Results tagged ‘ Philip K. Wrigley ’

From the Pages of Vine Line: Wrigley Field and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League

Women-play-ball-at-Cubs-Park

The following article appears in the June issue of Vine Line. The Cubs will salute the girls of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Friday at Wrigley Field.

With her glove in hand and her head on a swivel, a young woman from Cincinnati stood on hallowed baseball ground and awaited her big break in a steady rain.

Crack! A batter pummeled a fly ball that soared to her left, and the 22-year-old sprinted after it in the wet grass. Crack! Another ball sailed to her right, and she lunged. Crack! Yet another flew high over her head, and the gifted athlete took off once again.

“You had to run about a mile to get the ball,” said retired schoolteacher Betsy Jochum with a chuckle. “It was quite a thrill to try out on that field.”

That field, of course, was Wrigley Field, and those fundamental drills triggered a movement that would dispel the popular notion that girls were not cut out for sports. Jochum was among a group of women trying out for 60 spots in the newly formed All-American Girls Softball League, according to the Chicago Tribune.

It was 1943, and as big league baseball clubs ceded talent to the war effort, front offices scrambled to fill the void. Scouts were dispatched to the coasts, Midwestern cornfields and even Canada to mold a new league. The ballplayers—some still in their teens—came by train and were run ragged on the field. Dreams were made, hearts were broken, fans were entranced, and a rocketing 12-inch softball cracked the old boys’ club wide open.

“At the time, we were just having a lot of fun playing,” Jochum, now 93 years old, said in a telephone interview from her home in South Bend, Indiana. “Later on, they told us we were pioneers.”

* * * *
The plan was hatched for practical, decidedly unromantic reasons. Executives simply needed a way to fill stadium seats.

Chicago Cubs owner and team president Philip K. Wrigley, a business-minded numbers man, found himself staring at a deficit in 1942. The front lines of World War II were plucking MLB’s best and brightest from the rosters, and Wrigley knew that old-timers, nobodies, rookies and the 4-F would hardly excite his fan base. He worried postwar teams would be weaker or could possibly fold altogether, and large ballparks such as his, which stood empty for more than half the year anyway, would be history.

“[The league] came about not because he wanted to do the right thing,” said Cubs historian Ed Hartig. “Baseball shutting down was a very real fear.”

Organizations were just recovering from the Great Depression, and the war threatened to gut professional baseball so drastically there were fears it might never rebound.

As chief of a chewing gum empire, Wrigley had a knack for solving problems. Summer softball leagues, for men and women alike, were popular in Chicago, and the swelling interest in the sport got him thinking—why not start a pro league for women?

He and Ken Sells, assistant to the Cubs general manager and the new league’s future president, drummed up the idea of marrying softball with some of baseball’s rules. There would be nine players on the field rather than 10, and they would play a full nine innings instead of seven. But the league would also feature a shorter pitching distance, underhand pitching, a bigger ball and a shorter distance between bases. Wrigley pitched his idea to the other owners, but even with the dangling carrot of filling their parks, the idea went over like a lead rosin bag.

“The Wrigleys were a lot better off financially,” Hartig said. “They were a little more willing to experiment.”

With minimal support outside of his own office, Wrigley plowed ahead. He secured four cities that each agreed to pony up $22,500 in financing, which would be matched by Wrigley himself. In February 1943, the league’s formation was made public.

Based in Chicago, the All-American Girls Softball League—the name changed several times, eventually landing on All-American Girls Professional Baseball League—comprised four Midwestern teams and would do its own marketing, player recruiting, training, signing and allocating. The women were offered one-year contracts by the league, not their individual clubs.

Wrigley had never been short on cash, but his financial stake in the league was enough to send a tremor through even the deepest pockets. In addition to his initial investment, he ran the league as a nonprofit, redirecting all proceeds to the war effort. If any team was in the red, Wrigley made up the difference himself. Hartig noted that the Cubs owner spent between $135,000 and $200,000 on the venture by his tenure’s end.

“It was pretty much guaranteed not to be a moneymaker,” Hartig said. “But [Wrigley] was pleased with what he had done.”

