July 21, 2010

A League of Their Own and My Aunt Gert Alderfer

Every few months or so, the movie, "A League of Her Own," seems to be playing on all the late night channels. If you look closely enough at the end of the movie when the Women's Baseball Hall of Fame comes into the picture, you'll catch a glimpse of my aunt - Gert (Gertrude Alderfer) Benner. Although the movie depicts an earlier time in the history of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, my aunt was very much a part of this history. For one summer in my youth, I was the leagues mascot.

The summer I turned nine, my family moved from Pennsylvania to Florida where my summers really did become endless. My favorite though was the short summer of my twelfth year when I was sent back to Pennsylvania to visit with my Aunt Gertie. Images of that summer flash through my mind and I remember the baseball games she took me to and the crowds of people running to get her autograph after the game ended - I didn't know why grown men, women, and children converged upon not just my aunt, but the other women as well.

And then I met boys - who informed me that my aunt was "the" Gertie Alderfer. As if I should have known who she was, which I did, obviously because she was my aunt. But then I realized that she was so much more.

[The photo on left is my aunt going in for a home run!]

That summer I visited aunt Gertie was my first indoctrination into the art of being a feminist, or a woman who walked the walk and spoke the talk. My mother and grandmother had been showing me in subtle ways all along. But it was my aunt Gertie broke barriers in an era when women were deemed unable to do more than just raise children and take care of the day-to-day life of running a household.

That summer I learned that my aunt Gertie was a celebrity in womens'  baseball (though technically it was called softball). The larger version of the ball was considered less dangerous. I didn’t realize that womens' professional baseball  was a big 'thing,' until long after the movie, A League of Their Own came out.

I was googling and typed in my maiden name - Alderfer -  then led to several sites on Ebay. I did a double take - a picture showing a much younger version of my aunt stared back at me. The ad attested to the validity of her signature on the baseball even though her trading card wasn’t made until a later date. The bidding was already at $300.00. I called my dad. “Did you know that Aunt Gertie is a celebrity?” I told him. “Her autographed balls are selling on Ebay.”

I knew my aunt's story because in many ways her story was also my story.Although I had only two brothers, with five brothers, my aunt took on every sport challenge they would include her in on and besides baseball she excelled at basketball and hockey. She could out run, out jump, out shoot, out pitch, and out throw any of her brothers and most of the males in her school. She has medals and trophies in numerous sports.

[The image on the right shows my aunt on the day of her wedding with my mother who was her matron of honor.]

She was also distinctly feminine and did all the so-called designated female jobs because she was the only girl until her brothers got married. Even so, she was never excluded from playing with her brothers because she was female and when she was thirteen, she tried out for a bat boy position for the Philadelphia Phillies, and was the first female to have this position.

At seventeen , aunt Gertie left home with her parents permission and played baseball professionally - in the women’s baseball league that lived briefly during the 1940s and 50s. She played first and second baseman for the Springfield Sallies, the Chicago Colleens, the Muskegon Lassies and later for Kalamazoo. She even played for the Rockford team and many years later, I traveled her old haunts, the same roads she had traveled by bus. Though I was traveling these roads in a comapny car, I passed through the same small towns where baseball fields still are proud of plaques that tell the tales of women, who played the baseball game.

Aunt Gertie could have continued in rising to a female athletes hall of fame, in fact would have continued as far as her sports venue could take her, but her mother, my grandmother got sick and my aunt stayed home to take care of her, then got married and had babies. The All– American Girl Baseball league ended in 1954 but my aunt continued to play baseball for numerous years.

One would think that women would have broken through the gender barrier in all sports when Title IX was introduced in 1972. The law simple states: No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

It would seem that women could have come a long way in achieving equality, could have overcome barriers,  in any and every venue they tried, but apparently this is not true, because in sports, an edict handed down to a fourteen year old girl said "she could not play football because she was female."

So, being a she is still a strike agaist you. Not so for my Aunt Gertie - she was inducted into the womens' Hall of Baseball fame.

Just because you are female should have no limitations on what you can or cannot do in life. Just ask my aunt, Gertie. She'll tell you just like the other women who taught me - "You can have anything or do anything in life you want, as long as you are willing to work hard for it."

Zoom . . . Zoom.

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