The Fort Wayne Daisies hat circa 1953. Revised to include Daisy.
The story goes that on Sept. 28, 1941, Lefty Grove Day in the great brick bastion known as Shibe Field in Philadelphia, Ted Williams was batting .3995 — a figure that would be rounded up to .400 and, though no one knew it at the time, make him the last pro ball player to ever reach that milestone. There were two games scheduled that Sunday, the last day of the season. A day and night double header between the Red Sox and the Athletics. Grab some pine, and the record would stand. Ted Williams would reach .400. Technically. Play, and the record could vanish, lost to the vagaries of strike outs, pop flies, ground outs, bad calls, limp, languid, lazy dying quails that died too soon or caught an unfortunate breeze only to land in a nest of worn leather, spit and palm sweat.
From 1887 until then, only 30 players had reached the mark. Rogers Hornsby did it three times. So did Ty Cobb. Ed “The Human Grasshopper” Delahanty did it two years in a row, probably the greatest streak of skill, tenacity, talent, luck and general ass kicking in all of sports.
“When you pitch to (Ed) Delahanty, you just want to shut your eyes, say a prayer and chuck the ball. The Lord only knows what’ll happen after that.” – Crazy Schmit.*
So what did Williams do? Sit out and secure a place in history? Or play and risk it all?
The Splendid Splinter played.
Williams went 4 for 5 the first game and 2 for 3 the second. He finished the season with a .406 batting average.
In the 66 years since that Sunday double header, no other professional baseball player has hit .400. Bill Terry did it a decade before Williams. Hornsby. Cobb. Harry Heilmann. It was a record, sure. A big deal. But it happened. It wasn’t impossible. But since Williams and the .406 carved out of a courageous, cocksure double header on a dead-end Sunday afternoon turned to evening in Philadelphia? No one. Nada. Nobody. A few came close. But Williams, a pompous blowhard who considered himself the best hitter ever and frequently said so, was the last.
That’s how the story goes anyway.
I wanted Emmeline to be a witch for Halloween. I looked for hats. An Internet friend sent a recipe for making long noses and pointy hats in the microwave, but I could never get it right. I went to the hardware store, searching for brooms, and I priced saws to cut them in half.
But my heart wasn’t in it.
I searched and searched for witch costumes and I kept running across these horrible, tacky little baby slut costumes. High skirts. Bare bellies. Lots of skin. Even for toddlers. I couldn’t bring myself to dress her up, and went so far as to skip the whole thing and buy a $10 pirate costume from Old Navy instead — largely because it looked really cool and because I’ve always loved pirates but also because with a few alterations to the brass festooned jacket, she could easily be Sgt. Pepper.
And what kid doesn’t want to be Sgt. Pepper?
Artie Wilson did it in 1948 — seven seasons after Williams. Pretty much every story you run across about batting averages and great hitters says that Williams hit .406 in 1941 and no one has done the same thing since. But Artie Wilson did it. He hit .402 for the Burmingham Black Barons in the last season of the Negro National League.
According to this wonderful article by baseball historian and essayist Eric Enders, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda called Wilson the greatest player to have never played in the majors. He shuffled around the Negro League and the Pacific Coast League, playing for the Oakland Oaks in a stadium not too far from what is now an Ikea. The truth is, he did play in the majors. In 1951, he largely sat on the bench for the New York Giants — going 4 for 22 in his only at-bats. Eventually he was sent down to the minors to make room for a hot prospect. Some guy named Willie Mays. (A one-time Barons teamate.)
Wilson never made it back to the majors. He kicked around the Pacific Coast League for the next decade. When he stopped playing ball, he started selling Lincolns in Portland, Ore., taking the record with him into anonymity. A closer look at some history books will say he’s the last ball player to hit .400. While it’s nice to see him get the credit, it’s not entirely true.
There was someone else.
Over the span over 100 years, no one had a higher batting average for the season. Not Williams. Not Wilson. Not the Great Dimaggio or Cobb or Shoeless Joe or Moonlight Graham.
Joltin’ Jo, they called her.
