A League of Her Own: Kansas woman who played in AAGPBL kept alive by words, memories
WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Dear Mother,
We came to South Bend today and we’ll be here for about four days. It was rather chilly in Kenosha, but it’s certainly warm here.
Joyce Barnes wrote these words on July 8, 1943, using stationery from The Oliver hotel in South Bend, Ind.
Away from her home south of Hutchinson for the first time at age 17, Barnes was pursuing an opportunity that hadn’t previously existed for her or any other woman – professional baseball.
She was on the road with the Kenosha (Wisc.) Comets, one of four teams in the inaugural season of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. She was filling in her mother, Ethel, about the experience so far.
Her words to her mother reflect the exploits of someone gaining a broader view of the world, the angst of a teenager whose experience wasn’t quite what she expected, the bonding of young women from various walks of life and the war that served as the backdrop of and the reason for the league.
“I think she enjoyed getting to meet other girls her age who did do athletics,” Barnes’ daughter, Susan Bly, told Eyewitness News. “That’s why she wanted to join the organization, because she’s going to be with women who did have that kind of life.”
I want you to give Mrs. Nabors my address and tell her to write. You are the only one I’ve heard from yet, but I won’t be getting any mail for four days. What have Pat, Bobbie Lou and the rest of the kids been doing lately?
There was no indication of homesickness in Barnes’ letter to her mother nearly 80 years ago, but it was clear the only home she had ever known was on her mind.
Not that she wasn’t eager to leave. In fact, she had jumped at the opportunity.
Philip K. Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, started the league to fill a baseball void and entertain servicemen and defense workers. Many of the major leagues’ top stars had left to join the military as the United States fought in World War II.
Wrigley posted ads in newspapers across the country to recruit players for the budding league. One of those newspapers was the Hutchinson News, which caught the eye of Barnes, who was about to begin her senior year at Buhler High School.
“My mother is not backwards, she’s pretty forward,” Bly said. “She got a letter together and sent it to Wrigley and said she wanted to play ball and try out. She’s the kind of person that would sit down and write a letter like that and follow through on it. Talked her mother into going with her in the middle of World War II.
“(Going) on a train up to Chicago was something to do. Quite an eye-opening thing for her because she’d never been out of Kansas.”
I certainly have lots of fun although I’m getting tired of sitting on the bench. Do you remember Mabel Holle? She teaches physical education. I don’t see how she can be a teacher because she acts so silly. But if it weren’t for her, I would certainly be bored with sitting on the bench.
Barnes wasn’t the youngest player on the team – there was at least one player who was 16. She was one of the most overlooked, though, because she only played one position – pitcher.
That happened to be the position at which another player, Helen Nicol, excelled. In one game, Nicol pitched 19 innings.
“He (manager Josh Billings) has had Nicol pitch so much lately that she gets a sore arm,” Barnes wrote.
Because she rarely played and she needed to return to Buhler for her senior year of high school, Barnes’ time in the league lasted for just three weeks and 10 games. She had designs on going back after high school, but life got in the way.
“I think she was heartbroken because she didn’t play,” Bly said. “They’d already formed all the teams. They really had all their teams formed by the time she gets up there. She doesn’t go through that regular system that they had to interview them and let them try out. She didn’t go through a regular thing, they kind of just assigned her a team when she gets up there. A lot of the positions were filled.
“She knew she wasn’t going to make it for very long, because she writes letters back to her mother – ‘They’re not playing me. They’re not letting me play.’ And she wanted to play. She just wasn’t getting the attention.”
Audrey has had a stiff neck the last couple of days because she strained it looking at sailors.
There were plenty of reminders that a war was going on. One was that the league existed in the first place. Over in the major leagues, stars such as Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Yogi Berra, Duke Snider and many others enlisted in the military, making the big leagues a bit less of an attraction.
In sailor towns like Kenosha, baseball was devised to keep military members and defense workers entertained. The sailors were noticed plenty by the young women playing baseball, including Genevieve Audrey Wagner, known to her teammates as “Audie.”
