A Lavender League of Their Own

A Lavender League of Their Own

Just in time for Pride Month, a new documentary brings an episode in baseball history out of the closet.

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There’s no crying in baseball,” says Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, the most popular baseball film of all time. But a more subtle theme of the film is that there are no lesbians in baseball. The film made no mention of the fact that many of the athletes in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) were lesbians, although none of them were open about their sexuality except to close friends and some teammates.

With the baseball season on hold, and fans resorting to watching reruns of major league games, a new documentary not only helps fill the void but also reveals an aspect of the national pastime that has long been in the closet.

A Secret Love, which debuted on Netflix at the end of April, tells the story of Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, who met and fell in love in 1947, when Donahue, then 22, was playing for the AAGPBL and Henschel, then 18, was a long-distance phone operator. The couple kept their true relationship a secret for more than six decades. They lied to their family and coworkers, describing themselves as roommates and good friends.

Both women grew up on Canadian farms. A topflight softball player in Moose Jaw, Canada, Donahue was recruited to join the AAGPBL’s Peoria Red Wings in 1946, remaining with the team until 1949. After she left the AAGPBL, she and Henschel moved to the Chicago area, where Donahue played part-time for professional women’s softball teams in the area.

Donahue rarely talked about her baseball-playing days. But after the release of A League of Their Own in 1992, she gained some notoriety. In 2010, the Kane County Chronicle profiled the 84-year old Donahue, who had been invited to be the grand marshal of the St. Charles, Ill., St. Patrick’s Day parade. The article described Henschel as her “cousin and roommate.” In an hour-long interview conducted that same year, Donahue doesn’t mention Henschel, much less lesbianism.

American culture had changed enough by the time Donahue died in March 2019, at age 93, that the AAGPBL posted a photo of the couple on its Twitter page, describing Henschel as her “partner of 71 years.”

Chris Bolan, Donahue’s great-nephew, decided to make the film after Donahue and Henschel came out to him in 2009 and began telling him stories of their seven decades together. He filmed the interviews in 2013 and 2018, so he was able to capture them in their final years as a couple.

Although they lived clandestine lives, they nevertheless documented their relationship in dozens of audiocassette tapes and photo albums, some of which are shown in the film. They met at a hockey rink in Canada when Donahue was back home during the off-season. When the AAGPBL season resumed, Henschel often traveled to the small Midwestern cities where Donahue’s team was playing to attend her games—and to have moments together. They would meet secretly in hotel rooms and churches in order to steal a kiss or hug in private. While apart, they wrote long love letters to each other, but tore off their signatures to keep their relationship secret from family, friends, and team officials if the letters were ever found.

The film chronicles their years together living conventional lives as a couple in Chicago. In the 1950s and ’60s, they avoided gay bars, which were often raided by the police. They feared that they could get arrested, be fired from their jobs, or, worse, deported to Canada. They had a small coterie of gay friends who socialized in each other’s homes, where they could be safer. When the gay rights movement erupted in the 1970s, they remained on the sidelines. They worked for the same Chicago interior design firm but hid their relationship from fellow employees.

The film also movingly recounts their later years dealing with declining health, moving to an assisted living facility, and coping with Donahue’s Parkinson’s disease. A Secret Love also depicts their decision to come out to family and friends, to live openly as a couple, and to get married in 2015, the first year that same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States, on Donahue’s 90th birthday. Bolan filmed the small ceremony.

Donahue was hardly the only lesbian in the AAGPBL, which was founded by Philip K. Wrigley, the multimillionaire chewing gum magnate who owned the Chicago Cubs. During World War II, professional baseball faced a labor shortage. Eventually, over 500 major leaguers served in the military during the war, while others worked in defense plants. The war depleted the rosters of many minor league teams; many were disbanded.

Major league owners worried that fans would stop paying to watch teams with second-tier players, but Wrigley figured they might buy tickets to see women play the game. The popularity of softball had exploded during the 1930s and ’40s, especially among woman athletes, but Wrigley insisted that the AAGPBL play regular baseball. He recruited businessmen to sponsor local teams in midsize industrial Midwestern towns within a 100-mile radius of Chicago. The league started with four teams—the Racine Belles and Kenosha Comets in Wisconsin, the Rockford Peaches in Illinois, and the South Bend Blue Sox in Indiana—and grew to 10. Over 600 players participated in the league, which operated from 1943 to 1954.

In the 1940s and ’50s, lesbianism among women was as taboo as homosexuality among men. One magazine article from 1943 expressed concern that the players in the new AAGPBL would turn women’s baseball into an “uncouth Amazonian spectacle.”

Because so many of the best female ballplayers were lesbians, it was impossible for the league to exclude them. But they had to keep their sexuality secret.

According to Kelly Candaele, whose mother, Helen Callaghan, was a star player for three AAGPBL teams between 1944 and 1949, “My mom, who was working in a factory in Vancouver, told me that didn’t even know about lesbianism until she joined the Minneapolis Millerettes. She said that all the players knew that gay relationships in the league were common, but also that nobody seemed to make much of it.”

