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07/08/05 9:11 PM ET

FanFest hosts women's league reunion

Q and A session part of celebration of AAGPBL

DETROIT -- The popular 1992 movie "A League of Their Own," starring Madonna, Geena Davis and Tom Hanks, came to life on Thursday at the John Hancock All-Star FanFest.

The movie, although partially fiction, was based on experiences and players in the first women's professional baseball league in the United States, which operated from 1943 to 1954.

Four of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League's former players and its last living umpire came to FanFest on Thursday for a question and answer session on the diamond. Fans had an opportunity to listen to the ladies -- who are in their 70s now, but still a spirited bunch -- talk about their experiences playing baseball.

The former players attending the session included Helen Steffes, Mary Moore, Shirley Burkovich and Dr. Dolly Brumfield White. They, along with male umpire Fereon Betts, held a 30-minute program moderated by a FanFest emcee, who gave fans plenty of opportunities to pose questions to the special guests.

Afterward, the ladies signed autographs for fans and handed out baseball cards, which had photos from their playing days on the front and career highlights on the back.

"I appreciate Major League Baseball letting us come to have this opportunity to tell our story, and to let people know it wasn't just a movie, it really happened, and some of the living legends of that era are here," said White.

The ladies said they did, in fact, play baseball -- not softball -- and yes, they did play in skirts and knee-high socks. One fan asked if it was uncomfortable to play in that type of outfit, and the women replied that they sometimes got "strawberries" on their knees, but that they didn't mind too much because they had so much fun playing the game.

"Yes, these ladies can play the game, and they were just as much a lady off the field as they were on the field," said Betts.

Throughout their careers, they played for teams such as the Rockford Peaches, Kenosha Comets, South Bend Blue Sox, Muskegon Lassies and the Springfield Sallies, to name a few.

They talked about how at the time they grew up, some people, and even some other women, looked down on them for being "tomboys." Often, other mothers wouldn't "approve" of their daughters being friends with girls who played sports with boys.

Steffes said she used to play catch with the boys during lunchtime at school and would get in trouble for doing so.

"[The teacher] comes out and finds me out there and grabs me by the neck, takes me in school and sets me down, and I have to write, 'I am a young lady, I do not play ball with the boys,' 100 times each day. ... That went through grade school and high school."

The ladies said they weren't trying to prove anything -- they just wanted to play the game. When given the chance to play professionally later, they jumped at the chance.

"I wasn't aware of [the significance], and I don't think most of the others were either," Moore said. "We wanted to play ball, we loved the sport, but you didn't even think of it as being a pioneer. It was an opportunity, a once in a lifetime thing, to get paid for playing ball. That was a dream come true."

The ladies said they still get together with other former players once a year for a reunion, and they have enjoyed the lifelong friendships that developed through the league.

They also travel to various speaking engagements and talk with young girls today about their experiences, encouraging them to continue their athletic endeavors.

"There are a lot of opportunities today where [girls] can go for additional training," said White. "There are weight programs and fitness programs and all of the things today that were not available to us."

Not only are there more sophisticated training methods, but also more benefits for athletes who dedicate time to their studies.

"I'm thankful that those girls have the opportunity to participate in sports and to get scholarships, an opportunity that we didn't have at that time," Burkovich said. "So to see this come about, it's very encouraging. I just hope that someday we will have another 'League of Their Own.'"

Christie Cowles is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.