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Turning Back the Clock on the National Girls Baseball League

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, here store former players from the National Girls Baseball League were the ones waiting.\n\nNot 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.\n\nAnn 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.\n\nStandout 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.\n\nSomething 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.\n\nAs 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.\n\nBut unfortunately, Adam Chu was running late.\n\nAdam 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.\n\nAdam 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.\n\nIt’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.\n\n“Chris, what’s up my man?” Adam said to me, offering his hand.\n\nMy 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.\n\nWe 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.\n\nDavid 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.\n\nWhen 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.\n\nThe 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.\n\nFollowing 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.\n\nIn 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.\n\nIn 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.\n\nFor 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.\n\nAfter 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.\n\nThere 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.\n\nWe 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 conformable to wear.  In short, nostalgia is great, but when the game matters, it goes to the laundry.\n\nAn 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.\n\nThe 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.\n\nIn a particularly moving moment, David Frank introduced his daughters to their great grandmother’s teammates and friends.\n\nAfter 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.\n\nWhen 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.\n\nDuring 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.\n\nThe 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.\n\nIf this moment was about continuity, it was also about change.\n\nAs 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.\n\n“Don’t sweat it,” I told him, as I scanned the row of former NGBL players seated in front of me.\n\nFor participants in the moment, immediate concerns necessarily outweigh the realization of its larger significance.\n\nBut moments are fleeting; we come to understand their importance in hindsight.

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