IN A LEAGUE OF HER OWN

THE MEN WERE AT WAR, THE WOMAN WERE ON THE FIELD AND SOPHIE KURYS WAS PROBABLY STEALING A BASE

Kurys was playing for a girls' team in Flint when some friends saw an article in the paper about a scout from Chicago holding tryouts. "They said, 'You're going.'"

The league was formed in 1943 by Cubs owner Phil Wrigley amid fears that the war would close down the men's major leagues. It didn't, but the girls' league thrived anyway.

At first they played a modified softball; the ball was large, and the base paths and pitching distance were short. Kurys was paid $85 a week as a rookie. Gradually the ball shrank, and the distances and pay increased.

Although they were professional athletes, the players were treated as women first and required to wear skirts. Kurys still gets impatient when she thinks about those skirts; she calls them "dumb," explaining that the uniform, of course, was a man's idea. "The girls had to pin them to pitch," she says. But because they were pros, the players wore spikes, just as the major league men did, adding a dimension of danger to the double-play pivot. It was a peculiar double standard.

Another instance of the double standard concerned housing. "We were housed in family homes; we were their daughters," Kurys says. "They went to the ball game every night; it was a family affair."

The young ladies were also sent to charm school, and every team had a chaperon. (The girls once smuggled a male coach's trousers into the chaperon's locker as a practical joke and had quite a giggle over it.)

It took time to win over the fans, too. "Men couldn't believe we could play ball as well as we could," Kurys recalls. She remembers overhearing a man at a game in Illinois saying to a friend, "Wow, that girl can really play ball." "She was a blonde; you know how men go for blondes," Kurys says. It took the man longer to realize she was a ballplayer. While Kurys is aware of such instances of belittlement, she prefers to talk about her game, which was well-rounded. "I was a complete ballplayer," she says.

The second baseman's former shortstop agrees. "Sophie was a very underrated infielder," says Lavone "Pepper" Paire Davis of Van Nuys, California, who played with Kurys for Racine. "She looked awkward, because she had a way of squatting down and flapping her arms to the side, but she made the plays. She and I were a very good double-play combination."

Kurys' accomplishments in the field, however, were overlooked only because her real forte was the stolen base. Kurys stole 104 bases in 106 games as a rookie and for the next seven years averaged more than a steal a game. The newspapers called her "The Flint Flash."

Sliding in a skirt was a problem. Kurys' manager tried taping sliding pads to her legs. But they were so cumbersome, she says, "I told him no, I'd just get the strawberries, and they got calloused a bit." Almost half a century later, she still gets a twinge in a hip when she wakes up in the morning.

"In my whole career, I think I caught Sophie stealing only once," says Davis, who went on to play against Kurys and became a star catcher in the league. "You could have a shotgun arm, but it wouldn't do any good. But I think I nailed her stealing third."
Kurys' best year was 1946, when she was MVP and swiped 201 bases in 203 attempts. "I had a fast break," she says, grinning.

"Hey, Sophie, where's your trophy?" the other players chanted.
She is especially proud of the MVP award because she was selected by such former major league players and managers as Max Carey, Johnny Rawlings and Marty McManus.

The championship finals that year--Kurys calls it "our World Series"--went seven games against the Rockford Peaches. Rockford's Carolyn Morris hurled a no-hitter for ten innings, but the teams remained tied at zero.

"There were three or four squeeze plays," Kurys says, "girls making spectacular catches. They say Willie Mays made spectacular catches--Edie Perlick of Racine turned her back to the batter, all of a sudden she turned and leaped and caught the ball. I can still see her to this day."
With the game still zero-zero in the 14th inning, Kurys led off with a single and stole second, her fifth steal of the game. "I was about to steal third when the batter hit a single on the right-hand side. It went through the infield, and the outfielder was playing shallow." Kurys tore around third. "It was a close play, but I hooked away from the tag."

Racine won the championship, 1-0. A yellowed newspaper in Kurys' scrapbook describes what happened: "As she dove over the plate, her teammates and hundreds of fans swarmed onto the field to sweep up the girl who had staged an almost singlehanded offensive against the Peaches, a player who led the Belles at batting this year and set all-time league records for base stealing and scoring."

Brooklyn Dodger boss Branch Rickey was in the stands that day. Players recall that he said it was the greatest game he'd ever seen.

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