* * * *
On that dreary mid-May day in 1943, Betsy Jochum and the other invited talent swung bats and shagged balls at Wrigley Field, trying to nab one of the 15 coveted spots on each club. Days were spent sweating on the field, while evenings found the women knee-deep in etiquette training, which was designed to teach them the finer points of being “ladies.” This included the art of walking in high heels, applying make-up and sitting in a proper, ladylike manner.

The women were chaperoned on any social outings, and they were forbidden from smoking and drinking hard liquor in public. They were to wear dresses outside of the ballpark (and inside the park, thanks to their fashion-forward belted tunic uniforms).

Tryouts wrapped up on May 25, and the season began just five days later. The Racine Belles, Kenosha Comets, Rockford Peaches and South Bend Blue Sox, where Jochum played for six seasons as an outfielder and pitcher, were officially playing professional ball.

Games drew about 2,000-3,000 fans initially, with one July 4 doubleheader in South Bend bringing in close to 10,000, Jochum recalled. Though the league was formed in part to fill major league ballparks, the women’s teams had their own fields and played in the big stadiums only for special events.

The Racine Belles clinched the ’43 title, and the 108-game season (54 games per team) wrapped with attendance reaching nearly 176,000 leaguewide, according to the AAGPBL.

Wartime games had an especially patriotic bent, with the women lining up in a V formation (for victory) before play began. Servicemen and -women were admitted free of charge, and exhibition games were often played to benefit the armed forces or the Red Cross.

Etiquette training was ongoing, as was extensive promotion of the women as ladylike girls next door. The average age of the players hovered around 21, and they earned between $45-85 per week, a decent living in those days. In the offseason, they were likely to stay in their team’s town, taking on a factory job or something similar, said Jeneane Lesko, a former player and the president of the AAGPBL Players Association.

Competition was intense, with rivalries almost guaranteed given how infrequently the teams were able to socialize with one another. Lesko recalled clearing both benches when she nearly beaned an opponent with a wild pitch, but the managers broke up the scrum before it got physical.

“Oh, it was major league,” said the 79-year-old Lesko. “The competitiveness was there.”

As the seasons progressed, the game looked less and less like softball. The pitching distances increased, the ball size decreased and overhand pitching was instituted. Certain players emerged as powerhouse fan favorites, and clubs even reported to Spring Training in Florida and Cuba. After Wrigley divested himself and Arthur Meyerhoff took over operations as the war drew to a close, the league expanded to 10 teams. In 1948, attendance reached 1 million.

“After they saw we really could play,” Jochum said of the fans, “they knew.”

* * * *
Over the run of the league, there were 15 different teams—the dismal Chicago Colleens even graced the Windy City for one season in ’48. But changes in leadership, the end of wartime rationing and the incursion of television sets into American households dealt the AAGPBL a fatal blow. The organization had been decentralized, and team owners were feeling the sting of dwindling attendance.

The league quietly folded after the ’54 season—so quietly, in fact, that by the following April, many players still assumed they would be on the field again in a month, Lesko said. As the teams disbanded, some women went back to their hometowns, some stayed in their affiliate towns, and others headed to college and pursued careers. Jochum quit after the ’48 season when she learned she had been traded, but opted to stay in South Bend.

Lesko, a southpaw, was still active when the AAGPBL dissolved and then joined a traveling league that played barnstorming games in the U.S. and Canada. She quit after two years, taught school overseas, and returned to the States to play in the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour. She eventually married, had three sons, worked in real estate and became involved in the AAGPBL Players Association. The Seattle resident is currently serving as the association’s president, and she is active in the organization, formation and promotion of women’s professional ball leagues. Up until this year, she was still playing softball.

“Our purpose is to promote the AAGPBL and to promote women’s baseball,” Lesko said. “To ensure our place in history, and to help other girls have an opportunity to play sports.”

Lesko has made the league’s legacy her mission, traveling around the world for tournaments, organizing AAGPBL yearly reunions and assisting with other high-profile gigs, such as the salute to the AAGPBL that will take place at Wrigley Field on June 6. Of the 600 women who played in the league, roughly 150 remain, and just a handful will head to Chicago to be honored before the Cubs take on the Brewers. “Sockem Jochum” has been asked to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on the field where her career began more than seven decades ago.

