All American Jersey Girl
Lois “Tommie” Barker
Everyone knows the definition of a tomboy, but few would consider it flattering. The case of Lois “Tommie” Barker, though, might prove the exception.
Although one of seven girls in a nine-sibling family, Tommie admits to growing up “more boy than girl.” The reason, she explains matter-of-factly, stems from the nickname she received as an infant. With wistful affection, she describes how everyone in her family had expected her to be a boy when she was born. Her parents even had the name Tommie already chosen before she appeared in this world on a cool, spring morning 82 years ago.
As she tells the story, her brothers and sisters, when passing her crib, would exclaim, “There’s our Tommie!” and the name stuck.
She’s not quite clear on how or why it happened, but she remembers as a youngster that she was “always on the ball field.” At age 82 and with a youthful twinkle still in her eye, she proudly affirms that, when she was growing up, she would “rather play baseball than eat.” In fact, all she ever really wanted to do was play professional baseball. To all of us who know the spills and thrills of the best game on earth, that sounds exactly right.
Fortunately for baseball purists everywhere, Tommie ate regularly enough while growing up in Chester, New Jersey to make it to tryouts for the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) in 1949. By the time that Lois “Tommie” Barker arrived in Irvington, New Jersey, for the chance to pursue her dream of a lifetime, the AAGPBL had already completed six seasons of league play. Formed in 1943 with four teams, the league grew to ten teams before eventually folding in 1954.
|The AAGPBL’s Four Original Teams
Kenosha (Wisconsin) Comets
Racine (Wisconsin) Belles
Rockford (Illinois) Peaches
South Bend (Indiana) Blue Sox
Tommie played only one year, that being the 1950 season, for the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Chicks. She retired from the league in 1951 to stay at home and tend to her ailing father. However, in the one season that she played, she made friends for life and became a part of baseball history that will never fade with the passing of time. In 1988, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York opened its first exhibit dedicated to the AAGPBL. The movie “A League of Their Own” depicted the ribbon-cutting event fairly accurately, according to Tommie.
She goes on to explain that the much acclaimed movie, which starred Tom Hanks and Geena Davis, generally portrayed the exploits of the AAGPBL’s teams and players in a true-to-life manner. Mr. Hanks’ movie character, Coach Jimmy Dugan, an ex-major leaguer, reflected a real-life Coach Max Carey, who had played professionally for the New York Giants. Ms. Davis’ All-Star catcher movie character, Dottie Henson, paid homage to the league’s real top performer, Dottie Hickson, popularly known at the time as “The Queen of Diamonds.” The league’s public relations director in the 1940s, Ken Sells, became Ira Lowenstein in the movie. Tommie sadly related that both Dottie Hickson and Ken Sells are now deceased.
Tommie and ex-Grand Rapids pitcher, Erlene “Beans” Risinger still correspond frequently, and they stay abreast of former teammates and rivals at the AAGPBL biannual reunion. This year’s reunion, planned for Palm Springs, California, November 7-11, promised to be as exciting a gathering as any that have taken place to date. Planned activities included a golf tournament, a casino night, a Mexican Fiesta Dinner, a pizza night, and a special event entitled “California Olympics III.” Anyone who might think that these history making ball players have lost a step had better think again.
The official AAGPBL publication “Touching Bases” keeps all ex-players well informed about happenings in each other’s lives. It and the AAGPBL Players’ Association in Arkadelphia, Arkansas make up the official registries of data about the league and the women who played in it. Interested NJB readers may contact Jeneane Lesko, “Touching Bases” editor, at 4401 145th Avenue NE #J-5, Bellevue, Washington 98007, at 206-714-4406, or at Jlesko@aagpbl.org.
Still, it’s the memories and tales of Lois “Tommie” Barker that endear and endure.
Those who saw the film will undoubtedly recall the character played by Rosie O’Donnell, who threw two baseballs simultaneously, with one hand, to two separate players standing side-by-side. Tommie remembers that an AAGPBL player known to her only as “Pickles” actually had that talent. An outfielder with “OK skills,” by her own admission, Tommie nonetheless completed a triple play unassisted. “Caught a fly ball, stepped on a base, and tagged a runner, all in one motion!”
Women In Baseball Exhibit
Baseball Hall of Fame
Among the most exciting memories she has of her professional playing days, “(was) making the playoffs after losing the first 20 games.” She describes the first AAGPBL game in which she played, a night game no less, when she felt “pretty nervous…lost a fly ball in the lights and it hit me on the head!” She claims not feeling badly about that now, especially after seeing Jose Canseco hit on the head “a few years ago.” At the time that it happened to her, though, all she wanted to do was “catch the next train back to New Jersey.”
Most of all, she misses playing the game competitively, and she misses her friends from the league who have passed away. She expresses extreme disappointment with the “me effort,” as opposed to team effort, that she sees in the game today. An admitted, former fan of the New York Yankees, Tommie chides George Steinbrenner for having “done more to ruin baseball than you can shake a stick at.” Simply put, she longs for the old days, when contracts “were enough to get by…(and) everybody didn’t go out and buy the best players.”
