Girls take cue from two AAGPBL alumni, who threw out first pitches
By Chad Thornburg
COMPTON, Calif. -- Multiple generations of baseball trailblazers, spanning more than 75 years, converged on the MLB Youth Academy in Compton this weekend.
It wasn't just the nearly 100 girls participating in the inaugural Trailblazer Series, an all-girls baseball tournament sponsored by MLB and USA Baseball. Also on hand were the pioneers who paved the way for the opportunities available to those young ballplayers today, including a number of USA Baseball representatives who served as coaches: MLB's senior vice president of baseball operations Kim Ng, founder of "Baseball for All" Justine Siegal and softball star Jennie Finch.
The weekend's most esteemed guests, however, were two of the original trailblazers: former All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) players Shirley "Hustle" Burkovich and Maybelle "Mae" Blair. Even Finch, arguably softball's biggest star, couldn't help but pull out her phone to film Burkovich and Blair throwing out ceremonial first pitches.
"They were the true trailblazers," said Finch, who now serves as MLB's youth softball ambassador. "I hope these girls will never forget this weekend for the rest of their lives, and it will truly be one of those moments that catapulted them to the next level."
The eight teams competing in the tournament were named after alumnae of the AAGPBL, which operated from 1943-54 and inspired the '92 film "A League of Their Own." Burkovich was a utility player for the Muskegon Lassies, Rockford Peaches and Springfield Sallies from '49-51, while Blair pitched for the Peoria Redwings in '48.
"We never knew we were doing anything special," Burkovich said. "We were just out there playing ball and just glad to have that opportunity."
Prior to Friday's tournament games, Burkovich and Blair shared stories of their time in the AAGPBL. Tamara Holmes, a former outfielder for the U.S. Women's National Team, was also recognized during the pregame ceremonies, receiving her Sportswoman of the Year Award.
"It's really encouraging to see them come over and help cheer us on," said Grace Devinney, 13, of Longwood, Fla. "It's great that they helped us start the movement of girls playing baseball."
The tournament -- in which 96 girls participated from 20 states, as well as Washington D.C. and Canada, and two age groups, 12-under and 16-under -- began Thursday with a practice at the Compton academy and a banquet, at which Ng and Finch served as guest speakers. It concludes Saturday evening when the players head to Dodger Stadium for the unveiling of Jackie Robinson's statue prior to the Dodgers' 6:10 p.m. PT matchup with the D-backs.
The Trailblazer Series provided a rare opportunity for the players to compete on an all-girls team, as many of the girls participating regularly play for teams made up entirely of boys.
"It's really cool how a couple teams of girls playing came to be a whole series full of it," Devinney said. "We're getting the respect, and the public is noticing more about girls playing baseball."
MLB's senior vice president of youth programs Tony Reagins said Thursday that there are plans to build the program and make it an annual event.
"It's great to see Major League Baseball is investing in this," said Gus Fonseca, whose 11-year-old daughter, Felicity, was drawn to baseball when they moved near the Mets' Spring Training facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla. "I just want them to keep pressing on. I think this is just scratching the surface of what can be accomplished."
While women haven't yet reached the Major Leagues as players, they have recently made significant strides in other areas of the game as executives, coaches, broadcasters and Minor League umpires. Just two seasons ago, ESPN's Jessica Mendoza became the first female analyst to call a nationally televised postseason game, and many think Ng could someday be the game's first female general manager.
The Trailblazer Series represented a promising first step by MLB and USA Baseball, and Blair has ideas she'd like to see implemented to continue the effort. She suggested adding a playing field, batting cages and an umpiring school to the proposed International Women's Baseball Center site in Rockford, a plot of land next to Beyer Stadium where the Peaches once played. Blair also hopes a women's league can be established to play at Minor League parks on days the home team is on the road.
"These girls are living their dream," Blair said. "Give them an opportunity to play the game they love."
"We're not trying to do away with softball," Burkovich said. "A lot of girls like softball, but some girls, like these girls, they like baseball. And that's what we're trying to do is get them to have a league of their own."
As for the talent on display in the first round of games Friday, many were impressed.
"They can ball," Finch said.
Chad Thornburg is a reporter for MLB.com based in Los Angeles. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.