Cuban Babe (Ruth): The Story of Seven Cubana Women in Professional Baseball

By Emalee Nelson

This fall, a pioneering television show emerged on FOX’s primetime lineup. Pitch tells the fictitious, yet inspirational, story of Ginny Baker, the first woman to play Major League Baseball for the San Diego Padres. The series tackles a variety of issues one can imagine a woman would face competing in a league and lifestyle saturated with men. However, another interesting dimension to the narrative of this series is not only that Ginny Baker is a woman playing on baseball’s biggest stage, but that she is a woman of color. Though there have been women of all races, nationalities, and color playing professional sports for years, historically, baseball had a particularly tricky line of what shade was deemed acceptable. This was evident in MLB given that though Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Latino men were bending this line for nearly 40 years prior.[1] However, for women of color playing baseball, their journey took a vaguely paralleled path.

Since the turn of the 20th century, women have been playing forms of softball and baseball. Though the stigma of hyper-masculinity followed these women from diamond to diamond, this did not hinder their passion for the sport. Small indoor and outdoor leagues were set up in towns, often catering to working class families in industrial or rural settings.[2] Though teams were competitive, it was nowhere near a level considered to be professional. With the United States’ entrance into World War II in late 1941, unprecedented opportunities for women emerged, including the chance to play baseball—professionally. Philip K. Wrigley, a chewing gum mogul and owner of the Chicago Cubs, was intrigued by the popularity that softball had generated in recent years. He speculated that a women’s baseball league would be an excellent temporary replacement to men’s baseball, by also keeping stadiums occupied and fervent fan interest in America’s game. This idea came as a response to the ever-growing amount of MLB players leaving the league, enlisting in various branches of the armed forces, and depleting the league of young, able-bodied, athletic talent.[3]

Though the purpose of the league was to be competitive and professional, it was above all a form of wartime entertainment and was to be entirely separate from women’s softball leagues, including the masculine connotation associated with that game. To visibly disassociate the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) with softball, Wrigley adamantly marketed the league as a ladylike version of America’s pastime. Women in the AAGPBL were all American, but also all white. In effort to construct the pristine image of mid-century American femininity and natural appeal, there was a strong notion that the only shade of skin, which could keep this All-American image intact, was a woman of light complexion. Much like the “gentleman’s agreement” in MLB, the AAGPBL also had an unwritten policy against letting any women of color play in the league.

However, a small handful of women were able to bend this de facto discriminatory rule. Prior to the 1947 season, the AAGPBL held spring training in Havana, Cuba. The combination of local newspaper articles and ads with the opportunity to see women play baseball, spring training grew massive crowds for AAGPBL practices and scrimmages. “No less than 55,000 wildly enthusiastic fans watched the round-robin tournament which concluded the training program.”[4] Interestingly, the Brooklyn Dodgers, one of MLB’s most popular teams at the time, also held their spring training in Cuba during the same year, yet failed to draw as big of crowds as the AAGPBL training program. While women were gaining momentum in baseball, many Cubans recognized this success, especially female baseball players.

Caribbean Sandlots to Midwest Ballparks

Since league officials were constantly looking for new talent, there was no exception to offering Latinas the chance to tryout for the league—as long as they fit the light-skinned, feminine image. In 1947, Eulalia Gonzales became the first woman from Cuba to play professional baseball in the United States. Shortly following the league’s Cuban showcase, more Cuban women began securing contracts with the AAGPBL. Mirtha Marrero, Luisa Gallegos, Midgalia Pérez, Georgiana Ríos, Gloria Ruiz and Zonia Vialat traveled to the United States and debuted in the league during the 1948 season. Gallegos recalls signing her contract in 1948 in Havana, then subsequently traveling to Miami. Gallegos claims she and her Cuban teammates received $55 a week, which they combined to rent a house, plus $14 in food.[5] (In 2016, this roughly equivocates to $600 per week, plus $150 for food. Also, other sources state that the average salary was closer to $75 per week.) Once given their team assignments, the women traveled by bus to their respective Midwestern cities to begin playing baseball.

Though given the chance to play baseball in America, Cuban women often grew homesick. Zonia Vialat may have had the shortest career in the league. She recorded one at-bat in one game for the Springfield Sallies during the 1948 season before returning to Cuba.[6] Euliana Gonzales, the original pioneer for Cuban women in the league only played for the 1947 Racine Belles before returning home to Cuba.[7] Georgiana Ríos only played during the 1948 season with the Fort Wayne Dasies and Peoria Redwings, with both teams failing to record any statistics and evidence of actual playing time, before leaving the league.[8] Luisa Gallegos league debut came in 1948, batting leadoff and playing third base for the Peoria Redwings. In the same season, she was traded to the South Bend Blue Sox. She recalls, “I was good at defense, was very fast running the bases and my arm was powerful”.[9] She finished the 1948 season with the Springfield Sallies, and did not return for the next season. Gloria Ruiz played outfield for the Peoria Redwings from 1948-1949. During this time she acquired a batting average of .095, 12 hits and ultimately left the league at the end of the 1949 season.[10]

For the four other Cuban women in the league who stayed longer, their lives would drastically change. Mirtha Marrero and Midgalia Pérez made their AAGPBL debut with the Chicago Colleens in 1948. These were the only two Cuban women on this team, and often stayed near each other. In the 1948 team photo, Marrero and Pérez are seen standing next to each other. For the next season, Isabel Alvarez and Ysora Castillo joined their fellow Cubans, and signed a contract with the Chicago Colleens.

