Beyond 'League of Their Own': Living the legacy of some groundbreaking athletes

Players take a break at a game at Beyer Field in Rockford, Illinois. Nicole Haase

For a few weekends every summer, I pull on brown stirrups and a wool hat along with my mustard-yellow dress and play softball as a member of the Racine Belles, one of the original teams of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, or AAGPBL.

We call it "living history" and we play at museums, WWII reenactments and really anywhere we can find some grass and a receptive audience.

Earlier this year, espnW's Sarah Spain wrote about finding a new appreciation for the movie "A League of Their Own." Reading it, I knew exactly what she meant. For me, having met and talked with the women who originally played in the league is empowering and humbling. There's no way I can watch that movie now without becoming emotional.

"A League of Their Own" was earth-shattering in its importance to the women who played in the AAGPBL. It did so much in sharing a bit of their story with the world, and it gave us the phrase I hear most often from fans who come watch us play. You guessed it: "There's no crying in baseball!" I hear it so much it makes me wonder if they really understand the the importance of this groundbreaking league.

I found our league by accident and joined about five minutes after watching a game in a Milwaukee suburb a few summers ago. At first, I joined for the truly awesome uniform, but my participation in this league has come to mean so much more.

I first met former player Jackie Mattson Baumgart at an AAGPBL reunion in Chicago in 2013 -- a meeting I'll never forget.

Jackie was a catcher for two seasons in the league. She attended tryouts in Newark, New Jersey, in 1949 upon invitation from a scout who saw her play with a traveling girl's baseball team out of Milwaukee called the Jets. She joined the Springfield Sallies in 1950 and the Kenosha Comets in 1951. That was the last year the Comets played and Jackie believed their folding a harbinger of the decline of the rest of the league, so she returned to her family and did not play competitive baseball again. Jackie was known as a menace behind the plate, her strong arm keeping baserunners scared to steal.

AAGPBL alumnae are bombarded on reunion weekends with fans, but members of my league were lucky to spend an evening sitting and chatting with a few of the players. Jackie, who still lived in Milwaukee and helped coach softball teams, was particularly interested in us. She didn't want to talk about herself. She wanted to know why my teammates and I joined our league.

We took turns giving her our backgrounds and she listened and shared pieces of herself along the way. When it was my turn, I told Jackie about how I was a writer who mainly covered women's sports, and about how I grew up as the only girl on my various soccer teams. I told her about being a loudmouth feminist (she grinned) and how I thought playing in our league was a natural extension of all the things that are important to me -- women in sports, Title IX, baseball and uniforms, to name a few. I told her that once I found out about the league, I couldn't imagine not being a part of it. And I told her that I wanted to make sure that people knew her story.

Jackie reached over and put a hand on my knee and said, "It's your story now too, dear."

It's been three years and I can't tell that story without getting goosebumps and tears in my eyes.

Women's sports wouldn't be where they are today without the women of the AAGPBL. Decades before the passage of Title IX, baseball players defied expectations and stereotypes, paving the way for little girls like me to grow up playing sports.

It was humbling for a revolutionary like Jackie to tell me I was part of that narrative. It's an honor that I take as a directive. The league's 73rd anniversary is this summer. As the years go by and fewer league alumnae remain, I feel like it's my job to share their story.

Jackie had a stroke not long after our initial meeting. Despite the setback, she was a frequent visitor to our games and events. While the stroke took much of her mobility and ability to talk, it didn't dampen her spirit. Her eyes lit up when she was at the ballpark.

Rather than tossing the ball with us in warmups, she now sat on the bench. But she'd still lean her cane against the dugout fence among our wooden bats and clap and cheer. It was the best reminder about why what we were doing was important.

Jackie passed away in February, and I'm not sure she ever knew how much she meant to me. I have been lucky to accrue dozens of memories with the women who used to play in the league, but nothing has ever stuck with me the way that first talk with Jackie did.

I'll never truly feel that I'm part of their story, but I'm honored to help tell it.

Nicole Haase is a freelance writer. Her AAGPBL Living History League has a game Sunday at the Rails to Victory WWII event at Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin, Illinois.