Play Like a Girl

Helen Callaghan

When I was young, there were three things you never wanted to hear about your baseball talent: 1. “You throw like a girl,” 2.”You hit like a girl,”and 3. “You play like a girl.” Yeah, it’s a sexist epithet, but at eight what did I, or any of my buddies, know about sexism? In keeping with the center fielders theme, here’s some thoughts on Helen Callaghan who played like a girl, a really talented girl.

Helen Callaghan was born in Canada and played both baseball and softball. In the 1940s, with wartime shortages of players, Phil Wrigley, owner of the Cubs, decided to set up a women’s professional league. Over the years it’s become most famous for the movies “A League of Their Own.” It’s a good flick, but historically it’s garbage. The movie shows Racine winning the championship, which it did, but it defeated Kenosha (not Rockford as in the movie). Sorry, team, but it’s true that Hollywood makes it up as it goes along sometimes (What? You didn’t know?). Movies that proport to give a “true” view of an historical event frequently don’t, so there’s no shame in doing the same with women’s baseball, if you’re Hollywood. Besides baseball already has a whole series of myths, so what’s one more? Callaghan and her sister, however, were not myths. Helen Callaghan got to the league in 1944, playing center field for Minneapolis. They were terrible, she was good. She was second in the league in hitting (.287) and third in stolen bases with 112. That indicates there were not a lot of strong armed catchers in the league (they threw like a girl?).

1944 Minneapolis Millerettes (Callaghan is second from right on the front row)

In 1945, Minneapolis shifted the franchise to Fort Wayne, became the Daisies, and Calaghan led the league in average (.299), home runs (3), and total bases (156). She led the team to the league finals, where they lost to Rockford (without either Gena Davis or Madonna). In 1946 she had a down year, was sick in 1947, pregnant for most of 1948 (she played a handful of games). She was back for one final year in 1949, then retired. Her career numbers are not complete, but the best I could find on her give the following stats: a batting average of .257 in 388 games with 7 home runs and 85 RBIs. She stole 354 bases (almost one per game), scored 249 runs, with 225 walks, and 161 strikeouts. If those numbers are complete, her OBP is .359 with a .319 slugging percentage, making on OPS of .678. Not bad for a  girl (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

She had several children, including Casey Candaele who got to the big leagues in 1986 and hung around to 1997. Considering his genes I guess that means he played like a girl. Momma out hit him by seven points, but he had more home runs. She got to see him play before dying of breast cancer in 1992. To this day they remain the only mother/son combination to play professional baseball at the highest level available to them.

One of the things I’ve been typing a lot recently is a sentence that goes something like “It’s really hard to evaluate…”. Maybe that’s because I’m looking at obscure things. But it’s true of Callaghan and the entire women’s league. First, there’s the obvious question of physical differences (no male palyer is going to lose part of a  season to pregnancy, for instance). Then there’s the question of quality of competition. There are also problems with length of season and field conditions. I know nothing about the playingfields except some very rudimentary information so can’t speak to how that effected play. So how good were women like Callaghan? As I’ve also been typing a lot recently, I’m not sure. Could some of them made the minor leagues? My guess is that the very best could have gotten into the minors. At what level is another question. As far as the big leagues go maybe the absolute cream of the crop player like Joanne Weaver might have managed a few games, but even that seems a stretch, although during World War II playing levels were way down. A speedy outfielder with a good batting eye might even be a better possibility.

Whatever the answer to those questions, I’m glad the women got a chance to play. It certainly gave people like me a chance to write about something I wouldn’t normally write about. It made a pretty good movie, giving us the great “no crying in baseball” line. And, although I’ve not seen it personally, I understand it makes a pretty good exhibit at the Hall of Fame.

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