Inspiring Professional Girls Baseball Player Helps Girls and Young Women Follow Their Life Passion
Growing up in small-town Orangeville, Pennsylvania, Sarah Jane “Salty” Sands Ferguson was an avid baseball fan who fondly remembers attending her first game at the tender age of four.Ferguson was instantly smitten and vowed to become a pro baseball player, not caring about the fact that at the time girls were not allowed to play pro ball.
She was extremely lucky. The boys in her neighborhood let her play her favorite game, she was a batgirl at the age of six, and never lost sight of her big dream.
As a young girl she played sandlot ball, basketball, ice hockey and football. The boys would come around after school and get a game going and that’s how “I developed my skills,” she says, “for what turned out to be the best two years of my life.”
While family members and friends thought it was an impossible goal, Ferguson, who turned age 83 on July 27, never lost sight of her lofty goal.
At age 14, she started playing organized baseball when she became the proud bat girl of the 1949 Orangeville semi-professional baseball team. She had a shoemaker in town remove the heels and put on a set of cleats, and a family friend remade one of the boy’s uniforms to fit her.
Before each game, she also accustomed to learn correctly the fundamentals of the game, chasing fly balls, fielding grounders and as warming up catcher.
When she was a senior at Bloomsburg (PA) High School, fate intervened and she was asked to try out for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, one of 600 women who were given the opportunity to play professional baseball for the first time. She was 17 years old when she left home for the adventure of a lifetime.
She was recognized for her defensive skills, strong throwing arm, and high knowledge of the game.
This September 6-9 there will be a reunion of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League taking place in Kansas City, Mo.
It will be a time for celebrating 75 years of memories which began with the inaugural game in South Bend, Indiana in 1943.
The remaining former players, their families, associate Members, and special guests are invited to enjoy this special event. There will also be opportunities for free autographs and events that will be open to the public.After the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League ended, she worked at the state capitol in Harrisburg, (PA), as well as at Olmsted Air Force Base, and played semi-pro basketball there. She later worked at the U.S. Naval Air Development Center in Johnsville, PA, where she had top secret security clearance and met all the original seven US astronauts.
Ferguson drove a school bus for 45 years and retired in 2013. She also coached boys’ Little League, and girls’ and women’s slow pitch softball for two years, including one in which the team won the league championship.
Her parents were married for 73 years and she and her husband William died in were married 54 years, before he died in 2011. Ferguson has two grown children, a son, William, 58, and a daughter, Tammy, 54, who competes in the Special Olympics. Ferguson still lives in the family home in Orangeville, PA.
The League, which had a 12-year run, was a neglected chapter of sports history, at least until 1992, when Penny Marshall directed the movie, A League of Their Own,” starring Geena Davis, Madonna,Lori Petty, Rosie O’Donnell, and Tom Hanks, There are preliminary talks to make an Amazon Original Series about the League.
In the meantime, the League started a new annual tradition: National Women in Baseball Day – to celebrate America’s past-time. Every year on May 30, the League, and the women who made it thrive, are excited to recognize the anniversary of the 1943 inaugural game, as well as celebrate all women (past and present) who currently are (or were) involved in baseball.
National Women in Baseball Day has a powerful message because it encourages MLB, MiLB, Women’s baseball organizations, softball teams, and anyone who supports women in baseball to get a group photo together forming a “V.”
The “V” formation pays homage to the shape the AAGPBL teams would take during the pre-game National Anthem to stand together for “victory.”
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed by Chicago Cubs owner and chewing gum mogul Philip K. Wrigley in response to the War Department’s plans to draft large numbers of men, including MLB players, for World War II, during the summer of 1943.
After rigorous tryouts, 600 women — some of them as young as 15—were signed to professional league contracts earning salaries of $45-$85 a week, depending on their seniority ($656-$1239 today). Ferguson’s own contracts were for $200 to $225 a month.
The girls were divided into four teams: the Kenosha (WI) Comets, Racine (WI) Belles, Rockford (IL) Peaches (of A League of Their Own fame), and the South Bend (IN) Blue Sox. 108 games were played during the regular season, and the team to win the most games was declared the pennant winner.The top two teams then competed in a series of play-off games for the League Championship. The Racine Belles won the 1943 season and became the first World Champions of the All-American Girls Baseball League.
