Woman's trip from attic to Hall only took 50 years

Phil Jackman

December 24, 1990|By Phil Jackman

So it came a tad early; still, it's making for a memorable Christmas.

The story has its second beginning last summer when an elementary school teacher in Massachusetts named Pat Biron was visiting a friend in upstate New York while on vacation. The friend suggested a day trip for the families to the nearby Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Anybody who has been to the shrine knows what an enjoyable time it presents in an ambience just right for the Grand Old Game. The plaques, the old equipment, the voices of Babe and Lou, the videos were just fine before Pat happened upon the "Women in Baseball" exhibit.

She casually mentioned to her friend that her mother had played baseball while in high school well over 50 years ago. In fact, the family had scrapbooks documenting the times tucked away in an attic somewhere.

The women talked to Hall of Fame curator Bill Spencer and he expressed great interest in seeing the scrapbooks. Some time later and unbeknownst to Nellie Twardzik, the fancy-fielding first sacker for the Bartlett High School nine back in the mid-'30s, the scrapbooks were in Cooperstown and being copied.

It seems Nellie showed up for ball practice as a sophomore and, upon seeing the way she could "pick it" on defense, coach George Finnegan said, "If you can hit, I'll find a spot for you."

Nellie recalled she didn't remind anyone of Ty Cobb: "I could field with any of the boys, but I was not a great hitter. I'd do all right some days. The bats were heavy and I only weighed about 118 pounds."

Naturally, the story spread quickly. "First time I ever had my picture taken in uniform," she said, "it appeared on the front page of the [Worcester] Telegram & Gazette. It was a big story, I guess, because I was the first girl playing baseball they knew about." Remember, we're talking 1934 here.

And how did all the aspiring young Pepper Martins, Bill Dickeys and Paul Derringers react to this "Jezebel" in their midst?

"All the fellows were wonderful. There was never a harsh word. They treated me like a lady," Nellie recalled.

Baseball was not just a passing fancy for Miss Twardzik. While playing three years of varsity ball, she maintained good grades, was a member of the student council and the glee club. Her record was sufficiently impressive for the principal of the school to line up a college scholarship for her.

"But not too many girls went on to school back then," she recalled. "You went to work, got married and raised a family." And that's exactly what she did as Nellie Thompson, but not immediately.

Following high school, she played with a number of men's semipro teams and even had a team of her own called Nellie's All-Stars. "Truthfully," she continued, "I don't know how any of it came about. It just seemed to happen.

"Over the years I played on teams with just about any of the men around here who played baseball. All the towns had teams and that's all people used to talk about. Sundays were strictly a family kind of thing. There was no one in the houses, they were all at the game.

"Sometimes, we didn't have a real field to play on. We played in cow pastures, or whatever. There was no charge to watch the games, but they did pass the hat for donations to pay for gas. We didn't play for money. We just loved baseball. Then the war [II] came along and it was never the same after that," she said.

No sooner had the Hall of Fame perused and copied the scrapbooks when the Nellie Twardzik Story became an integral part of the two-year-old "Women in Baseball" exhibit.

Considering there was a women's professional league from 1943 to 1954, numerous women are involved in umpiring in the minor leagues and, in recent years, there have been women big-league club owners (Joan Kroc and Marge Schott), the exhibit appeared overdue.

The Thompson family, recently, planned a trip to Cooperstown in order to surprise mom at the sight of her inclusion in the women's display.

"Biggest surprise of my life," said Mrs. Thompson. "I thought all that stuff was still upstairs in the attic somewhere." Instead, it's a permanent part of baseball's history and we all know what great pride the game takes in its past.

Oh, there is one particular picture in her collection the former Nellie Twardzik takes slight umbrage with. More specifically, it involves a newspaper cutline.

"There were some girls who played, although they didn't last," she said. "When they'd get to first base, I'd shake hands with them. Once they [captioned] 'Lend me your powderpuff.' I never used that stuff. Just a little lipstick, that's all."

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