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A league of her own

Woman was pro baseball player, bowler; named one of state’s best athletes

Her baseball glove resides in the National Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. So does her name, as a peer of the elite membership of superb baseball players.

This is Jean Havlish’s favorite action photo — making a play on a ground ball during a game. Courtesy of Jean Havlish

She is also ensconced in the Women’s International Bowling Congress Hall of Fame, the Minnesota State Women’s Hall of Fame, and was named number 36 out of Minnesota’s best 50 athletes of the 20th century.

Her name is Jean Havlish, of Rockville. “I don’t ever remember not playing baseball,” the 81-year-old housekeeper for a priest said of her days growing up on the north end of St. Paul’s Rice Street. “There was an opening in a cornfield we used as a baseball diamond, and when I was 9-10-11, we went down there and spent all day playing baseball. We used anything for bases, an old hat, or pillow or stuff like that, anything we got our hands on. Everybody brought what they could, taped-up old bats, and baseballs came from the kids whose parents were pretty well-to-do, I suppose. It involved all the kids in the neighborhood. Or the boys would call me, and we would play in the street. If you didn’t play baseball, you watched it. No other girls played, and at that time, I was called a tomboy. That was quite a baseball area in St. Paul.”

She practiced with the boys’ American Legion team. If that wasn’t enough, she begged her father to take her to the playground and hit ground balls. “If I missed them, I had to chase them forever. I love it. I finally hooked onto the girls’ softball in the playground, and later we found an article in the Parade magazine about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and dad started pursuing down that road.”

She was already a multi-talented athlete at Washington High School, playing hockey, football, basketball, baseball and softball and competing in speed skating. “The only thing I could not play was tennis,” she said.

In 1950 when Jean was 14, she tried out for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League with the coach of the Racine Belles, who said to contact him the next year when he would be coaching the Kalamazoo Lassies. After that 1951 tryout, she heard nothing more.

So her father contacted the Fort Wayne, Ind., Daisies professional team, where Jean tried out in 1952. Some family and neighbors followed her to Fort Wayne to cheer her on. “But I didn‘t hear from Fort Wayne either for quite a while, and I thought I wouldn’t again. But one day I came home from school for lunch, and there was an airmail special delivery letter from Fort Wayne. I tell you, I took it and rushed right back to school.”

But it wasn’t going to be that simple. Seems Kalamazoo had her rights. The delay had been caused by Fort Wayne attempting to trade for her. Which they did, paying a big price, trading three-time All-Star shortstop Dottie Schroeder to Kalamazoo for Havlish. “There was a double reason for that, I think,” Jean said. “I’m sure they thought I could handle the shortstop job, but Dottie was at the top of the pay scale, and I was at the bottom.”

She was also at the bottom of the age scale, at 16 years old, when Fort Wayne allowed her to play in games the last quarter of the 1952 season, despite her lack of a contract.

Though Jean says she was not a good hitter– “Good field, no hit,”–and as Wikipedia says, “A slick-fielding shortstop, Jean Havlish joined the Fort Wayne Daisies during the last two seasons of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She posted a modest .218 batting average in 193 games, but provided outstanding defense with a strong and secure throwing arm.”

Her contributions as a regular short stop helped the Fort Wayne Daisies win the league pennant in 1953 and 1954. The teams played five days a week, with Tuesdays and Wednesdays off, and a doubleheader on Sunday. Jean increased her batting average to .260 her third–second full–year, so she was learning.

“I thought I knew a little about baseball when I started playing professionally, but I found out from manager Bill Allington that I didn’t know anything. He was strict and tough.” He was the winningest manager in the history of the AAGPBL.

Infielders for the Fort Wayne, Ind., Daisies, who won the league pennant both years. Jean Havlish played regularly for them, in 1953 and 1954. From left to right are Shirley Crites, third base, Jean Havlish, shortstop, Jean Geissinger, second base, and Delores Brumfield, first base. Courtesy of Jean Havlish.

Baseball Experiences

During her rookie year in Kalamazoo, she was on second base and trying to rattle the opposing pitcher, who tried to pick her off numerous times. “After six or seven times she caught me, and I dove back to the base, but I was too close, and I hit the bag with too much force and broke blood vessels in my upper arm. Our manager, Bill Allington, said, ‘What the heck are you doing, trying to steal a base? Getting injured is just going to weaken our team.’ So I didn‘t do that again.”

As she said, she wasn’t a great hitter, but in 1954, the league was trying to decide whether to move the fences back or change the size of the ball from 10 inches to the men’s baseball league size of 9.25 inches to make the game more lively. “After the change, I hit home runs three games in a row, and Bill said, ‘When Havlish starts hitting home runs, that means we have to move the fences back.’ Which they did.”

She said the women’s salary wasn’t very high, up to $125 a week for their approximately 80-game season. “I was always broke at the end of the month after our one check. But it wasn’t about money. Most of us would probably have played for nothing,” she laughed. “It was just a really good feeling. For room and board we lived with families. People took us into their homes in the home city, and on the road, we traveled by bus at night, where we sang, played cards, or slept. It was a good time. In the other cities we stayed in hotels, getting $3 a day for eating and expenses, and that was plenty.

Jean Havlish shows her bowling form that won her many awards. Courtesy of Jean Havlish.

Jean said there weren’t real rivalries in the league, like the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox or the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers, “but there were teams we really wanted to beat, like Rockford, because they were always good.”

After that, the league folded. “It was raining, and I was really sad. I loved playing baseball, and I loved the league, and they played a really good brand of baseball, and it was gone. I went out and walked in the rain and cried, too. My mother tried to console me, saying we don’t know why things happen, but often later in life we find out. Or sometimes you never find out. The league folded probably partly because there wasn’t enough talent coming up, and because Phil Wrigley got out of it, transferring ownership down to the local levels. There was also the fear that it was taking away from major league baseball. That kind of scared me, because I realized I came real close to not getting into the league. I was lucky I played those last years, playing with the best women baseball players in the world, and I was one of them. A lot of people never got the chance to do that, so I thank God for the opportunity to have played.”

During that time there was one thing she would have done differently: getting autographs from or pictures with some of the famous baseball players who were coaching different women’s teams, like Jimmy Foxx, who was the manager at her Fort Wayne team her first year. “But I was a kid and didn’t know any better. Those were three years out of my 81, but to me they are very big ones.”

Regarding playing, she wouldn’t change anything. “Unless I could have found out earlier and started playing even younger.”

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