“Well, I’m going to attempt it,” Jochum said with a chuckle. “I’ll just bounce it into the catcher’s mitt.”

—Kerry Trotter

From the Pages of Vine Line: Philip K. Wrigley’s lasting impact on the Cubs and Wrigley Field

Stadiums-Wrigley-Field-Chicago-1938_3119.99_CSU

In the emotional last throes of the chewing gum magnate’s life, while the Great Depression dug its claws deeper into Chicago’s big shoulders, William Wrigley Jr. made his only son promise him one thing.

Do not sell his beloved Chicago Cubs to pay the inheritance taxes.

The elder Wrigley’s illness and subsequent death at age 70 in 1932 were swift and unexpected, a wake-up call to his 37-year-old heir, Philip K. Wrigley, who did not have his father’s passion for baseball but shared his shrewd business sense.

Wrigley had already accepted the mantle of president of his father’s chewing gum company, and now, by death and default—and a sometimes-troublesome sense of loyalty—he was the Chicago Cubs’ majority stockholder and owner.

“He liked baseball. He was around baseball. He just didn’t view himself as a baseball person,” said Chicago Cubs historian Ed Hartig. “I think if P.K. had his way, he would have been an engineer.”

But he was first and foremost a Wrigley, and as a member of one of Chicago’s most powerful families, he had a duty to fulfill.

And that duty was to the Cubs.

* * * *
Simply put, Philip Knight Wrigley opened his eyes in the right crib. Born in 1894 at Chicago’s Plaza Hotel to a family of great wealth and influence, he never wanted for much.

“He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” Hartig said.

With that spoon came a secure job at the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company and leisure time to pursue his love of horses and boats, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. He was a low-level stockholder in his father’s baseball enterprise and stood to inherit Wrigley Field and the breathtaking Catalina Island off the Los Angeles coast. Even after the stock market crash of 1929 sunk the country’s economy, the Wrigleys fared well because they had avoided extensive dealings with banks, Hartig said.

Workers who lost their livelihoods in the meat, railroad and steel industries began to organize in the city, as hostility toward the wealthy swelled.

“Chicago was one of the major centers of left-wing agitation,” said Peter Alter, an archivist with the Chicago History Museum. “Socialists and communists were strong in Chicago.”

But the Wrigleys weren’t necessarily viewed as bad guys, Alter added. They were rich and powerful, but they still contributed to the city’s goodwill.

After all, the family had one of the few businesses that—though it did not necessarily flourish during the Depression—held on to its employees. The Wrigleys also owned the Cubs, a team that won pennants in 1929 and ’32 (and later in ’35 and ’38), often to half-capacity crowds thinned by hard times. But by 1933, the team and the company were under the direction of Philip K. Wrigley, a man who routinely veered from the trappings of coddled wealth.

“The way people viewed him was he was not your typical baseball owner,” Alter said. “He was not a Comiskey.”

Wrigley, despite his wealth, enjoyed a “normal” streak. He never went to college and eventually joined the military, where he became a mechanic. He got married, had three kids and plugged away at the family’s gum company, but he lacked pretense about his success. He was a loyal employer, even as competing businesses shuttered and sales slowed. He had a generous streak, giving great chunks of money to charities and interests and turning his father’s beloved Southern California island into a conservancy.

Wrigley’s father, William Wrigley Jr., wasn’t born a baseball fan but died the biggest Cubs booster around. He bought up shares of the team piecemeal until eventually he owned it outright. He also purchased the park, which the team leased from him.

As a sort of memorial to his father, Wrigley’s vow not to sell the team to pay inheritance taxes morphed into a blunt refusal to sell the team under any circumstances, despite some promising offers.

“He made a lot of decisions based on business principles,” Hartig said, “and not on sound baseball principles.”

Oftentimes that strategy worked; sometimes it didn’t.

* * * *

“Baseball is too much of a sport to be a business, and too much of a business to be a sport,” Philip K. Wrigley once said. This ambivalence showed in his leadership style and in how he kept the Cubs at emotional arm’s length.

