- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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The biggest hand of the night was reserved for them, three women -- two in their eighties, one in a wheelchair -- who competed more than 60 years ago. As they made their way to the pitcher's mound at an obscure field on the campus of a tiny college in a faraway suburb, the crowd of 615 roared their approval while the women in the home dugout did the same.
The women in uniform could not help being impressed. And, in many ways on this overcast night in Elgin, a little envious as well.
Among them stood some of the greatest softball players in the world, and yet they are arguably less recognizable and garner less respect today than the trio who have not played since Harry Truman was in office.
If this is a sign of how far women's sports have come, then it was and is a somber statement indeed.
"I'm very disappointed. It's very frustrating," said Chicago Bandits catcher Rachel Folden. "We have a very sellable product and we're not selling it."
Bill Sokolis, president and CEO of the Bandits, a member of the National Pro Fastpitch League, remains hopeful but disappointed at the league's rate of growth and can say only that his team "will be there in 2010. I can't forecast any further into the future than that."
Unlike last season, when Sokolis bought slots on Chicago's Comcast SportsNet for a handful of games, this year's exposure is limited to Major League Baseball's Internet streaming of NPF games, which draws about 1,500 viewers per month.
On this day, a game day, Bandits players, who average $6,000 per season, spent two hours at a girls' softball tournament trying to get the word out about a team that has been in existence for five years. This was a relatively slow day.
"There are weeks we're making four to five appearances, putting fliers on people's cars, going to tournaments, conducting clinics and we're still not bringing in people," said pitcher Kristina Thorson.
Sokolis doesn't get it.
"Not a day goes by that we're not out promoting," he said. "Every fan in the park who wants an autograph will get one at the end of the game. One of our biggest fans is an 11-year-old girl who had my catcher and one of my pitchers over for pizza the other day.
"Our players know they're ambassadors for the game. They're not walking by people who want autographs. I had Carlos Zambrano in my park and couldn't get an autograph. I hate to say it, but men are destroying everything I used to love about sports. These women are still playing for the love of it."
'We made all the plays'
Ginger Gascon once made $125 per week playing for the Chicago Colleens of the All-American Girls' Professional Baseball League. In her first season, her salary was $55, still more than her $40-per-week day job working in a factory.
"Most girls will tell you 'I made more money than my father made then.'" said Gascon, 77, who played from 1949-51, and still looks as if she could make the throw from third to first.
Gascon recalled that one woman, much-coveted pitcher Connie Wisniewski, made $250 weekly and was even given a chauffeur to games, while the Savona sisters were offered and accepted $325 per week.
Standing with Gascon behind home plate at the Bandits' home field, Terry Donahue remembered those days with clarity. She told of taking a train by herself at age 19 from her native Canada to the tryout in Wrigley Field in 1946.
"My poor mother had a fit," Donahue said. "But I was so grateful. I played for Peoria and in '48, the peak of the girls' All-American league, we drew one million fans.
"I think we proved we could play ball like the men. We couldn't throw as far or hit as hard, but we made all the plays. We made them all."
Watching from her wheelchair, Mabel Holle, 87, travelled from Lake Forest to attend the Bandits game and spoke of her one year in the league -- 1943 -- when the Jacksonville, Ill., native played outfield for the South Bend Blue Sox.
"I had a really strong arm," she said. "People didn't want to believe that girls were athletic, but we had great fast-pitch teams in tiny little towns everywhere. As the war ended, people had other things to do, and attendance dropped for some teams but not others. People loved the All-American Girls."
Gascon, a Chicago native and respected fast-pitch softball player who grew up in the shadow of Wrigley Field, was recruited at age 16 to play in the league created by Philip Wrigley to fill the void caused when major league players were off serving in World War II.
"Max Carey taught me to steal," Gascon recalled of the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer who later managed in the AAGPBL. "We played it for the love of it. And then 50 years later, we were a bunch of old ladies and Penny Marshall said 'Hey, come help us make a movie.'"
The league and the women's profile were raised enormously by the 1992 film "A League of Their Own," a project that brought little to no money for the players depicted because names were changed and storylines tweaked, something some of the former players were bitter over.
"Just a little money would've helped us," Donahue said quietly.
"We were a little naive," Gascon said.
But both women, like most of the former players, still enjoyed the association and even got in on the filming with some scenes shot of the real players at the end of the movie.
"I was a bookkeeper and accountant for 38 years and no one knew I played professional ball until the movie came out," said Donahue, 84, who was a catcher and utility player in the league from 1946-49. "When I told them, they thought I was kidding."
There are approximately 285 surviving members of the AAGPBL, which holds a yearly meeting/reunion and golf outing. The exposure of the movie has led to many of the women being invited to appear at games, speak to women's and civic groups and travel to card and autograph shows.
Most, however, sign for free or donate any money earned to charities, like Dolly Konwinski does for breast cancer research.
"I'm not there to get rich," said Konwinski, a last-second cancellation for the Bandits game but active in representing the old league. "Everyone welcomes us with open arms, with pictures and autographs.
"Because of the movie, it resurrected all of us old ladies. Now it's 'Can you babysit the grandkids?' 'Nope, sorry, I have a speaking engagement. This team wants us for the first pitch.' Now we're famous old ladies."
Expanding the 'bubble'
Rachel Folden wore her 2008 NPF championship ring proudly when she returned home to California after last season. She had it on when she went out to eat and to bars, and occasionally people would ask about it.
"I'd tell them professional softball," Folden said, "and they'd say, 'There's a professional softball league?' Granted, all the teams are out here [in the Midwest and East] but there's a huge disconnect. There's a bubble in each city where people know us and come to our games. But we need to expand the bubble."
