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Former pro baseball player is still in a league of her own

These days, Maybelle Blair clocks her pitches in years rather than miles per hour. So, when the former All-American Girls Professional Baseball League hurler toes the rubber – or maybe the grass in front of the mound – before Friday night’s Rochester Red Wings game, I’ll be referencing her age, not the radar gun. I’ll be marking down the number “95” next to my scorecard notation about her ceremonial first pitch.

“I like that,’’ she chortled over the phone. “I can say that I still throw in the mid-90s, and I won’t be lying.”

Satchel Paige, the Hall of Fame pitcher and wordsmith, liked to say age is a matter of mind over matter. “If you don’t mind,’’ reasoned Old Satch, “it don’t matter.”

Maybelle Blair shows off some of the memorabilia she collected during her time with the AAGPBL (Photo provided)

That seems to be Blair’s attitude, too. “For an old woman, I’m doing pretty darn good,’’ she joked. “Hey, I’m on the right side of the dirt.”

And loving every minute of it. Her joie de vivre is evident in her voice as she recounts in vivid detail that scene 73 years ago when a baseball scout for the fledgling AAGPBL sat at her parents’ kitchen table in Inglewood, Calif., and convinced Blair’s mother to let her board a train to play baseball for the Peoria Redwings 2,000 miles away in Illinois.

“He and my mom are going back and forth, and he’s not making any headway,’’ she recalled. “She kept saying, ‘No way am I letting you take my daughter away.’ Finally, he gets up from the table, and says: ‘But Mrs. Blair, [owner Phil Wrigley] wants to pay your daughter $55 a week.’ Well, that was a lot of money in those days – more money than my father was making. All of a sudden, my mom looks over to my dad, and tells him, ‘Go crank up the car and I’ll pack her suitcase.’ And next thing I know, I’m on a train chugging halfway across the country.”

She was about to take part in a great adventure that decades later would be immortalized in Penny Marshall’s classic film, “A League of Their Own.”

After signing her contract at the headquarters of the Wrigley Chewing Gum Company in downtown Chicago, Blair was taken to nearby Comiskey Park, where she and the other players participated in a series of practice games before being assigned to their respective teams. She wound up in Peoria. And the memory of putting on her Redwings uniform for the first time and entering the ballpark for her professional debut remain as sharp as a pair of new baseball spikes.    “I can still hear that beautiful music of my cleats clickety-clacking against the cement dugout floor,’’ Blair recalled. “And when I got out onto the diamond and realized I was a professional baseball player, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

Unfortunately, she wound up suffering a series of debilitating pulled leg muscles and played only one game, but the Redwings kept her around the entire season in hopes she would be able to return at some point. “I had a bunch of Charley horses, and each time I thought I might be ready to go, I’d suffer relapses,’’ said Blair, who went on to work 37 years with Northrup Aircraft (now Northrup Grumman) and became the company’s third female manager. “But I did practice with the team when I could, so I lived that life for a summer and I’ll always be grateful for that. I was once a professional baseball player, and nobody can ever take that away from me.”

No, they can’t. And in 1992, Blair had an opportunity to relive those glory days when she and scores of other AAPBGL alumni watched the premiere of the film that brought to life a forgotten chapter of baseball history. “Penny did a wonderful job,’’ Blair said. “I thought the movie was about 90 percent spot-on, but Hollywood did take some liberties. We didn’t have any catchers doing splits the way Gina Davis’ character did. And the male managers weren’t allowed into the locker room the way Tom Hanks’ character was. But, overall, it was quite realistic. It really captured what we were all about. We couldn’t be more grateful that someone of Penny’s stature took the time to remember us.”

Blair marveled at Marshall’s attention to detail, particularly the uniforms, which the players wore with pride – and pain. Sliding into bases on stone-strewn dirt while wearing skirts was not a lot of fun. “All these decades later,’’ Blair said, chuckling, “I’m still picking pieces of gravel out of my rear-end and the backs of my thighs.”

Just as Blair made a cameo in the AAGPBL, so, too, did she in the movie. At the end of the film, which received critical acclaim and was a box-office smash, several original players are shown playing ball at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown and milling about the Baseball Hall of Fame next to the likes of the characters played by Davis, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell. That gathering was the first of many reunions the AAGPBL would hold through the years. And Blair would be a driving force behind organizing those get-togethers. The movie transformed the former players into mini-celebrities and soon they were being asked to appear at major and minor-league ballparks, as well as card shows and clinics for girls interested in playing the game these trailblazing grandmothers and great grandmothers once had.

Blair and her peers laid the foundation for the baseball inroads being made by women today. They paved the way for Tampa Bay Rays’ executive Kim Ng to become the first female general manager in any of the four major North American sports leagues, and also opened doors for Alyssa Nakken to earn a coaching position with the San Francisco Giants and Rachel Balkovec to manage the New York Yankees Class A minor-league team. They also made it possible for Kelsie Whitmore to become the first woman to play in the Atlantic League, an MLB partner, whose competition features numerous Triple-A and Double-A caliber players.

Someday, we might see Nakken, Balkovec or some other woman shatter another glass ceiling and manage in the majors. Maybe someday a woman also will play in the big leagues, though Blair thinks that’s a long shot. “The only way we might be able to do it would be as a pitcher,’’ she said. “You aren’t going to find a woman who can throw in the 90s like a man, so it probably would have to be someone who can throw exceptional breaking pitches and has exceptional control that could keep batters off-stride. You never want to say never, but I can’t see it happening.”

Instead, Blair would love to see a women’s professional baseball league supported by MLB the way the National Basketball Association supports the WNBA. “I’m looking for ways to give girls a chance to continue to play the sport they love,’’ she said. “The sport of baseball.”

She is looking forward to coming to Rochester, a place she’s never been and one of a half-dozen minor-league cities she’ll visit this season. When told Rochester Community Baseball is headed by a woman – Naomi Silver – Blair’s voice perked up. “That is just great,’’ she said. “I can’t wait to meet her and maybe get her on board with our projects.” Blair is passionate about raising money for the International Women’s Baseball Center in Rockford, Illinois, “the cradle of women’s baseball,” and the one-time home of the AAPGBL’s Rockford Peaches. The center will house batting cages, indoor and outdoor diamonds, an education center and a school for women baseball umpires. The long-range plans include a museum dedicated to the AAPGBL. “We want ‘A League of Their Own’ to have a museum of its own,’’ Blair said.

In the meantime, she’s focusing on her Rochester appearance, which will feature an autograph signing and that ceremonial first pitch. “They’re gonna need to give me a few warmups,’’ she joked. “Otherwise, there’s no telling where the ball might wind up.”

I don’t care if she rolls it to the catcher. I’m writing “95” next to the name of a woman who truly is in a league of her own.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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