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A League of her Own

Rockville woman reflects on her days as a professional shortstop . . . and bowler “If I had more time I think I’d like to try to become a professional golfer.” Jean Havlish of Rockville laughed out loud as she made that remark but anyone who knows her story might believe she is serious. Havlish was one of only a few Minnesota women to play in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) when she played shortstop for the Fort Wayne Daisies in 1953 and 1954. She is also a Hall of Fame pro bowler. The AAGPBL was founded during World War II when almost half of the major league baseball players were entering the military. Philip Wrigley, Chicago Cubs owner, and a group of investors came up with the idea for the league, and in 1943, there were four Midwest teams competing: South Bend Blue Sox in Indiana, Rockford Peaches in Illinois, Kenosha Comets and Racine Belles in southern Wisconsin. The league was very successful, often attracting 2,000-3,000 fans to a single game. The AAGPBL expanded each year until 1948 when there were ten teams. After that year, attendance began to decline and the league eventually folded in 1954. Havlish was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. She was the oldest of five children born to Howard and Mary Havlish. Her love for baseball began at an early age. She remembers playing in an empty cornfield near her home and on playground teams in elementary school. “I used to beg my dad to hit ground balls to me at the playground,” she said. Her father recognized her talent and encouraged her. When her father saw an article on the AAGPBL in the Parade section of the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1950, the two of them hopped on the train to Chicago with the hope that she could try out for a spot on the team. That trip was unsuccessful because there wasn’t a team in Chicago, but after her father made contact with the team in Racine, Havlish was able to try out for the Belles later that year. The manager, Norm Derringer, then invited her to audition for the Kalamazoo Lassies the next year. Havlish went to Michigan in 1951 and had her second tryout at the age of 15, but she didn’t hear back from them. In 1952, she went to Fort Wayne, Indiana for another tryout. She remembers coming home for lunch one day and receiving a special delivery airmail envelope and the invitation to play for the Fort Wayne Daisies. Havlish was ecstatic. She played a few games in 1952 and after Fort Wayne made a trade the next year, she returned to play shortstop for them for the 1953-54 seasons. Fort Wayne traded Dorothy “Dottie” Schroeder to Kalamazoo for Havlish in 1953. “That is my claim to fame,” Havlish said. “They traded Dottie for me. She was an icon in the league.” Schroeder played all 12 seasons in the AAGPBL and held numerous records. “The Fort Wayne media wasn’t too happy with the trade. But, they did say I was a great prospect,” she added. Havlish was known for her outstanding defense and strong arm. She said she always preferred playing in the field to hitting. “I wasn’t a long ball hitter. I hit mostly singles and doubles. In my second year, my hitting improved.” After the league switched from a 10 inch to a 9 inch ball, Havlish hit three homeruns in consecutive games. “Fort Wayne had good hitters, but after I hit the three homeruns, the manager said it’s time to move the fences back. We went out of town and when we came back, the fences had been moved!” She hit .189 in 1953 and .254 in 1954. The manager at Fort Wayne was Bill Allington. He had played minor league ball and according to Havlish, he ate, drank and slept baseball. He had come from Rockford and he had the best record in the league. They called him the “Gray Fox.” “We played every day of the week and doubleheaders on Sunday. It was an exciting life. We all loved to play baseball and couldn’t believe they would pay us to do it. We hated when it rained,” she said. The players, some as young as 15, stayed in homes with private families. “My roommate was from Connecticut. We were both rookies but she was older than I was and she said she didn’t want to room with a kid!” Havlish said they actually got along very well. Havlish didn’t have a lot of contact with her parents during those months when she was playing baseball. “I guess we wrote letters. I don’t remember ever calling them!” She laughed when she recalled a neighbor telling her mother that they were crazy to let their daughter leave home at such a young age to play baseball. “In 1953, my mom and dad drove down to Fort Wayne for the All-Star game,” Havlish remembered. “I don’t know how they did it. We didn’t have a lot of money.” But the trip was worthwhile because Fort Wayne played the All-Star team and the Daisies won. When it was time to go out of town, the team would board a bus after a game and the players would sing, play cards or sleep on their way to other Midwest cities such as Muskegon, Kalamazoo, Rockford, South Bend and Grand Rapids. When they were on the road they stayed in hotels and they received $3 a day for a meal allowance. “I ate lots of roast beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy. We ate well.” Havlish doesn’t recall what she earned playing baseball. “Top players could earn $150 a week. That wasn’t me. I remember we were paid once a month and I was always borrowing money from my roommate.” The media covered the games just like they do today and there were fans who would stop by the dugout for autographs after the game. Havlish had two devoted followers who talked to her regularly. One was a nine-year-old boy. Some families would invite the whole team over for a corn fry or fried chicken. There was a lot of fan support for the team in Fort Wayne. “We drew well,” she said. Havlish thinks that if the other teams would have done as well as Fort Wayne, that the league may not have folded in 1954. The price of a seat at the ballpark was around 75 cents and box seats were just $1.50, she recalled. Fort Wayne dominated the league and they won the regular season pennant in 1952, 1953 and 1954. Their win-loss record was 66-39 in 1953 and 54-40 in 1954. After the 1954 season, Jean returned to Minnesota where she worked at an insurance company and began league bowling on Friday nights. Her average was 127 in the beginning. But with a lot of practice, she began doing well at tournaments, her average increased to 170 and she was asked to bowl in an All-Star league. She became a member of the Professional Women’s Bowling Association and won titles in Indianapolis, Kansas City and Fort Smith, Arkansas. She enjoyed much success as a professional bowler including becoming the state’s all-events champion in 1964 and 1968. She was elected to the Women’s International Bowling Congress (WIBC) Hall of Fame in 1987 and was inducted into the Minnesota State Women’s Hall of Fame in 1991. Havlish moved to Rockville about 35 years ago where she began working as a housekeeper to Father Maurice Landwehr at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic church. Father Landwehr died in September, 2010. Havlish drove to the Twin Cities weekly and continued to bowl with her team at Maplewood Lanes until last year. She is not able to bowl competitively anymore. In 1992, Havlish and two other former baseball players living in Minnesota were asked to throw out the first pitch at a Twins game as part of the promotion for the newly released movie, A League of Their Own. That film told the story of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League and their players. In 2009, Havlish donated her three-finger glove to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. She admits it was hard to let it go. She had saved her pennies in order to purchase the glove at a sporting goods store in St. Paul for $18.95 in 1953 and she was still using it. “I bought another glove to play catch but it’s too big–like a basketball!” she said. Havlish still enjoys playing catch and she is happy to sign an autograph for a fan. She follows the Twins faithfully and is planning her first trip to see Target Field. She is grateful for her life and says, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

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