My favorite Mary O’Meara story, and she told some good ones, was set in Kalamazoo.
She was Mary Froning then, playing professional baseball in a women’s league that blew through the Midwest like a fresh breeze in the 1940s and ’50s. One year, the league drew a million fans. The scene was colorful enough that in 1992, Penny Marshall, Madonna and Tom Hanks made a movie about it called “A League of Their Own.”
O’Meara — Froning — played outfield for the South Bend Blue Sox. “They expected us to play like men but look like ladies,” O’Meara told me, during a chat some years ago in her home on Madison’s West Side. “We played in skirts with shorts underneath.”
Part of the deal was a 10 p.m. curfew on road trips, which is why O’Meara and her teammates enjoyed road games against the Kalamazoo Lassies. Karl Winsch, the manager of the Blue Sox, planted himself in the hotel lobby, to make sure his players stayed inside, and out of mischief in Michigan. Winsch, however, had miscalculated.
“The elevator in the hotel went to the basement,” O’Meara said.
It’s doubtful the escapees caused too much trouble. They were having too much fun playing baseball. “The most enjoyable four years of my life,” O’Meara, who played from 1951-54, said later. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) folded in 1954, victim of a diminishing fan base that had discovered television.
There was always the danger that they might be relegated to a footnote in baseball history, but that didn’t happen. The movie was part of it. But four years before “A League of Their Own,” the AAGPBL was honored with a “Women in Baseball” exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, a display that has since been expanded and made permanent. The passion of the women who played the game made that happen, and one of them was Mary O’Meara.
O’Meara, who died last month, at 80, at Agrace HospiceCare, lived in Madison for more than 50 years. (There will be a celebration of her life on Jan. 10, time to be determined, at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish.)
After baseball, she moved to Rockford, and met Tom O’Meara, whom she married in 1958. Tom’s job brought them to Madison, where they raised four children. Their daughter, Kathy, is married to Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney.
O’Meara led an active life in Madison — raising the kids, working part-time, playing and coaching a variety of sports — and didn’t seek attention for her earlier life as a baseball pioneer. Still, she was happy to talk about it if a reporter came calling, as I did in 2008.
I’d heard a 73-year-old woman had been asked to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day at the West Madison Little League Softball-Junior League, a league for girls in their early teens.
It was O’Meara, of course, we met at her home a few days before she was to throw out the first pitch. We sat under a framed poster of “A League of Their Own,” signed by a number of the AAGPBL players.
It started, she said, with a stroke of luck. O’Meara grew up in the small village of Minster, Ohio, longing to play sports, but lacking opportunity. She swam, rode her bike, and jumped when given the chance to play weekend softball with a Catholic Youth Organization team.
She proved a natural, fast on the base paths, with a rifle arm from the outfield. Luck arrived one Sunday in the person of a board member of the AAGPBL’s South Bend Blue Sox, who was visiting his mother in Minster, and saw O’Meara play. Soon she had a contract for a tryout.
The AAGPBL was started in 1943 by Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley, who feared World War II might suspend Major League Baseball, which didn’t happen. The women, who first played softball, were a hit. The league expanded from four teams to 12, and by the time O’Meara signed her contract, in 1951, they were playing hardball, and pitching overhand. Out of 100 women at the try-out, O’Meara was one of four selected. She earned $50 a week.
They called her “Fearless Froning” for the way she crashed into fences chasing long fly balls in the Blue Sox outfield. Across her best two seasons, 1953-54, O’Meara got 136 hits and stole 58 bases. Her biggest thrill might have come early, in her rookie 1951 season, when the manager, Winsch, put her in a game for the first time, as a pinch-runner. “I’ll never forget it,” O’Meara said.
In the end, she forgot none of it. O’Meara attended the unveiling of the exhibit in Cooperstown in 1988. There were tears. All the players in attendance received lifetime passes to the Hall of Fame. It might have meant more than the movie, an official acknowledgment: they belonged.
Of course, the movie was great fun. O’Meara met Penny Marshall, who directed “A League of Their Own,” and the cast during the filming.
In 2003, a decade after the movie’s release, there was another honor, enshrinement in the Milwaukee Brewers’ Walls of Honor at Miller Park. O’Meara threw out the first pitch that night, before a game with the Cubs.
Five years later, it was the first pitch at the start of the Little League season in Madison. I had wondered if she was nervous about that. After all, she was 73. “I can still throw,” Mary O’Meara said.