Shirley Burkovich: A League of Her Own


You may know them from the Tom Hanks movie, "A league of their own," but the truth is, the Rockford Peaches did more for girls' sports than provide entertainment. Shirley Burkovich was considered a warrior among women. The utility player, who passed away last month, has a story she claims may not have been known without the 1992 movie highlighting it.

Put me in coach

Shirley Burkovich was born in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, in February 1933. Her mom was a housewife, and her father was a steel mill worker. Burkovich found a love for baseball in her own time, which led to pickup games with her brother and the neighborhood boys.

"When I was small, we had a large backyard, and that's how I started, by hitting the ball up against the house, doing it that way, and then I graduated to the vacant lots and the streets and alleys of the city," Burkovich stated to an interviewer at Grand Valley State University.

By the time Burkovich hit high school, she had craved a chance to hit. She would join her brother and his friends as they practiced softball. They allowed her to snag fly balls during their batting practice.

In the same interview, Burkovich recalled that there were no opportunities for girls to do sports at that time, "we got to use the gym during our lunch hour because that's when the boys didn't use it, so the girls would go on there and play basketball." 

As WWII ended, Shirley's brother encouraged her to join the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). The women played softball, but the rules of play were those of Major League Baseball. The league ran from 1943 to 1954 to attract crowds to stadiums. Many franchisees were losing players to the war, and thus, a new baseball league was born.

Check out more AAGPBL interviews here

Putting in a little 'hustle'

According to her baseball profile, Burkovich finally joined the league in 1948, at just 16-years-old. Teammates gave her the nickname 'Hustle' due to her fierceness on the field. She spent her first year playing for the Muskegon Lassies. She would later move on to travel the east coast with the Springfield Sallies and Chicago Colleens.

Expectations were high for the players. A chaperone was for any female wanting to go out to dinner or a movie for an evening. When asked during an oral history interview of women in baseball if adapting to the rules and expectations was easy, Burkovich responded, "Well, adapting to them was easy because I didn't want to do anything wrong, anything to get me off the team, and you know, some of the girls would miss curfew and things like that, but there was no way that I was ever going to do that."

"I wasn't ever going to do anything that would jeopardize my chance to play baseball, so I followed the rules to the letter," Burkovich states in an AAGPBL Collection Interview

In her final year of playing, Burkovich joined the Rockford Peaches—most recognized in the movie 'A League of Their Own.'

Movies to Watch: A League of Their Own

Burkovich played 37 games, serving as an infielder and outfielder. 

"I played infield, I played the outfield, so I kind of filled a hole somewhere. Whenever someone wanted to sit down, or someone was hurt or whatever, I played that, so I played right field, left field, center field, and I played all the infield positions," Burkovich stated in the Oral History Interview.

Burkovich continued saying after the 1951 season, she felt the league would not last. She retired, taking a position with Pacific Bell (now SBC). "I had to decide between that opportunity to take that job or go back for maybe another one season or maybe two," stated Burkovich. "I didn't know how long it was going to last, and so I thought, well, I think I better set myself up for a job that I had a little security."

Changing the Game

Although modest, Burkovich and her teammates' pioneering in the sport would help push for Title IX, among other movements for women's rights in sports. For many players in the league, this was their opportunity to be able to contribute to society. Title IX ceased to exist during the league's tenure, but history shows that it slowly paved a path into the great unknown as these opportunities arose throughout the years. Burkovich joined former Major League Baseball players such as Mack Kuykendall in a group called "Sports Educators of America." This group provides free clinics to boys and girls. She stated that she wanted to show young people there were opportunities beyond the field.

Penny Marshall approached Burkovich in 1992 to appear in the Film 'A League of their Own.' Burkovich can be seen playing the role of older Alice "Skeeter" Gaspers, an outfielder for the Peaches. "Had it not been for the movie, we would have still been obscure," said Burkovich said in the Oral History Interview.

Burkovich would go on to establish the International Women's Baseball Center (IWBC)—a place dedicated to preserving the history of Women's Baseball and inspiring the next generation.

Read the IWBC's vision for the future of women's baseball

Burkovich lives on in film and women’s sports like many other pioneers, such as the first female PGA Tour star Babe Zaharias and the first female Boston Marathoner, Kathryn Switzer. The IWBC organization plans to build #APlaceofTheirOwn. They are currently raising funds to build a museum for the history of women’s sports that will include a Women’s Baseball Hall of Fame. The non-profit notes that there will also be an activity center dedicated to educating kids about the game and career opportunities connected to the sport.

 
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