discrimination was not limited to race or ethnicity in the All-American League. Freda Savona—maybe the greatest player of her generation—was ignored by the AAGPBL. Savona was white, but didn’t approach the All-American League’s standard for beauty.
When the topic of my talk with Adam shifted to the decline of the National Girls Baseball League, I was surprised to learn that NGBL games were broadcast on television before men’s baseball games in Chicago. In a cruel twist of fate, regularly televised Major League Baseball games would later contribute to the demise of women’s professional softball in the mid-1950s. It was a fate shared by many smaller professional teams and leagues.
“There was a decline in alternative leagues outside of Major League Baseball because that’s when Major League Baseball started with television,” Adam said. “A lot of pro and semi-pro leagues shut down…Fans didn’t have to go to the local ballpark, they just watched baseball on TV.”
The way that Americans experienced and imagined professional sports changed after World War II, to the detriment of female athletes in particular. The only viable professional leagues became televised men’s sports leagues; and through television, home audiences associated pro sports with male athletes. A conservative turn in American mainstream culture, which suggested that a woman’s proper place was in the home, also had an adverse effect on women’s athletics. These institutions would be challenged following the rise of the feminist movement in the 1960s.
Prospects have improved for female athletes in recent years, but Adam seeks to regain more of that old NGBL magic.
“They really had something in the thirties, forties, and fifties with women’s softball. That’s something I’d really like to recapture as far as today’s organizations [like the Bandits].”
Following the interview, I watched the Bandits game from a seat in the front row behind home plate (I happen to know the Coordinator of Ticket Programs). Enthusiastic fans, many of them girls with parents, occupied a good number of the two-thousand seats around me.
It was my first live fast pitch softball game, and I was thoroughly impressed by the velocity and movement of pitches and the quick reaction time required for hitting and fielding. I appreciated the game’s snappy pace compared to men’s baseball—pitchers didn’t hold the ball and hitters remained planted in the batter’s box.
I was told that pitching tends to dominate the game, which is fine with me. But I was pretty excited when I witnessed a Bandits home run!
Dudes dig the long ball.
I watched these women compete and pondered the National Girls Baseball League. I could imagine this sport drawing thousands to Chicago’s ballparks back in the day. And I understood Adam’s enthusiasm for the game and his devotion to unearthing more of its history.
“Three years of my life,” Adam had explained to me earlier, “hours, countless hours, by myself. I have no social life whatsoever.”
Well, maybe I don’t understand it entirely. I can’t wait to see the film though.
Turning Back the Clock on the National Girls Baseball League
September 3, 2013
There was a time when everyone waited for them to take the field and start the show. But hours before events began at the recent Chicago Bandits Turn Back the Clock Game, former players from the National Girls Baseball League were the ones waiting.
Not that anyone minded much. Five women sat in the reception area of the Chicago Bandits office building outside The Ballpark at Rosemont entertaining staff, friends, and family with stories of a bygone era of women’s professional softball in Chicago.
Ann Kmezich Fatovich was a top pitcher for the Queens of the NGBL, a powerhouse team in the early 1950s, and later the Bloomer Girls. Third basewoman Esther Mackey won championships in ’48 and ’53 with the Bloomer Girls and the Maids and enjoyed a devoted fan following known as the “Wackey for Mackey” club.
Standout infielder Joanne “Becky” Beckman played for a number of NGBL teams including the Bloomer Girls, Queens, Rock-Olas, and Belles, and is a member of the Illinois ASA Hall of Fame. Another infield wiz, Irene “Pepper” Kerwin starred for the Bloomer Girls, Belles, and Bluebirds and is recognized by the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame.
Something of an elder stateswoman, Dorothy Gramberg played first base for notable Chicago teams that predated the NGBL in the 1930s and 40s including the Chicago Down Drafts runner-up for World Amateur Title at Soldier Field in 1938.
As the players sat exchanging recollections (about farthest balls hit in Parichy Park and smacking dingers for free boxes of Salerno cookies, for example) to the delight of huddled onlookers, I wished that the camera was rolling to capture the moment.
But unfortunately, Adam Chu was running late.
Adam is a documentary filmmaker whose current project is the National Girls Baseball League (called “baseball” but actually fastpitch softball, as we know it) of the 1940s and 50s. He also works in promotions for the Bandits—Chicago’s professional softball team since 2004.
Adam generally wears one hat or the other, but on Turn Back the Clock day he was donning both at once—preparing for a group interview on film and coordinating events to recognize the women of the NGBL before the Bandits game that evening.
It’d have been understandable if he was feeling a bit overwhelmed, but when Adam arrived with his film equipment and crew, he didn’t show it. He was his normal grinning, jovial self.