As a teenager not yet out of high school, Barnes was certainly aware of the unrest happening around her and around the world. It just wasn’t occupying many of her thoughts.
“My mother probably wasn’t worried,” Bly said. “She’s 17, OK? And she’s a little bit more courageous than some 17-year-olds. So I don’t think she was worried. Her mother was, though. That’s why she went up there with her.”
He hasn’t told me anything, whether he thinks I’m any good or not. I guess I’m staying because they gave me a uniform and shoes. I’ve only marched in the V one night so far.
Barnes’ mother left not long after accompanying Barnes to Kenosha. She was comfortable with the chaperones, Barnes’ teammates and others watching over her.
Barnes’ time in Kenosha proved to be almost as short-lived. She didn’t get to pitch much because of Nicol’s presence, and even though she was issued a uniform, there wasn’t much of an indication about her status. Her favorite on-field experience was marching in a V shape with her teammates as a military tribute.
“(Billings) hasn’t told me anything, whether he thinks I’m any good or not,” she wrote. She also wrote, “He never gives them a word of encouragement, but he always tells them if they do something wrong.”
Bly remembers her mother as a strong, “ornery” woman who became a force of nature when her temper amplified. That part of her personality wasn’t fully developed at 17, though.
“I really think she probably was quieter,” Bly said. “There’s a shy side to her, too, although it’s hard to believe if you ever were to meet her. And she’s younger, so she’s not used to going in there and pushing herself in there. She was not quite that kind of person. I’m sure she would have had quite a time getting on to that type of team.”
Irene Ruhnke was transferred to the Rockford team and she’s doing good. The other night she knocked a home run. She likes it better there because she can play ball most of the time.
The Rockford Peaches were the team featured as the AAGPBL became immortalized in the 1992 movie, “A League of Their Own.” The franchise is being revitalized this week as Amazon Primes debuts a series by the same name.
Barnes, of course, watched the movie. She understood the need to embellish aspects of the league, to play up the characters and to dramatize the story for “Hollywood” purposes. There were some aspects the movie got right and some it got wrong.
“It was a movie,” Bly said. “Which is her statement, her way of saying it really isn’t quite like the way we were. She’s coming from a pretty protected environment and I think that movie, to make the movie more interesting, is going to show some things that really weren’t done by that girls of that age in 1943.
“She said their coach never got drunk. She didn’t feel like the lifestyle they showed was quite appropriate. She didn’t feel like it was quite appropriate for her story and what she saw. They had that in the film, I think, some of the banding together of the women on the team and being recognized as athletes.”
Do you remember how disgusted Marian Wohlwender was, and then she got knocked out the first chance she had to play? So she asked for her release. She left yesterday.
After I got my paycheck I went shopping with Kay Bennett and I bought a yellow sweater and a blue old skirt.
Audrey has been playing the last two evenings and she’s doing pretty good. She plays in the outfield now
To Barnes, these weren’t just names. They were lifelong memories.
Not long after high school, Barnes met a Navy man, William McCoy, and got married after the war. She became Joyce McCoy. She had designs on returning to the league but, according to Bly, William gave her a choice: Do you want to be a famer’s wife or a ballplayer?
She chose to settle down.
That didn’t end her time in baseball, though. She often attended AAGPBL reunions across the country. She was there when the league got a permanent display in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
She worked in war efforts at American Optical and lived to age 91 before she died on July 22, 2017. She lived out her years as a farmer’s wife, playing ball with the neighborhood kids. She took up golf and bowling. She raised her daughter, her only child, to love music and math. But in many ways, her time playing baseball defined her life.
“It was a big part it played in her life to make her the person she was,” Bly said. “She’s a little different from some of the other mothers, my friends’ mothers when I’m raised in the middle of Partridge. I always had a mother who was different, but it made a big change in the kind of person (she was) and what she did with her life and how she felt about things.
“I think she was happy with her life. She accomplished what she wanted to do.”
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