Today, the former players continue to push for greater strides and recognition in women’s baseball. In 2003, the sport was officially incorporated into the AAU and, in 2004, USA Baseball authorized the first official national women’s baseball team, which won the gold medal in the first Women’s Baseball World Cup against teams from around the world.
The sport’s landscape is still changing, and it all started 75 years ago with the pioneering women. Over its 12-year run, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League gave more than 600 women the opportunity to play professional baseball for the first time. The league disbanded in 1954, but it has stayed with the players, including Sarah Ferguson, for the rest of their lives.
As such, she has provided girls, and boys, of all ages with the inspiration to follow their hearts and make their own lofty dreams come true.
It is such a pleasure to talk to you. I have to know – where did your nickname Salty come from?
SARAH JANE “SALTY” FERGUSON: My father hung it on me. There was a man in our town named Old Salty Hazzard and he was a little bit eccentric. He wore summer clothes in the winter and winter clothes in the summer. One day when I was about three or four years old, I got myself dressed and my father took one look at me and said, ‘She’s just like Old Salty.’ I was dressed the opposite way. Here it is all these years later and it still sticks.
So, tell me how did you get chosen for the team?
SJF: When I was a senior in high school the kids started asking me what I was going to do when I graduated. From as long as I can remember, I always had the same answer: ‘Play pro baseball.’ My young age and the good Lord put things into motion and saw fit for me to fulfill that dream.
How did that happen for you?
SJF: We had a family friend, Paul Richart, who ran an insurance agency and he took a meeting with a gentleman named Charles Schuler, who was a baseball scout for the League in the Midwest. When our friend walked into his office, he saw there were balls and photos of girls playing baseball and he told Mr. Schuler ‘I know a girl who can really play,’ and took his card to give to my father. I pestered my father to call the scout. We didn’t have a phone in our house so my dad had to call from his place of employment. The next Sunday Mr. Schuler invited us to his home and we took our gloves and ball.This is still such a vivid memory for you so many years later.
SJF: It sure is. Just like it was yesterday. We went to a park, not a baseball park, it was just a regular park. I threw him about five pitches. He caught the last pitch and did not return it. I had not warmed up and I hadn’t touched the bat or run around or anything else. He said, ‘I’m sending her to the Rockford Peaches at the All-American Girls Pro-Baseball league.’ He said it didn’t mean I made the team, I still had to prove myself during try-outs. I remember that my dad’s chest was out 10 inches big because he was so proud. My dad wanted to go right to the local paper because he had to tell the sports editor.
So, they let you try out for the League, tell me all about this.
SJF: I had to leave school early to head for spring training. They had me report to the Rockford (Illinois) Peaches who were playing in South Bend, Indiana. We played from morning until suppertime. We were so tired we didn’t care if we had dinner. We were rookies trying to take some other girl’s place and the veterans were not too happy about it.
Please tell me more.
SJF: I had an uncle in Bloomsburg (PA) who taught history and one night we were in town and stopped to visit him and I had cried the entire time. My family predicted if I got homesick staying with relatives I wasn’t going to make it going 800 miles from home. But even my father didn’t realize how much I loved baseball. The only reason I would have left the team was if they sent me home.
What years did you play for the League?
SJF: I played in 1953 and 1954. I had two contracts the first for $200 a month and the second for $225 a month. My first love was catching, but I didn’t care where they put me. I also played right field. My hips and knees bore the brunt, but how could I be sorry when I had the dream of my lifetime fulfilled. They debated about whether they would have a League in 1954, and when they said there would be no League in 1955, it was like a death in the family. I have been well-blessed in my life and appreciate the blessings. Given the chance to live my life over I would tryout and join the ball team again in a heartbeat.What is the message you want to impart to young people?
SJF: I enjoy talking to high schools, colleges, and women in sports groups, especially the girls. If I can give them some urging to follow their passions, then I feel really good about it. I have given away between 15,000 to 20,000 baseball cards. If Penny Marshall had not made the movie, we would still be the best kept secret around. I have heard that on a list of the greatest baseball movies ever made that we were Number One. This was a great accomplishment.
You have had a lot of great opportunities as a result of the League, so tell me about a few of them.