“Chris, what’s up my man?” Adam said to me, offering his hand.
My wife Milena and I helped set up the Bandits conference room for the film interview. We spread out over the table pieces of NGBL memorabilia from Adam’s collection, mostly team photographs and old copies of the league’s official magazine.
We were joined by David Frank, whose grandmother Alice Kolski Lundgren was a catcher and pitcher for the mighty Queens teams and NGBL MVP in 1944. Kolski Lundgren passed away in 2011. David was close to her, and has taken a keen interest in his grandmother’s softball past and the National Girls Baseball League, about which he knew little until recently.
David brought some original game balls in protective boxes and his grandmother’s frayed team jacket and uniform—heavy green pants and a thinner white blouse. We arranged these items on the table for the shoot as well.
When the players filed in the conference room I was invited to stay for the interview. Getting these women talking about their athletic careers was not difficult for Adam, even with the camera rolling.
The National Girls Baseball League had once given them semi-celebrity status. These former competitors were eager to recount their time in the limelight, and seemed tickled that we were so eager to listen.
Following World War II, Chicago was not only an international center of meat and steel production, but it’s large population of workers with the desire and money for leisure activities made Chicago a mecca of sports as well. Like the city drew laborers from beyond its borders to fill its factories, also it beckoned to skilled athletes like these women from their homes in other parts of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio.
In Chicago, professional sports paid a decent salary—$65 to $85 a week according to the players interviewed. That was pretty good money considering that much of the players’ boarding, eating, and travel expenses were covered by the teams.
In an era when social opportunities for women were limited, softball provided female athletes with a chance to see the country free of charge,” as Irene Kerwin explained. “I saw every state you can think of,” Joanne Beckman fondly recalled.
For many NGBL players, softball wages helped pay for their continued education at a time when men in college (many of them veterans and beneficiaries of the federal G.I. Bill after the war) outnumbered women by a ratio of more than two to one.
After the league folded, Ann Kmezich Fatovich was hired to work at a local bank, where she signed autographs for patrons who opened new accounts. She attributes her later success as a businesswoman and small business owner to the notoriety and relationships she gained playing professional softball.
There was more Adam wanted to ask these women about their experience, but he was forced to end the interview. He’d planned an autograph session on the ballpark concourse and the guests of honor couldn’t be late.
We had already missed the Chicago Bandits warming up in their throwback NGBL uniforms. Originally, the team was supposed to wear them for the entire game, but the evening’s contest had National Pro Fastpitch championship implications. The old uniforms, while very sharp, apparently weren’t as comfortable to wear. In short, nostalgia is great, but when the game matters, it goes to the laundry.
An hour before game time the players sat down to sign autographs at a long table in front of mounted displays decorated with photos and information about the National Girls Baseball League. I was warmed by the response the players received by Bandits fans, who swarmed them at the autograph kiosk.
The athletes were met with smiles from girls wearing softball jerseys accompanied by their parents. A group of old friends surprised Ann Kmezich Fatovich. And women dressed as players from the movie A League of Their Own showed up to pay homage.
In a particularly moving moment, David Frank introduced his daughters to their great grandmother’s teammates and friends.
After the autograph session the players were escorted onto the field to be honored before the game. It was here, outside of the interview room and on the diamond, that the former players appeared in their element. As the PA announcer introduced them, the women played catch and tossed softballs gently in the air with their throwing hands, anxiously waiting to throw out the game’s ceremonial first pitch.
When the moment came, members of the Chicago Bandits crouched near home plate and the former pros of the National Girls Baseball League whipped in perfect strikes. And as the Bandits players rose, walked to the pitcher’s mound, and met their counterparts of an earlier generation with smiles and hugs, there was a sense of continuity.
During the meeting on the mound, a passenger airliner from nearby O’Hare Airport roared past above and I watched it soar over the automobile traffic on two major interstates just beyond the ballpark’s outfield wall.
The women of the NGBL played the game in a different era, mostly in neighborhood parks in an industrial city; huge commercial airports and sprawling expressways wouldn’t be the norm until decades later. And while the NGBL dissolved in 1954, the village of Rosemont, a product of modern transportation developments and home to The Ballpark where the Bandits play, wasn’t incorporated until 1956.
If this moment was about continuity, it was also about change.
As our group watched the Bandits game following the ceremony, I had a chance to speak with Adam briefly. He was a bit down because the interview was cut short and some other little things hadn’t gone as planned.
“Don’t sweat it,” I told him, as I scanned the row of former NGBL players seated in front of me.
For participants in the moment, immediate concerns necessarily outweigh the realization of its larger significance.
But moments are fleeting; we come to understand their importance in hindsight.