Longform

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!"

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John B. Holway