Folden is typical of her teammates, most of whom coach or teach during the non-summer months or recruit on their off days. They live in dorms on campus. And while they may question why they continue, it is clear that their love of the game sustains them.
"Some girls play one or two years and financially can't do it anymore," said Folden, who earns the league-average $6,000. "And other girls have steady jobs and play five or six years like Nicole [Trimboli] and take a pay cut in the summer because they believe in what we're trying to do."
There are 20 women on the team and a $150,000 salary cap. The Bandits' marquee player, Olympian Jennie Finch, agreed to a league-high annual salary of $10,000 when she signed in 2005 with the Bandits. In 2004, going into the Summer Olympics in Athens where she would pitch the Americans to a gold medal, she was reportedly earning approximately $400,000 in endorsements.
But Finch is a rarity.
Mickey Dean, the head coach and general manager of the Bandits, put down his Dairy Queen Blizzard between games of an exhibition doubleheader to discuss the future of the league (it's on a one-week hiatus for the World Cup in Oklahoma City). With a long and successful résumé coaching fast-pitch softball, he is not unlike his players in his passion and commitment to a pursuit to which the public is not responding.
"The neat thing is, guys can go play and be competitive with a women's WNBA basketball team or a women's soccer team or a semipro football team," Dean said. "But they cannot compete on this field. I've seen it. I've seen major league players like Zambrano and Nick Swisher and they can't hit the pitching because the ball moves so differently.
"People out here are repeat fans because once they see it, they see how much fun it is to watch, but we haven't found the magic touch yet."
But like his players, he doesn't give up.
"I can't walk away until I feel I've done my part making this work," he said.
Players could make considerably more money in Japan, where Toyota sponsors the pro league.
"But if I'm there, I'm not helping our country," said Thorson, 21, who played in two Women's College World Series championships for Cal Berkeley and teaches private pitching lessons in California when she's not playing. "This is my priority. MLB is not going to help us, so we have to."
Denise Michaels, the liaison between Major League Baseball and the NPF, said MLB president Bob DuPuy and executive vice president John McHale are "always looking for ways to partner and help the NPF grow. With the [MLB TV] network in place, we hope for a partnership somewhere down the line."
In the meantime, the NPF will have to be satisfied with the Internet streaming, unisex clinics and a table at the All-Star Game's Fanfest, where NPF players sign autographs and take pictures with fans. Cheri Kempf, commissioner of the NPF, said while MLB is "enthusiastic, they're also busy. There has been a lot on their plate the last three years. But I think along the way they do support us."
With more resources, said Kempf, they could attack a market that has supported collegiate and USA Softball as well as men's pro sports.
"Who wins the Heisman is not always who plays the best but whose [public-relations people] work the hardest; who's most creative gets the most votes. The NPF falls short on that," Kempf said.
Kempf, a softball analyst for ESPN, points out that fast-pitch softball players usually do not hit their prime until age 27, which makes professional softball a better product. And unlike the World Cup, where there have been numerous one-sided games, NPF games are largely more competitive.
But competing against men is whole other issue.
"That's more on society and media," Kempf said. "USA Today doesn't want to run our linescores, but they'll probably [cover] Ultimate Fighting Championships."
The NPF might be well-served to get some of their coaches and players more involved in the marketing end.
"We need to make this an event, something people want to come to," Thorson said. "We have to start thinking about different demographics. They can't sell beer here, just like we couldn't do it [in the team's first three years] at Benedictine University in Lisle, but at least they had Bud Lite girls. That's how you get the men here."
The location of many of the league's teams is also less than desirable.
"The Orlando team plays in Kissimmee, not that close to the city; Philadelphia plays in Allentown; we play in Elgin," Thorson said. "No one wants to come to these places."
So cognizant are they of attracting men to the games that several players even referred to the "sex sells" philosophy.
"The league looks down at selling us as women," Thorson said, "but Jennie Finch did the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and we got a lot of attention. We need to start taking advantage of that."
The AAGPBL understood that, with uniforms that more closely resembled dresses with provocative shorts peaking out underneath
"Mr. Wrigley was absolutely right putting us in dresses," Gascon said. "When we took the field, we looked sharp."
And while some AAGPBL teams averaged as many as 5,000 fans per game, the Bandits are drawing 400 or 500.
"We're wearing pants," Folden said. "It's not like we're advocating playing in bikinis. We're post-graduate, very attractive women. Why not sell us like that?"
While college softball ratings on ESPN are healthy and continue to rise with the addition even of regional tournament coverage, Bandits players lament that when the games' biggest stars switch to NPF uniforms, their profile suddenly sinks.
After the major league baseball All-Star Game earlier this month, some of the NPF stars participated in a celebrity softball game, also televised from St. Louis.
"And [rapper] Nelly got the most air time," Folden said. "There were no commercials for the NPF, no blurbs about the Web site, no suggestion to check us out. The WNBA is riding the NBA's coattails [with NBA teams as owners of most WNBA teams] and we're supposed to be riding MLB's, but we're not. They have record highs in attendance, they have a Women in Baseball initiative. So why not have a night for us in your ballparks?
"We went to a White Sox game last season and wore our jerseys and we looked like any other softball team. Get us on TV. Have more Zambrano-type promotions. We sold out for three days after he threw out the first pitch."
It's a common sentiment.
"If MLB would just put us on TV, just let us make a connection," Trimboli begs. "I just want a chance to sell our product. Stick it in everybody's faces, and if they don't want it, fine. But I know they do."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.