IN A LEAGUE OF HER OWN
SOPHIE KURYS does not have much good to say about today's ballplayers. "Overpriced and overrated," she calls them. She also thinks the ticket prices at spring training games are too high. Not to mention that baseball games these days go on too darned long.
Sophie Kurys has opinions on just about everything to do with baseball. And they're worth listening to.
Not only is she a former player--with the old All-American Girls Professional Ball League--she holds the stolen-base record in professional baseball.
For 13 seasons, Sophie Kurys' legs were bruised and skinned from barreling into bases wearing the stockings and short skirt the league uniform required. She stole 201 bases that way in a single year, 1946, and 1,114 in a career that lasted from 1943 until 1955. Her closest competitor, Rickey Henderson, has stolen only 130 bases in a year and a little more than 1,000 in his career. "It amazes me," Kurys says, "that the ballplayers today don't steal more bases than they do."
The story of the era when women played pro baseball--yes, baseball, not softball--will be told in the movie A League of Their Own, starring Madonna, Geena Davis and Tom Hanks, opening in the Valley on July 1. The film, directed by Penny Marshall, is a fictional account of two sisters in the league, and not based on any specific players.
"I just hope they show that we could play ball," says Kurys, "that we were not a fluke."
Kurys, now 66 and retired in Scottsdale, sounds like any other retired athlete deploring today's players when she says, "We were tougher than the men--I'll tell you that." Then she asks: "Can you imagine playing when you're menstruating? God, they don't play if they've got a hangnail."
Today she is still lanky and athletic, with short, curly brown hair, blue eyes and strong features. In her living room, religious pictures share space with family photographs and bubblegum cards of other players from the All-American Girls Professional Ball League. The French Open is on a large-screen TV.
Because of the upcoming release of the movie, Kurys and other women who played ball professionally have been receiving publicity. This allows Kurys to tell stories about some of the writers and photographers who've been out to interview her.
There was the baseball-illiterate man from Smithsonian magazine who wanted to know why she was wearing her glove on her left hand.
"Because I'm right-handed," she said evenly, as if explaining a difficult point to a particularly slow child.
Then there was the photographer who pointed to a base and suggested she take a lead off it, as if getting ready to steal.
"That's home plate," she said patiently.
Sophie Kurys, who's apt to address you as "Kiddo" after a fairly brief acquaintance, loves telling stories like this. While the publicity she's been receiving pleases her, it does not exactly overwhelm her. After all, the women have been waiting 30 years for recognition. Besides a trip to Hollywood with other former women ballplayers--which allows Kurys, when consulting a calendar, to savor the words, "I should be back from Hollywood by then"--the release of the film has provided a soapbox for a woman full of baseball insight.
Although she thinks Rickey Henderson's an excellent base runner, Sophie Kurys has little else good to say about the the Oakland Athletics star, the man to whom sports reporters inevitably compare her. Always a team player herself, she dislikes his "moaning" about his salary and his refusal to carry his load. Don't look for adulation for base-stealing New York Met Vince Coleman, either. "He doesn't have the smarts as far as running the bases," Kurys says. "He's not reading the pitcher. He's caught off first more than he should be."
And Gary Scott, third baseman for her beloved Chicago Cubs, should stop swinging from the heels. He should choke up on the bat and poke the ball into the outfield. "He got one home run and it must have gone to his head," Kurys says.
Not that Kurys lacks for heroes. In an old scrapbook she's got a picture of Forties slugger Hank Greenberg with the notation, "My favorite ballplayer." "He never complained," she says. Today she admires the Cubs' Ryne Sandberg for similar reasons. "He's a class act," she says. "He doesn't mouth off."
Kurys was 17 when she left Flint, Michigan, to join the Racine Belles as a 5-foot-5, 120-pound second baseman.
"It was a very special time in my life," Kurys says of the 13 seasons she spent playing professional ball. "I was a very intense ballplayer."
It wasn't just a game, it was her career--and more. "Your work is your life," Kurys says. And so her memories are the same as any retired major leaguer's: the pitcher who angered her by throwing a little too inside, another pitcher who told her with feigned concern after a game, "You look so thin I thought you had TB!"
She got her start in baseball in an empty lot cater-cornered from her house, playing with her brother. The neighborhood kids used to sew and resew a baseball with butcher's string. She was not discouraged from playing ball because she was a girl; in fact, she remembers a man from the neighborhood watching her one day and saying, "You're a good ballplayer. Some day you're gonna be somebody."
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.
That game was the basis for an article in Sports Illustrated for Kids last year. Two kids travel in a time machine to watch the Belles-Peaches game--and remark upon the skirts and the designation of the women as "girls."
In her rookie year, Kurys played in the first night game ever in the Cubs' home, Wrigley Field. Seven thousand fans attended, and Kurys got three hits in four at bats.
The Cubs themselves didn't play at night there until 1988. Amid the newspaper publicity surrounding the Cubs' first night game, Kurys picked up the telephone and dialed her local sports desk to tell them about the 1943 game.
"Oh yeah?" said a bored voice on the other end.
"I know you don't believe me," she told the reporter, "you think I'm some sort of a kook. But that's the truth."
"Well, thanks for calling," the voice said, hanging up.
"That's the way it goes," she shrugs. "We were always secondary, right?"
In the league's heyday during World War II, daily newspapers covered the women's games and printed box scores. The games drew crowds, too. On cold Midwestern nights, the fans--up to 5,000 or so a game--huddled in coats and warmed themselves with thermos jugs of hot coffee, while the girls shivered in their skirts.
The league folded in 1954, killed by the return of the ballplayers from the Korean War, major league TV and the lack of a girls' minor league system.
Kurys then played professional softball in Chicago and Phoenix. She played against a male team in a charity game, "but they paid us on the side, because we were professionals."
After her baseball career was over, Kurys went into business in the town she'd played for: Racine, Wisconsin. She worked for a company that manufactured aeronautical and automotive electrical parts until 1972, when she moved to Phoenix. Here, she worked as a sales rep for Apex Machine Products until two years ago, when she retired. Now she keeps busy by playing golf a couple of times a week and working for her church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
In 1988 Kurys and other All-American League vets were invited to the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, to open a permanent exhibition on the women's league.
"At long last we're getting some recognition," she says. "People are beginning to realize that there really was a major league for women. It's my theory that some of those women should be inducted into Cooperstown. After all, we played just as hard as the men."
She points to a photograph of the display at Cooperstown, on the bookcase with her religious pictures and family snapshots. Typically, she doesn't gush over how wonderful it is. "I hope they leave it up," is what Sophie Kurys says about the display at Cooperstown.
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