On a snowy April day in 1943, a high school sophomore from a working-class family in Flint, Mich., tried out for the major leagues. The big-city scouts were impressed and picked the lightning-quick teen on the spot — skirt and all.
A month later, just a day shy of 18, Sophie Kurys signed a contract to play for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the groundbreaking women's league featured in the 1992 film "A League of Their Own."
Kurys, 87, who was famous for her gutsy base-stealing prowess and swiped a stunning 1,114 bases, died Feb. 17 from complications following surgery at Scottsdale Osborn Hospital near her Arizona home, said her niece, Patricia Urchike.
Kurys played eight seasons for the All-American Girls league, founded in 1943 by chewing-gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley, who feared baseball's profile would wane as male players were shipped off to serve in World War II. From the start, the league played a fast-paced game, allowing base stealing.
The game was made for Kurys.
Dubbed the "Flint Flash" for her speed, Kurys played mostly for the Racine Belles and was known for her quick instincts and uncanny ability to judge the best moment to steal a base. "I just loved to get on base and get something going," she said in 1986, when she was inducted into the Greater Flint Area Sports Hall of Fame. She usually did, stealing 80% of the time she was on base and leading the league in base-stealing seven years in a row.
"She knew the game inside and out," Ann Batikis, who played with the Racine Belles in 1945, told The Times. Kurys taught Batikis the hook slide, her signature feet-first move designed to avoid a catcher's tag.
It wasn't always easy to execute. The league, which made charm school and beauty lessons mandatory, also required players to wear skirts.
"They wanted us to look like Marilyn Monroe and play like Joe DiMaggio," Kurys told the Associated Press in 2003. Her bare legs were often purple in the cold Chicago air, or black and blue from sliding into home bare-skinned.
Despite this, Kurys set a record in 1946 for bases stolen in a single season – 201 out of 203 attempts – a record that remains unbroken in professional baseball.
She capped that season with a game against the Rockford Peaches, which put her on first base at the bottom of the 14th inning in a no-hitter. In signature fashion, she dashed to second, rounded third and, when a short hit dropped to the infield, she slid hard into home plate, away from the tag, to win the league championship and the Most Valuable Player award.
"I have replayed that 1946 game a thousand times," she told the Racine Journal Times in 2011.
Sophie Mary Kurys was born in Flint on May 14, 1925, to Antony Kurys, an autoworker who immigrated from Ukraine, and Antonina Kurys, who was born in Poland.
The youngest of five children, Sophie grew up playing baseball with her brothers in an empty neighborhood lot. By age 10, she could throw the ball farther than any boy on the block.
Her ability to escape chores irked her two older sisters. "They wanted to know why they had to do the dishes and I didn't," Kurys recalled in 1986. "But Mom would let me play because she saw I had some talent."
In grade school and junior high, she proved a versatile athlete, excelling in track, basketball and softball. She did odd jobs during high school to help her family, at one point cleaning houses each day before school.
At 17, she dropped out of school and left Michigan for the first time to attend league training in Chicago. Assigned to the Racine Belles, she later recalled her reaction: "Racine? God, where's Racine?"
She spent nearly 30 years in the Wisconsin town and worked as a secretary at a machine parts manufacturer after leaving baseball in 1950. She bought a house there, eventually rose to vice president of the company, and retired to Scottsdale in 1972. She later earned her high-school equivalency diploma.
Fans never forgot her formidable talent, and she received baseball cards with autograph requests weekly. She always obliged, sometimes requesting the recipient send a donation to one of her many favorite charities in return.
"Baseball has been very good to me," she said in 1992 in the Flint Journal. "I don't know where I'd be today if I didn't play ball."
She is survived by nieces and nephews.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times