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Filmmaker Adam Chu and the National Girls Baseball League

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, no rx pharm past and present.\n\nI met him for the first time last Saturday before a Chicago Bandits game at The Ballpark in Rosemont, clinic 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.\n\nTwo hours before game time Adam was busy and enjoying himself.\n\n“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.\n\nThe 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.\n\nNever heard of it?  Neither had I.  Adam is attempting to rescue the league from obscurity and for good reason: it’s is 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.\n\nThe 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.\n\n“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 Bidwell Stadium on the South Side, Rock-Ola Stadium on the North Side, and Parichy Stadium in Forest Park.\n\nAdam 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.\”\n\nProminent 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.\n\nNotably, 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.\n\nAdam 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.\n\n“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.”\n\nAAGPBL 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.\n\nAccording 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.\n\nWhen 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.\n\n\”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.”\n\nThe 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.\n\nProspects have improved for female athletes in recent years, but Adam seeks to regain more of that old NGBL magic.\n\n\”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].\”\n\nFollowing 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.\n\nIt 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.\n\nI 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!\n\nDudes dig the long ball.\n\nI 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.\n\n“Three years of my life,” Adam had explained to me earlier, “hours, countless hours, by myself.  I have no social life whatsoever.”\n\nWell, maybe I don’t understand it entirely.  I can’t wait to see the film though.\n

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\nAdam Chu seeks funding to complete his National Girls Baseball League film project.  Please visit the website and help recover this part of Chicago history.\n\nAnd please make plans to join Adam and the Chicago Bandits on Saturday, August 17 for a throwback game at The Ballpark in Rosemont, IL.  The teams will be donning NGBL uniforms.  More details about the event to come.  Purchase tickets now.

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3 comments

  1. Tracy Willis

    Grandview Village Retirement home has a 92 year old resident named Dorothy (Wright) Roth who is a former professional pitcher and first basemen and left fielder for the 1945 Parichy Bloomer Girls of the National Girls Baseball League, got some practice in with Q13 Fox News sports anchor Aaron Levine. Q13 will air the story on July 22 or 23, two days before she throws out the first pitch at the Seattle Mariners game (7/24). Check out http://www.villageconcepts.com or the VIllage Concepts Facebook page for a video of her “in training.” — in Marysville, WA.

  2. Elena Wayne

    My Mother in Law was a member of the Chicago Downdrafts. she is 92 and has great news clippings and stories. Her name is Jeanette Feuerstein Wayne.