Column: At 94, Maybelle Blair is still in a league of her own
Before the coronavirus pandemic descended, Maybelle Blair’s schedule was full of speeches, ceremonial first pitches and tournaments where she inspired young girls — and not-so-young girls — to find their place in baseball.
Blair, who briefly played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — of “A League of Their Own” fame — loved to go anywhere to tell anyone who’d listen about the wondrous opportunities baseball offers girls and women. She unspooled stories with a feisty and funny spirit, distinctive for her warm smile and a cane fashioned out of a baseball bat.
She loved teaching and sharing her memories, but she had a bigger purpose: She had a museum to get built for the International Women’s Baseball Center. Blair, who lives in Sunset Beach, envisioned a place where women’s baseball can celebrate its past, nurture its present and anticipate the future. There are architects’ renderings for a campus on donated land in Rockford, Ill., across from where the Rockford Peaches played, but there are no buildings, and the pandemic has prevented her from getting out to raise funds and awareness.
Sitting idle at home was never her style. Still isn’t, as she approaches her 94th birthday on Saturday.
“I’ve got to move,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “I hope to God that I can get the shovel going into the ground before I’m on the other side of the grass because I’ve got to live long enough to see this happen.”
Kat Williams, a professor at Marshall University and author of two books on women’s baseball, shares Blair’s urgency.
“She certainly keeps us moving, to say the least,” said Williams, who helped found the nonprofit IWBC “over pizza and beer,” and is now the organization’s president.
“She is our driving force for sure, and the driving force behind this project, but I think one of the things that gets lost in her humor and bluster is her absolute dedication to the young girls who are playing and want to play the game today, want to be part of the game. She’s not just leaving a legacy, she’s creating one.”
“We need a museum and a hall of fame of our own, just like ‘A League of their Own.’”
— Maybelle Blair
The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., features a permanent exhibit on women’s contributions on and off the field. The exhibit opened in 1988 and initially focused on the AAGPBL, which existed from 1943-54 to provide diversion while many Major League players were serving in World War II. The women’s stories inspired Penny Marshall to direct “A League of Their Own,” which was released in 1992. The Hall updated the exhibit in 2006.
The IWBC’s plans include batting cages, pitching areas, an umpires’ school and an activities building. Two of nine planned commemorative pylons have been unveiled, one in 2019 honoring Marshall — who died in 2018 — and the other in 2020 honoring Black American women’s contributions to baseball. One of the those honorees, Effa Manley, is a member of the Hall for her role as an owner of the Newark Eagles of the Negro Leagues.
“Some of our women would like to be inducted in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Well, we don’t belong there. There’s no way we earned the right to be in there” as players, Blair said. “In my opinion, we need a museum and a hall of fame of our own, just like ‘A League of Their Own.’
“There’s no way we could compete with men in baseball. There’s no way. But what we do need is a way to give our girls a chance to play the sport that they love also.”
She’d love to see a women’s pro baseball league modeled on the WNBA, and she applauds every gain women make in sports. When Kim Ng was appointed general manager of the Miami Marlins, the first woman to hold that title in the majors, Blair said, “I felt almost as if it was me that got it. We don’t want any token jobs. If we earn it, yes, and Kim Ng has earned it. We can go in the front offices. We can write. We can broadcast. We can be umpires.”
Blair grew up in Inglewood, where she trailed her older brother to baseball practice. Occasionally she was allowed to play right field. She had a strong arm and was a good enough hitter to play for semi-pro softball teams in Burbank and Pasadena. In 1948, Max Carey, a former Dodgers manager who managed in the AAGPBL and became the league’s president, signed her to play in Peoria, Ill. And, yes, as in “League of Their Own,” the players wore skirts that might have been attractive but were eminently impractical.
Spurs assistant Becky Hammon was prepared when she became the first woman to serve as an NBA head coach after Gregg Popovich was ejected against L.A.
“The worst thing about it is we didn’t have any sliding pads, so we had strawberries on our rear ends,” Blair said. “In fact, you could probably still pick gravel out of my rear end from sliding.
“We didn’t quit. Nowadays, ballplayers, they break a fingernail and they’re on the DL list for a month.”
Injuries limited her to one game with the Peoria Redwings. “I had hurt my legs, and as you know, a pitcher has to be able to get off that mound and put pressure on them,” she said. “I had Charley horses and I couldn’t get rid of them.”
She played softball for a while and was eventually hired by Northrop Aircraft (now Northrop Grumman), where she became transportation manager. She was the company’s third female manager. “I’ve been so proud of that,” she said. “Sports, I think, does that for girls. They learn how to be on a team. They learn how to get along and how to win and how to lose. I can’t stand to lose, but if you do lose, you’ve got to lose gracefully.”
Perry Barber has been an umpire since 1981 and is among the few female umpires to have worked at most levels, including major league spring training games. She met Blair at a convention “and was starstruck.” They have since become friends and board members of the IWBC. “It’s hard to keep up with her. She’d close down the bars when everybody else says, ‘I’ve got to go to sleep.’ She’d say, ‘One more grasshopper,’ ” Barber said.
“Maybelle has plenty of stories about growing up in Los Angeles. She has this shtick, basically. I’ve probably heard it 200 times and it’s just as funny the 200th time as it is the first time I ever heard it.”
Blair was a consultant to a pilot for a TV reboot of “A League of Their Own,” which in August was approved for a series produced by Sony Pictures television. “It was quite wonderful what they’re doing, sort of getting it modernized type thing,” she said.
Anticipation of that is helping her get through the pandemic-induced isolation. So is social media, where she started a Facebook campaign to raise $9,400 for the museum by her birthday. As of Friday, she had raised more than $11,750.
She has a museum to get built, and she will find a way to do it. “I’ve got a lot of stories,” she said. “You know what it is, I get so excited, I can hardly handle myself when I talk about what can be.”
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