Clockwise from top left: Ysora Castillo-Kinney, Mirtha Marrero, Isabel Alvarez, Luisa Gallegos, Migdalia Perez, and Gloria Ruiz. Photo collage courtesy of Ceasar Brioso.

Clockwise from top left: Ysora Castillo-Kinney, Mirtha Marrero, Isabel Alvarez, Luisa Gallegos, Migdalia Perez, and Gloria Ruiz. Photo collage courtesy of Ceasar Brioso.

Off The Field

Though these Cuban women interacted with their American teammates on the field, the real test of social and cultural acceptance came outside of the ballpark. After all, “the closest the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League ever came to integration was the signing of a few light-skinned Cuban players.”[11] “For four months every year the women worked together, traveled together, and lived together, in hotels when they were on the road and in private homes in their team cities.”[12] Given the racial tension that minority athletes experienced in the MLB, it could be assumed this small handful of Cuban women experienced similar discrimination. Interestingly, quite the opposite was true.

As one can imagine, given their extensive time together, these women developed very tight-knit relationships with each other. In an interview, Isabel Alvarez was asked to recall some of her most favorite experiences from playing in the AAGPBL. “What I mostly remember is the tour. We had very close friendships, and we rode on the bus together. You can’t forget the beginnings. It’s just like when you’re a child, and that was my childhood. We were all together. We rode together.”[13] Ysora Castillo recalled having pity for the team bus driver because he “had to listen to a gaggle of girls laughing and talking for hours”.[14] Regardless if women came from the United States, Canada, and even Cuba, their community was special to them. “The league gave the players a rare chance to form bonds with other women as friends, teammates, advisors, and conspirators…They grew to trust each other and depend on each other.”[15]

Though the thought of these women in the league defying all racial, cultural and social norms of mid-20th century United States is refreshing, there were a handful of imminent issues facing these Latina women in the league. Perhaps the most notable and difficult challenge was the language barrier. In 1948, prior to any fellow Cuban women joining her, seventeen-year-old Mirta Marrero had immense difficulty communicating with her Chicago Colleen teammates. At the time, she did not know any English. She recalls, “I cried a lot because the American girls couldn’t understand me and I couldn’t understand them. I had a hard time.”[16] Fortunately, Pérez joined the Colleens that year, followed by Alvarez and Castillo in 1949, giving Marrero a familiar face and a fellow Spanish-speaking teammate.

In 1950, Isabel Alvarez was traded from the Chicago Colleens to the Fort Wayne Daisies. Professionally for Alvarez, this was an upgrade, seeing that the Daisies were a full-fledged league team, as opposed to the rookie-level touring Colleens. Unfortunately for Alvarez, none of her Cuban teammates were traded with her. She recalls her transition. “I was alone in Fort Wayne. Sometimes when you can’t communicate, you feel maybe [others] don’t want you around. Everyone has a clique, they run around in groups.” In addition to feeling socially isolated, Alvarez believed the language barrier also inhibited her ability as a baseball player given her immense difficulty communicating with her new teammates.[17] After the 1950 season, she returned home to Cuba. By this time, she was just seventeen-years-old, and had already been in the league for two years. At home, she told her mother of her difficulties communicating with her new teammates. She was homesick and discouraged. However, her mother, who heavily urged Alvarez to join the league in America the two years prior, reminded her “[she] had to do her job and forget about Cuba”.[18] To her mother’s happiness, she did return back to Fort Wayne for the 1951 season.

Kinney, second from left, with the three other Cuban players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Photo courtesy of Ysora Castillo-Kinney.

Kinney, second from left, with the three other Cuban players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Photo courtesy of Ysora Castillo-Kinney.