SJF: There was a Baltimore Orioles game and many of the women in the League were invited. This has been going on for 12 years. We are treated so well at the ball park and get to throw out the first pitch. We signed autographs on baseballs and shirts. Of the 11 of the 12 years we’ve never seen a full inning of a ball game because we are so busy signing autographs. One time, I thought the line would never end. The kids and adults there all wanted our autographs.
Over the years did you stay in touch with the ‘girls’ in the League that you befriended?
SJF: Yes, I did. The first reunion was in 1982 in Chicago, and I called Maggie Russo, a teammate of mine from New York and said, ‘Let’s pretend we are going to spring training again. It was a 17-hour bus trip and we had as many women as they could find – about 150 of us. We had a great time. While we were there we had a meeting and someone suggested that we petition the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., for us to have a display. We didn’t want to be inducted into the Hall of Fame; just recognized there. We petitioned them in 1982, and it took them six years to agree.
Did you go to the event?
SJF: Oh, yes. My father was 88 years old and we brought him there to see the display. There were so many of us who returned to Cooperstown in 1988. So many girls and their families. It was a beautiful display and I saw a 1954 Rockford Peaches ball with my name across the top, so I was kind of happy about that. A couple of years later they moved the display and all of our names appear on a big card. There is a machine where you press a button and certain players talk about their experiences. We keep in touch and we have a reunion every year. This year, it will be in Kansas City, MO. From September 6-9, and it will mark the 75th Anniversary of when it started.How close was the movie A League of Their Own to what you experienced when you were with the actual League?
SJF: Pretty close. Of course, they Hollywood-ized it. The scene with Madonna dancing in the club wouldn’t have happened – any girl who behaved like that would have been sent home. The League had been in operation for two years when I got there and I was there for two years.
What else did the movie highlight that rang really true?
SJF: In the beginning, they had to go to charm school. They walked with a book balanced on their head. There was nothing wrong with women playing – but they still had to act like ladies and play ball like men. We had a chaperone, who had played ball and hurt her knee so they chose her to become our chaperone. When I talk anywhere I say that thank goodness that part was over when I arrived because I might not have made it. I may not have been charming enough. I was 17 when I left high school early to join my team. I didn’t get homesick because I was doing what I love. If you love something and get paid to do it, you really don’t consider it work. It’s a labor of love. After the two years, I would have played baseball for free.
Please talk about being in the movie A League of Their Own.
SJF: I was driving the bus and a letter came from Columbia Pictures asking if I could come to Skokie, Illinois, for several days to audition for the movie. All the girls who played the parts in the movie were there and they said they were going to get someone who looked like me for the final reunion scene in Cooperstown. I was on the screen twice – eight seconds of fame. [This was while Madonna’s song This Used to be My Playground evoked emotion in the background.] That was my movie career. But the movie came out in 1992, and another ball player and I went to a special showing that was12 miles from where I live. The newspaper took a photo of me and Joanne McComb, from a small-town outside Pittsburgh, sitting on the curb under the marquee.You have had so many amazing adventures – all from going after your big dream.
SJF: I am having a wonderful life. I have been blessed more than I deserve. I talk to seniors in high school, college students, people in nursing homes, and all kinds of groups. I feel that when you have something great happen to you in your lifetime it’s time to give back. I get thank you cards from girls who come to my talks and I hold them so dear. One recent card said, ‘After hearing you talk I know now what I want to do with my life.’ So many young people tell me what an inspiration I am to them, especially the girls who know it is still a man’s world and girls have to work harder and longer to achieve what they want.
Do you still keep in touch with the players from the League?
SJF: Yes. There are less than 100 women left out of the 600, and I was one of the younger ones. So, the older we get the harder it is to have these reunions. I don’t like to fly any more, getting old is not for sissies, and I stay close to home these days, but I write to the ball players and talk to them on the phone. All of this continues to be the greatest blessing for me that I love to share with others.
How do you think being an athlete and physically fit has helped you through the years stay fit and active?
SJF: Oh, definitely. I met a lady recently who asked me how I was doing. I told her that my knees and hip are shot and she replied, ‘Look what you put through your body through. I bet you’re are so sorry that you did that.’ I replied, ‘not for one minute.’ Some people might not have a dream so that wouldn’t understand, but I feel that we reap what we sow, and whatever comes along there is nothing better than having your childhood dream fulfilled.For further information about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, please go to: http://www.aagpbl.org/