History made in Rockford: International Women’s Baseball Center opens

ROCKFORD, IL—On a beautiful sunny day, sitting in the bleachers listening to the crack of the bat and the sound of the ball smacking the catcher’s glove, it felt like just another day at the ballpark.  This day was different as you look around and see the historic sign proclaiming you are at Beyer Stadium.

For those who do not know their history Beyer Stadium was the ballpark used in the 1940s and 1950s by the Rockford Peaches, member of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).  The city of Rockford worked to restore the ball park and it reopened in 2010.  This Labor Weekend saw us all watching a women’s baseball tournament with games on Saturday and Sunday with the championship game on Labor Day.  Teams came from Washington, D.C., and Chicago to play the hometown Rockford Starfires.  Exciting baseball thrilled fans and family who came to cheer on the ladies.

The real history being made in Rockford came with the chance to connect the present to the past.  Across the street from the stadium are two old factory buildings with a large parking lot in between them.  Arriving on Saturday morning one immediately notices something was different.  Sitting in the middle of the parking lot was a large blue bus that had seen better days.  All day long people came by to see the bus and to take their picture in front of the bus used by the Rockford Peaches back in the day.  The bus will become a part of the new museum which will be housed in one of the two surrounding buildings.  The city of Rockford worked with the park district and local business men to donate the buildings to the International Women’s Baseball Center (IWBC).

Former hockey player Eddie Stumpf manages the Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girl's Professional Baseball League. Five of his players crouch in front of him and wait for instructions. | Location: midwestern USA.
Former hockey player Eddie Stumpf manages the Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girl’s Professional Baseball League. Five of his players crouch in front of him and wait for instructions. | Location: midwestern USA.

The main event of the weekend took place on Saturday evening as preparations went on all day to celebrate the handing over of the keys to the future.  According to Dr. Kat Williams, president of the IWBC and Marshall history professor, “This was the culmination of everything ever done or been.”  She came to love baseball as a kid, saying it literally saved her.  It was where she found herself and she wants other girls to have that chance.  The common message heard all day reflected the importance of this event in bringing together the past, present and future of the game.  As the event kicked off with all the dignitaries from Rockford also present were members of the AAGPBL, members of the Board of the IWBC and many of the players from the teams playing in the tournament, the past, present and future of the game.

Kaitlyn Haines, Masters student at Marshall University, came to sell merchandise to help the IWBC raise funds for the renovations needed going forward.  “This museum further legitimizes the idea of women in baseball, showing people what happened in the past and working toward the future,” Haines said. “With a new museum and education center it will be hard for anyone to deny the role of pioneers.  The girls today need role models to move forward.”

Perry Barber, longtime umpire at every level of the game, talked about the importance “of having a place to go to, not just the internet but a concrete place of togetherness and sanctuary.”  Having a place will make people about Rockford when they think about women in baseball.  “The museum might look like a red brick building but it is the Taj Mahal for women in baseball.”

The new museum will be interactive—people will walk in and feel like they are part of the history of women’s baseball.  “It will merge the past, present and future of women’s baseball and allow the IWBC to have a presence wherever women are playing, to make people more aware,” said Betsy Alverson, who plays herself but whose mom also played in the AAGPBL.

Former player Shirley Burkovich called the evening one of the highlights of her baseball career.  The first was getting into the league and the museum “is the culmination of the whole thing, bringing together the past and the future.”  For Burkovich and fellow AAGPBL player Maybelle Blair, another highlight came when Dr. Williams announced that the education center will be named the Blair-Burkovich Center, as a tribute to the past and a nod to the future.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - APRIL 15: Former Baseball player Shirley Burkovich backstage during the Women's Sports Foundation's "Billie Awards" held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 15, 2008 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for The Billies)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA – APRIL 15: Former Baseball player Shirley Burkovich backstage during the Women’s Sports Foundation’s “Billie Awards” held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 15, 2008 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for The Billies)

Midway Village had a presence at the event and Lonna Converso, marketing and social media director for the museum said they had to be there because the Peaches have been so important to Rockford.  The center will bring people to Rockford, IL and create further ties to the history of the region.  Part of the museum’s display included not only Rockford Peaches t-shirts but also ladies sporting the Rockford Peaches uniforms, showing off those ties between baseball and Rockford.

Two D.C. Thunder players, A. J. Richard and Jen O’Keefe, focused on how much is happening and how great the future for women’s baseball is.  Girls don’t have to take no for an answer anymore as they see so many women involved in all aspects of the game.

Events like this one are rejuvenating and keep people focused on the future.  Legal Counsel for the IWBC Donna Cohen said the whole thing made her cry.  When asked why she said, “Because there is so much perseverance, courage and tremendous heart shown by all these ladies.”  Marshall history professor Greta Rensenbrink loves what is happening because “it becomes immediately visible why the past is so important.”

ROCKFORD, ILLINOIS - 1944. The Rockford Peaches of the All American Girls Baseball League pose for a team portrait at home in 1944. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
ROCKFORD, ILLINOIS – 1944. The Rockford Peaches of the All American Girls Baseball League pose for a team portrait at home in 1944. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)

Tracy Reiner and Anne Ramsey, actresses who played Betty “Betty Spaghetti” Horn and Helen Haley, respectively, in the movie “A League of Their Own”, were excited to be a part of the historic night. But their message was “Let’s carry it on, Keep it going.”

The world was changed by the ladies of the AAGPBL and will continue to be changed by the ladies of today and tomorrow.  Maybelle Blair reminded everyone this was her dream for many years and the city of Rockford made it happen.  Kat Williams ended the evening after accepting the keys to the future reminding the hundreds present that “the job is not contained inside the buildings, but it is taking the history and stories out to everyone.”

The inspiration did not end with the ceremony on Saturday night but continued through the games on Sunday and the championship game on Monday morning between the Chicago Pioneers and the Great Lakes Lightning—a true gem won by the Lightning by a final score of 1-0.

Women’s baseball has been and will now continue to always be associated first and foremost with the city of Rockford.  The past, present and future of women in baseball now have a home in Rockford, IL.

Leslie Heaphy is a professor of history at Kent State, chair of Society for American Baseball Research’s Women in Baseball committee since 1995.

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