When Wrigley started out as owner, he had the experienced Bill Veeck Sr. in his camp. Unfortunately, Veeck died only a year after Philip K. Wrigley took over, forcing the new owner to make his first big baseball decision—hiring a new president.

Wrigley chose longtime team investor and fishmonger William Walker, but it was a short and rocky arrangement. Though history looks back on Walker’s tenure more kindly, he sealed his fate with several questionable trades, for which he was vilified in the press. Wrigley bought him out, sent him packing and took over as president in 1934.

“God knows, I don’t want the job. If I could find another Bill Veeck, I’d put him in there in a minute, but he doesn’t seem to be available,” Wrigley said, according to an article published by the Society for American Baseball Research. “No matter who’s in there, if anything goes wrong, I’m going to get blamed for it, so I might as well take the job myself.”

While the team won three pennants in the ’30s, Wrigley was less occupied with Cubbie blue than ledger black.

“His father was at games a lot,” Hartig said. “P.K. very seldom went to games.”

This is ironic considering his marketing push early in his presidency, when he went to great lengths to sell “Beautiful Wrigley Field.”

Yes, there was Cubs baseball to see, but the park was also an experience to behold and to be sold, win or lose. Wrigley began purchasing ad space in Chicago newspapers in the middle of winter, a practice that was decried leaguewide. But he was planting the seeds for interest in games and getting on fans’ radar long before tickets went on sale.

While Wrigley was a bottom-line kind of guy, he was not miserly. He relished spending money for the sake of the park and fan comfort. Wrigley brought in bigger, more comfortable seats at the expense of capacity, had the bleachers rebuilt to improve sight lines and laid plans to “green” up the park, which eventually led to the addition of the iconic ivy.

Yet in the final days of pre-war baseball, Wrigley’s loyalty to commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis got the best of him, and it wound up costing the Cubs. Wrigley was the only owner to go along with a plan hatched by Landis to keep minor league teams from folding during the war by making them independent entities that could sell their players to the highest bidder. It didn’t work.

“P.K.’s decision to dismantle the farm system put him back 10 years,” Hartig said.

He also resisted adding night games to the schedule, partly because he felt they were a passing fad and partly because the born innovator hadn’t been the first person to come up with the idea. In 1941, he reluctantly purchased the most advanced lighting system in baseball, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he promptly donated the materials to the war effort. After that, the idea remained dormant for decades.

One feather in Wrigley’s innovation cap was the creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II, tryouts for which were held at Wrigley Field in 1941. However, he was woefully behind on the matter of integration, taking a back seat while Jackie Robinson first donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform in 1947. The Cubs signed an African-American player to their Los Angeles farm team in 1949, but Chicago was still an all-white club until Ernie Banks took the field in 1953.

In the ’60s, Wrigley devised the curious College of Coaches experiment, in which the manager was replaced by a rotating roster of head coaches who would assume the lead every few weeks. The intent was to create good all-around players who had access to a number of intelligent voices, but it just wound up confusing the team and encouraging favoritism.

Ultimately, it was television that made Wrigley’s legacy.

After World War II, he began pushing the idea of televising games. Just as his father had pioneered radio broadcasts amid criticism, the younger Wrigley was convinced that seeing was believing when it came to his beautiful ballpark, and that broadcasting games on TV would cultivate fandom. It worked, and the team’s relationship with WGN, which went on to become a “superstation” transmitted around the country, birthed fans for both the team and the park far from the Lakeview neighborhood.

* * * *
The promise to his father, at once bold and uncertain, remained steadfast. Philip K. Wrigley did not sell William Wrigley Jr.’s beloved team, nor the gum empire he built, during his 60-plus years steering both ships. Even when the team entered a dark period of losses and mismanagement, he largely did right by his father. And the family business, where his true talents lay, thrived.

Not every decision Philip K. Wrigley made was sound. There were mistakes and missed opportunities. But he gave freely of his significant wealth, created Cubs fans nationwide and made Wrigley Field a destination for fans around the world.
In the end, he kept his word.

—Kerry Trotter

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