“Why he didn’t win an Oscar for this I’ll never know,” Dana said. “This is the best thing he’s ever done.”
“There’s no crying in baseball!”
“Exactly. Tom Hanks should be in Cooperstown.”
We were watching A League of Their Own Again because, well, it was on, and when it’s on we can’t do anything else but watch. Tom Hanks as manager Jimmy Dugan is cinematic gold. But our favorite part in the whole movie is that Movietone News reel about the Rockford Peaches or as they are known to a new generation of baseball aficionados, Madonna’s team. In the clip, the newsman says the girls are all about grace, agility, beauty. The homeliest player, Marla Hooch, is seen from afar, while the rest of the team smiles for close-ups. Just like in real life, the players put up with the marketing and the awful names — the Lassies, the Chicks, the Belles, Colleens and Sallies — because in reality, they just wanted to play ball.
And this was their chance.
“That’s it!,” I shouted. “She’s going to be a Peach!”
In an age when young girls are taught to use their bodies for showing off or are offered costumes designed to illustrate what they look like instead of what they can do, my daughter was going to learn about using a body for fielding, for hitting, for throwing out a runner at home from center, for sliding, for taking out the short stop on a 4-6-3 double play, for having fun, for getting dirty, for tossing the ball in a backyard and gifting a silly, frustrating, hopeful game to a new era, for spending countless, mosquito-plagued late summer evenings sending ghost runners around the bases one more time before dinner and hoping to god you have a team to root for come October and even if you don’t you hope to stay up late for at least a few innings. The first girl to ever play Little League, Carolyn King, did so in my hometown, Ypsilanti, Mich., and though I don’t want to pressure her in any way, I’m fairly certain that someday Emme will learn about a 12-year-old girl who beat out 15 boys to play shortstop in 1973. And while it’s not lost on me that part of the all-girl league’s appeal was the attraction of seeing beautiful women in uniforms the guys would never wear — skirts — the reality is these girls just wanted to kick ass.
So I started doing research to make a Peach uniform and found something, someone, much, much better.
She came from Metropolis. Superman’s town. I’m not kidding. Metropolis is a small town, 6,000 or so people clinging to the Ohio River at the southern arrowhead of Illinois. There’s an annual Superman convention every year. The town is pretty excited to have landed actress Erica Durance from the Superman-inspired TV show “Smallville” this year.
In the 1950s, of course, it was even smaller. Farmland. Orchards. Ferries and bridges, dirt roads, factories, fields and sandlots.
She was a farm girl. The youngest of three sisters. Betty, her oldest sister, played for the Magnavox Television factory team in nearby Paducha. A scout for the newly formed All American Girls Professional Baseball League plucked her out of the factory field and put her in a uniform for the Fort Wayne Daisies across the border and a few hundred miles north in Indiana. She would later be known as “The Metropolis Mauler.”
If they only knew what was coming.
The next year, the scout came back for her sister, Jean.
And then, finally, it was Joanne’s turn.
She was 14.
“She had to get permission from school to leave and she got it, but they made her wait a year still until she could play — she was too young,” said her sister, Jean, in a telephone interview yesterday. (In reality, it wasn’t Jean. Jean has Alzheimer’s now and is being cared for by a longtime friend who answered the phone in Jean’s name but declined to give her own. Yes, it was all very odd, but the woman said with all the requests for simple autographs over the years it just became easier to be Jean for a few minutes. So there you go, full disclosure. Almost. Joanne’s younger brother, Don, still lives in Metropolis but couldn’t be reached.)
In 1950, at age 15, Joanne put on a uniform for the Daisies. The hat was simple. Red. It said “FW” on a white circle. She was No. 27. I couldn’t find her batting statistics for the year, but Betty was the league’s champion, batting .346. Same thing the next year. Betty won the batting title. After all, she was The Mauler.
Joanne was right behind her.
In 1952, things changed. The girls switched places. At just 17, Joanne took the title from her sister. Same thing the next year.
And let me tell you about 1954.