Candaele, whose 1987 documentary for public television about the AAGPBL, A League of Their Own, inspired director Penny Marshall to make a Hollywood version of the story, said that among his mother and her fellow players, “their attitude seemed to be that what happens within the team stays within the team.”

Most of the players were from working-class families. Their salaries—which initially ranged from $45 to $85 a week—were considerably higher than those of most other jobs available to women, including jobs in defense plants. In fact, their pay exceeded what most men were making at the time. Even so, most of them had to work during the off-season, in factories or at clerical and office jobs.

The women gained self-confidence that helped them when their playing days ended. “It was just a chance of a lifetime to someone who loved to play baseball as much as I did,” recalled player Gloria Cordes Elliot in an interview for the AAGPBL oral history project.

While only 8.2 percent of the women of their generation earned college degrees—and an even smaller number of working-class women—35 percent of AAGPBL players secured a college degree, with 14 percent earning graduate degrees. Many became teachers, coaches, and advocates for women’s sport.

Wrigley and the team owners wanted to differentiate the AAGPBL from existing amateur women’s softball leagues, where players were often viewed as rough and masculine, and wore regular male-style uniforms on the field. Wrigley insisted that the ballplayers radiate femininity and the “highest ideals of womanhood.” The league handbook required players to “dress, act, and carry themselves as befits the feminine sex.” Wrigley wanted the public to think of the players as the “girl next door.” The AAGPBL enforced a cardinal rule among the players: “Play like a man, look like a lady”—or, as player Lois Youngen put it, “Look like Betty Grable and play ball like Joe DiMaggio.”

Each team hired a female chaperone to enforce the league’s strict code of conduct. After daily practices, players were required to attend classes run by Helena Rubenstein’s charm school that included makeup tips, etiquette, language, posture, social skills, and personal hygiene, plus the league’s strict dress code. Each player was given a guide with specific instructions on how to look and behave. It came with a kit that included cleansing cream, lipstick, hair remover, and other feminine products.

On the field, they played in flared skirts like those worn by women involved in figure skating, field hockey, and tennis, even though they were expected to slide, which led to many bruises. The chaperones taped them up and they’d continue to play.

Off the field, they were prohibited from smoking or drinking in public, required to get the permission of their chaperones for “all social engagements,” and to be in their rooms by a curfew hour. The league sent local newspapers profiles of the players, which focused not only on their playing skills but also their domestic skills and hobbies, such as cooking and sewing. In local ads and publicity events, the league promoted the most traditionally feminine-looking players.

Many AAGPBL players were married, engaged, or had boyfriends back home or in the military. Like many pro athletes, some had affairs during the baseball season. Some of those affairs were with men, while others were with female fans and teammates.

Nobody really knows how many lesbians played in the league, because they were all in the closet. But if a league official or manager suspected that two players were part of a lesbian couple or having an affair, they would refuse to let the women room together. One AAGPBL manager released two players whom he suspected of being lesbians, worried that they would “contaminate” other players on the team. One chaperone confronted a player after discovering that she was having an affair with a local woman. When the player insisted that she would continue the relationship, Fred Leo, the AAGPBL publicity director and later its president, contacted her husband, who came and took her home and out of the league.

Some AAGPBL players had long-lasting lesbian relationships during and after their playing days, but remained closeted. Even as interest in the AAGPBL grew after the Hollywood version of A League of Their Own was released, many lesbian players were reluctant to discuss their sexuality. It was only after they, or their partners, died that they came out of the closet, usually through phrases in their obituaries like “long-term companion.”

Mildred “Millie” Deegan, born in Brooklyn in 1919, was an outstanding athlete in high school. At 15, she came in second (to Babe Didrikson) in the women’s javelin throw and would have made the US Olympic team in 1936 if she hadn’t been too young. Her prowess on the softball field led to her nickname, “the Babe Ruth of women’s softball,” and in 1939 she posed for a photo with the retired Ruth coaching her with a bat in her hand.

Deegan joined the AAGPBL in its first season, pitching and playing second base for six teams during her nine years (1943–51) in the league. In 1944, the Brooklyn Dodgers brought Deegan to the team’s spring training camp at Bear Mountain, N.Y. After watching Deegan play, Dodger manager Leo Durocher told a reporter, “If we run out of men, Millie will be the first on the team…. If she were a man, she no doubt would have been a Dodger.”

After she left the AAGPBL, Deegan worked as a secretary and portrait photographer but continued to coach and play on women’s softball teams in New Jersey, where she met another standout player, Margaret Nusse. They became lifelong partners, but a 1993 profile of Nusse in the Tampa Bay Times described Deegan as her “cousin” and “roommate.” When Deegan died in 2002, however, the New York Times obituary described Nusse as her “companion and her only survivor.”

The 1972 Title IX laws dramatically increased the number of females playing high school and college sports, including fast-pitch softball. Professional women’s basketball, soccer, golf, and tennis have become well established. But since the demise of the AAGPBL, it’s been almost impossible for exceptionally talented female athletes to earn a living playing softball or baseball.

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