One of the newest members of the Daisies for the 1951 season was sixteen-year-old Catherine “Katie” Horstman. Interestingly, in an interview many years later, she remembered a particular encounter with a new teammate. “When I first started with Fort Wayne in 1951, I pitched a lot of batting practice. The very first girl I met spoke Spanish. It was Isabel Alvarez, who was Cuban. I thought, ‘They’ve got Cubans on their team. I live sixty-five miles from Fort Wayne, and I never even heard of women’s pro baseball!” [She laughs.][19] Though Alvarez is seen in the 1951 team photo sitting in the far edge of the front corner, her teammates made an effort to help her with problems they encountered from the language barrier, rather it was ordering food in a restaurant or having issues with her hotel room.[20] Fortunately, former Colleens teammate and Cuban native Mirta Marrero joined Alvarez and the Fort Wayne Daisies during the 1951 season.[21]

Extra Innings

Though the AAGPBL did marginalize women of color, the league did mark a turning point for the publicity and marketability of women in sport. Roughly two decades following the last season of the AAGPBL, women in sport gained momentum through the passage of Title IX. Though Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball became a watershed moment, women athletes of color still defied barriers in sports other than baseball. African-American women such as Althea Gibson dominated mid-century women’s tennis. Wilma Rudolph, another extremely accomplished woman of color, became the first woman to win three track and field gold medals in one Olympics.[22] Fast forwarding to 2014, Mo’ne Davis became one of 18 girls to every play in the Little League World Series (LLWS), but the first African-American girl to do so, in the 68-year existence of the tournament. Her 70 mile per hour fast ball led her to become the first girl to not only pick up a LLWS win, but a perform a pitching shutout, too. Her talents led her to become the first LLWS athlete on the cover of Sports Illustrated.[23]

Sixty years go, women of color were barely granted a tryout for certain teams. Amidst the marginalization for these women, it is evident that women in the AAGPBL did embrace a small, select group of women from Cuba. “From the perspective of Latina ballplayers, the league must be viewed as a tremendous success. They brought national attention to Cuban baseball and transcended race and gender by being widely accepted into a domain previously dominated by males.”[24] This alone defied many racial and nationalistic norms in mid-20th century United States, thus reframing issues we perceive as racial, to actually be issues of color.

Emalee Nelson is completing her MA in History at Texas Tech University. Her research focuses on issues of women, race, and sexuality in sport. She can be reached on Twitter at @emaleenelson and by email at emalee.nelson@ttu.edu.

Notes:


[1] Johnson, Michael Simon, Daisy Rosario. “Latino Players Blurred MLB’s Color Line Before Robinson’s Debut.” WBUR 90.9. July 15, 2015. Accessed July 18, 2016. http://www.wbur.org/onlyagame/2015/07/11/latino-baseball-history.
[2] Jennifer Ring. Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 60.
[3] Jeneane Lesko. “League History.” All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Accessed March 15, 2016, http://www.aagpbl.org/index.cfm/pages/league/12/league-history.
[4] Sue Macy, A Whole New Ballgame: The Story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1993), 51.
[5] Mariano Martinez Pariza “Luisa Gallegos: Cuban Player a Hit in Baseball Heyday,” Miami Herald, September 6, 2011, http://www.aagpbl.org/index.cfm/articles/luisa-gallegos–cuban-player-a-hit-in-baseball-heyday/88.
[6] Leslie Heaphy, Encyclopedia of Women in Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2006), 297.
[7] Ibid, 115.
[8] “Georgiana Rios,” All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, accessed March 16, 2016, http://www.aagpbl.org/index.cfm/profiles/rios-georgiana/148.
[9] Ibid, “Luisa Gallegos.”
[10] Madden, 221.
[11] Jean Hastings Ardell, Breaking into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), 113.
[12] Macy, 65.
[13] Jim Sargent, We Were the All-American Girls (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2013), 118.
[14] Christiana Lilly, “Ysora Kinney, 79-Year-Old Hospital Volunteer, Talks Pioneering Past in Women’s Baseball,” Huffington Post Miami, May 12, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/04/ysora-kinney-womens-baseball_n_1403283.html.
[15] Macy, 65.
[16] Sargent, 15.
[17] Marilyn Cohen. No Women in the Clubhouse (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2009), 67.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Sargent, We Were the All-American Girls.
[20] Cohen, 67.
[21] “Mirtha Marrero,” All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Player Profile, accessed February 17, 2016, http://www.aagpbl.org/index.cfm/profiles/fernandez-mirtha-marrero/37
[22] M.B. Roberts, “Rudolph ran and world went wild,” ESPN, accessed May 7, 2016, https://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016444.html.
[23]“Female Pitching Star Lifts team to LLWS,” espnW, accessed May 7, 2016, http://espn.go.com/espnw/news-commentary/article/11337034/female-pitcher-mone-davis-lifts-team-little-league-world-series-3-hitter.
[24] Dan Cobian, “Latinas in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League,” Chicana and Latina Studies, Working Paper Series, n.d., 1-7.

2 thoughts on “Cuban Babe (Ruth): The Story of Seven Cubana Women in Professional Baseball

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

  2. Pingback: Cuban Babe (Ruth): The Story of Seven Cubana Women in Professional Baseball – Erica L. Ayala

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