In 1954, 13 years years after Williams and six years after Wilson, Joanne “Joltin’ Jo” Weaver hit .429 — the last professional baseball player to hit .400 in a season. If you put her stat up against all the guys who have ever reached that milestone, she’d be ranked at No. 5. No other player, male or female, black or white, had a higher batting average the entire 20th Century.
“Let’s see, I met the girls in ’74, ’75,” the woman at Jean’s house said. “I didn’t even know for four years that they played ball. They all just went back to the farm.”
Joanne’s uniform is in Cooperstown at the baseball Hall of Fame. At .359, she had the highest career batting average in the all-girl’s league. The league disbanded before she turned 20.
After the 1954 season, the last season for the league — the guys had long ago come home from World War II and then the Korean War — Joanne went back to high school. And her record, somehow, vanished. Like the girls who spent 12 years skipping around the Midwest in skirts to play ball from Racine to Rockford, Minneapolis to Milwaukee to Muskegon and Kalamazoo and Springfield and Peoria, it largely disappeared.
There was great buzz in Metropolis when A League of Their Own came out in 1992. The Weaver sisters were mentioned in Ken Burns’ baseball movie. But every now and then, a major leaguer will get close to a .400 season. Only 24 have hit above .390 in the past century. Todd Helton got close in in 2000. Ichiro Suzuki always seemed to be a favorite to do it. And each time, Williams is the only one mentioned alongside the mark. Not Wilson. Not Weaver.
It just seems wrong to me. Girls played pro ball, too.
In 1998, Betty died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The day of the funeral, Joanne was given the same diagnosis. She died two years later.
I told the woman at Jean’s house that I was dressing my daughter as “Joltin’ Jo” for Halloween this year, or at least making her a cool new hat, and I could hear a soft chuckle on the other end of the line.
“She would have been glad to hear that. She loved baseball. Played wherever she could.”
She sat next to me on the couch. I put my arm around her. My legs tumbled over the edge and my feet sat comfortably on the floor. Her legs ended at my knee. Tired from a bad nap, Emme rested her head on my shoulder and pointed at the screen.
“Ball ball!” she said.
“That’s right, kid. Baseball. Can you say that? Base. Ball?”
I can probably count with one hand the times I’ve let Emme watch TV. Once when Barry Bonds was up to bat, just so, for better or worse, she could say one day that yes, she’d seen him hit — even though she won’t remember a thing about it. The Super Bowl. Last year’s World Series. And this year’s playoffs. The season is almost over — only a World Series left between two teams I don’t care about but will root for nonetheless. And then, poof. It ends. Six months of a long, slow slog through winter guided only by a great green gift of spring and the promise that always arrives in April, the promise that maybe this year it will happen, that this year is different, that maybe this year is our year.
But six months is a long time to wait for another game. So I turned on the TV and sat Emme next to me.
She pointed at the screen again.
“Hat. That’s right!”
She laughed and pumped her fists. The kid likes hats. We both do.
Manny Ramirez stepped to the plate and the camera focused on his bat.
“Baaa!” she said.
“That’s right. He’s going to hit.”
We watched the game for a long time. Her head spun with bats and balls. Like her dad, she seemed to appreciate a good uniform and pointed out the numbers and stirrups and stitched logos. Emme eventually turned her attention to a book, and over the lazy drone of a boring game, I drifted off to a different era for a minute, a different game, a different league. I was back in 1954 when the last professional baseball player did something amazing, something historic, something that although few people seem to know about, no one has replicated since. Or even come close.
I squeezed Emme’s shoulder and pulled her closer.
“I’m going to tell you a story, kid.”
Men tossed a baseball on the screen before us.
“It’s about a farm girl. It’s about a record. It’s about baseball. And don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. Girls. Kick. Ass.”
*This long-winded diatribe called on stats and quotes from Eric Enders and his Artie Wilson article: “The Last .400 Hitter.” (Ahem, dude.) And also the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, the Hall of Fame, National Negro League, and baseball-reference.com — a fabulous resource for anyone with too much nap time on their hands. And no, it did not escape me that the only two players who hit .400 after Williams did so in the last years of their respective gasping leagues, when the pitching was probably Nuke LaLoosh before Crash Davis, but still. Girl could rope a ball. As they say.