This story originally appeared in the Journal Gazette
By Kayleigh Zyskowski
MATTOON — Barbara Gregorich grew up playing — not softball — but baseball until she was about 11 years old when she suddenly realized women do not play in the Majors.
“I knew there had to be others out there who love baseball just as much as I did,” she said, and that’s what prompted her writing a fictional book “She’s on First.”
However, as she continued her research she realized that women have not only been playing baseball within her lifetime, but over the decades reaching back to the 1800s when women played in bloomers and petticoats. Initially she didn’t feel that she was going to be the one to share the true story of female baseball players, but in the end she realized it was her job to share it.
“These women’s stories shouldn’t simply pass on with them,” she said.
During an event produced in part by the Illinois Humanities Council’s Road Scholars Speakers Bureau, Gregorich shared her research from her book ““When Women Played Baseball: The Story of Margaret, Nellie and Rose.”
Gregorich shared the stories of three teenage girls — Margaret Gisolo, Nellie Kearns and Rose Gacioch — who played hardball during the 1930s.
“These women never even considered playing softball, and that lead them into accomplishing all that they did throughout their lives,” Gregorich explained.
The teens played on Maud Nelson’s last bloomer girl team in 1934 just as the pit of the Great Depression was about to take hold of the nation. Each of the girls came from a different upbringing, but each had a passion for ball.
The Bloomer Girl teams were barnstormers; they traveled around the region and played against all-male teams.
“At that point most towns had baseball teams, and the Bloomers would come through and draw large crowds,” she explained. Typically the hometown teams would draw crowds of about 200-400 people, but when the Bloomer Girls came to town, surrounding community members would travel to town pulling crowds of up to 1,200.
Gisolo joined the Bloomers when she was banned from playing American Legion ball after her first year on the Blanford Cubs who she helped lead to an unlikely state championship. The organizers edited the charter, which changed the league from welcoming “young people” to “only boys.”
Kearns joined the team in hopes of keeping her sister Leone’s member alive. Leone died on a ship ride home from a disappointing baseball tour in Japan.
Gacioch made the team after losing both of her parents before the age of 17. She played for her factory team, and was asked to try out for the Bloomers and pitched in her first outing as a Bloomer.
The girls traveled together all the while bonding and playing jokes on each other. Eventually the Bloomers ended with the deepest fall of the Great Depression. Gregorich said over the course of her interviews each woman sited their time in baseball as a launch point for their future careers.
Following their baseball careers, Gisolo founded the Arizona State University department of dance, and taught athletes the importance of dance movements within their sport. While, Kearns joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She was later shipped across the same ocean that took her sister’s life and worked as a decoder in New Guinea and the Philippines throughout World War II.
Gacioch continued to play ball on weekend leagues until she tried out for the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, which is featured in the movie “A League of Their Own.” She tried out prior to the 1944 season and was selected by the South Bend Blue Sox at the age of 28. She was quickly traded to the Rockford Peaches where she held several season and all-time records
Gregorich conducted her interviews with the women over the course of four to five years while the women were in their late 70s to early 80s.
“Each of them lived to be at least 90,” Gregorich said, “and they were all in great health — it’s gotta be baseball!”
The talk was hosted by the Mattoon Public Library in support of the Mattoon Arts Council and Tourism Department’s Hometown Teams exhibit at Mattoon’s Illinois Central Railroad Depot Lone Elm Room.