Most players earned “between $55 and $125 a week; (and) some pitchers made more than that.” Phil Wrigley, of chewing gum fame and fortune, founded the AAGPBL in Chicago, Illinois to provide a diversion from the horrors of World War II, for which many of the professional league’s best male players had enlisted. The movie depicted a chocolate company magnate as having founded the league because, in Tommie’s words, “Phil’s family did not want to be associated with the making of the film.”
While she offered no clear explanation for that decision on the part of the Wrigley family, she did not disguise her disenchantment with a little known fact surrounding the film’s production. In addition to the AAGPBL’s dedication at the Cooperstown Hall of Fame, the movie ends with a reunion game played on Doubleday Field by surviving members of the league. Although she was among those who received an invitation from the film’s producers, she refused to travel to Cooperstown because the women “had to pay their own way.”
Speaking of the famous film that depicted this golden age of baseball, Tommie confesses to another pet peeve. As accurately as the movie portrayed the women’s playing of the games, in some places, it fell prey to classic Hollywood hype. While team meetings between the male coaches and the female players did take place in the women’s locker rooms – properly chaperoned, of course – the movie inaccurately showed Coach Jimmy Dugan relieving himself at a urinal, in full view of his players.
Similarly, none of the female ball players took their children with them to away games or to sit with them on the bench during games, as the film implies. Finally, Ms. Barker took umbrage at the casting of Madonna in the movie. Knowing the popular singing star’s notoriety for raucous, on-stage performances, Tommie asserts that such “(was) not the way of life” when she played in the AAGPBL. Simply put, she believes that Madonna’s appearance in the movie suggested otherwise, at least with respect to the women’s professional baseball league.
Another aspect of playing in the AAGPBL that Tommie will not miss, and that the film does not adequately convey, concerns the grueling, all-night bus rides the players made to travel from one field location to another. The venues “were not bad,” she says – the AAGPBL played most of its games at minor league stadiums which were usually well maintained – but the hard driving traveling and playing schedule took its toll both physically and emotionally. Often, she recalls, those all-night bus rides ended with the women playing a Sunday afternoon doubleheader.
Incidentally, that bus that we see at the end of the movie actually came from a bus company in Chester, New Jersey, “right down the street” from where Tommie resides!
Tommie quickly reminds that the majority of her memories remain pleasant ones, and they more than compensate for the downside of her AAGPBL experiences. From seeing all the picture albums, baseball cards, and assorted print materials she still has, one gets the clear impression that she could talk for hours on end without breaking for so much as a sandwich. After all, she says, “that’s pretty much how it was back then.”
Tommie Barker &
Along with her memories of the AAGPBL, she cherishes the events that still take place in honor of that timeless, baseball era. She honors many requests throughout the year for her to appear at municipal holiday celebrations, charitable organizations, and other civic events, frequently with ex-major leaguers. Often she appears along with ex-New York (baseball) Giant Bobby Thompson, of “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” fame. That shot, of course, being the nail-biter home run he hit to end the 1951 pennant race that came down to the wire between his Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
She enjoyed attending a Somerset Patriots game and posing with Sparky Lyle, but she speaks disparagingly of ex-Yankee, Joe Pepitone, whom she says, “is a jerk – he wouldn’t sign autographs, he just walked away from the fans.”
Tommie Barker &
In relating her disaffection for what she has come to view as the modern player in the modern baseball era, Tommie focuses as well on nuances in how the game is played these days. She cannot, for instance, accept “how these hitters tip the bat when they bunt” or how they crouch and twist themselves at “the last minute when the pitch is coming in.”
“To make a sacrifice bunt, you have to keep the bat level and face the pitcher. That’s the way to bunt.” And who are we, we who could only dream of playing in the big leagues, to argue with someone who actually made it and realized the dream?
In addition to playing professional baseball, Tommie dreamed of living “in a house with modern indoor plumbing and running water, traveling someday to Australia, and visiting Alaska.” In 1942, at age nineteen, she lived in her first house that had running water. In 1949, at age twenty-six, she made it to the big leagues. In 1957, at age thirty-four, she and some close friends made the six thousand mile journey from Chester to Alaska by car. In 1965, at age forty-two, she moved into her first house with indoor plumbing. And, in 1988, at age fifty-five, instead of giving in to cheapskate Hollywood movie producers and paying her own way to Cooperstown, she took a vacation trip to Australia.
Looking back on it all, she has no regrets. She had those wonderful dreams, she says, and “by God, I’ve done every one of ‘em! I don’t care what happens now.”
But, Tommie, we care. To the diehards who, like you, love the game with the same passion and have the same dream of squaring up to a big league pitcher, you will remain forever young, forever a role model, forever a star. And we know that, down deep inside, you do still care. Your caring lies within your tales, your dreams, and your words of wisdom.
Otherwise, how could you tell us to “keep at it, if you have a dream?”