First woman to play pro ball coaches film about her league

THE BELLES OF BASEBALL

July 01, 1992|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

Chevy Chase -- When the grandmotherly woman asked the clerk at the sporting goods store for a baseball bat and a left-hander's glove, the helpful young man asked the natural question: Who was she buying them for?

L "Why, for me," Clara Donahoe said in a who-else sort of way.

But then, how could the clerk have known that his customer's picture hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame -- and that she was on her way to help director Penny Marshall and her cast learn how to play the fine and feminine art of baseball for the just-released movie, "A League of Their Own"?

The movie is based on women like Mrs. Donahoe, now 71, who became the first woman to sign a pro baseball contract when she agreed to play center field for the Racine, Wisc., Belles in 1943 for -- attention: Eli Jacobs -- $75 a week. Mrs. Donahoe and her fellow Belles were the pioneer team of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which entertained the nation while the boys were off fighting World War II.

During the league's all-too-brief, 12-year existence, such teams as the Belles, Peaches, Chicks and Daisies managed to play real ball -- despite the indignities of sexist team nicknames, leg-baring dress-uniforms and mandatory charm school attendance.

"They had some stupid charm school we had to go to," Mrs. Donahoe recalled with a laugh. "Can you imagine baseball players in charm school? They taught us how to put makeup on. Can you imagine wearing makeup on the field?"

The peppery and high-spirited Mrs. Donahoe had been playing in softball leagues when she was spotted by representatives of Philip Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate and Chicago Cubs owner who created the league as a way of making sure interest in baseball didn't disappear during the war years. Clara Joan Schillace, as she was known then, had been a top athlete during her high school and college days -- setting track records and competing in several sports -- and at the time was a schoolteacher.

The Racine Belle "year book" in 1944, her second season, provides this info: "Age: 23; Ht: 5 ft. 3; Wt: 130; Hair: Auburn; Eyes: Brown; Bats R; Throws L. . . . She likes fried chicken and the color yellow. And she has an ambition to get married and 'raise a flock of kids.' "

"That's how we all thought back then," said Mrs. Donahoe, who went on after a four-year pro ball career to get married and raise three sons and a daughter (who, she fondly notes, didn't follow in her footsteps but rather "turned out to be a bunch of eggheads").

After signing her contract, the Wrigley organization asked which of the four organized teams she wanted to play for and showed her their uniforms -- she picked her favorite color, and became a Belle. (The league ultimately expanded to 15 teams, representing mostly smaller, Midwestern cities.)

The speedy Mrs. Donahoe was assigned to the leadoff spot in the batting order and, much to her dismay, was always getting the bunt sign when she wanted to swing away.

Still, she drew raves: A 1943 newspaper photo, showing Mrs. Donahoe stretched high in the air, arm extended to its limit to nab a fly ball, was headlined, "Racine's Brilliant Center-Fielder." The caption went on to call her "one of the most scintillating players . . . a standout in the league."

Off the field, the girls -- no one seemed to think the mostly twentysomething-aged players might be more respectfully called "women" -- were chaperoned and banned from wearing pants or engaging in other non-feminine sports such as drinking, gambling or staying out late. Despite the strict supervision, though, the girls managed to have great fun, especially at the expense of their gatekeepers, Mrs. Donahoe said.

A chaperon they called "Spike" -- for the spiked heels she wore even on the field -- was a frequent target of pranks for her utter ignorance of baseball.

"Once we told her, 'Go get the key to the coach's box, otherwise we can't unlock it and start the game,' " Ms. Donahoe said. Spike fell for it and ran herself ragged looking for the "key."

During the off-seasons, Mrs. Donahoe taught and worked on her master's degree. When it looked like her master's work would make her late for 1944 spring training in Cuba, she decided to make it look like a "hold-out" and said she wanted $10 more a week.

"They ended up giving me $5 more," she said. "I would have played for free."

Growing up in Melrose Park, Ill., Mrs. Donahoe became a "tomboy" despite her Sicilian father's belief that women belonged in the home. Her mother died when she was very young, and an older brother -- who noted her speed when they raced after fire engines -- encouraged her athleticism.

Although she had her share of fans, she married the brother of a fellow schoolteacher, Joseph Donahoe. She followed Mr. Donahoe, a foreign service worker, as he set up schools in such places as Germany, Iran (where she started a Little League so she could teach her own kids to play), Ethiopia and Bolivia. She taught physical education and science in some of the schools.

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