AAGPBL Interview - Wilma Briggs
Wilma Briggs was one of the great hitters of the AAGPBL. She hit 9 homers in 1953 to lead the league, and then clouted 25 homers in 1954 to again take the crown. She is the #3 career home run hitter in league history.
1) How did you get interested in playing baseball and where did you play before you turned pro?
I got interested playing baseball at home on our dairy farm. My father used to hit ground balls in our back yard to my two older brothers and me. We'd field the ball and pitch it back to him. No matter how poorly the pitch was he'd hit it back. That experience is my fondest as a youngster growing up in a baseball family. I remember wanting to learn to get the bat on the ball the way he could. He managed his own team that came to be known as the Frenchtown Farmers. By the time I was 13 he would put me in his games. Even though I was the only girl no one seemed to care. I had six brothers and they all played for the Farmers. Though I never had a starting position he would always put me in and made sure I'd get a turn at bat. When I was 16 I played for my high school boy's team in a summer league. The coach, who happens to be our current state governor's father, was one of my high school teachers. He suggested I go out for the school teams in the spring of my senior year. I did and played interscholastic boys baseball. The first girl in Rhode Island to do so. The first girls team I ever played on was the Ft. Wayne Daisies as a professional.
2) Describe your signing.
Before I could sign a contract I had to have a tryout in the league. The AAGPBL had tryouts scheduled for June 12, 1948 in Newark at 9AM. Now came the dilemma I had to face. I had to either miss my high school graduation on June 11 at 8PM or miss the tryout in Newark. I knew my parents wanted me to graduate with my class and I wanted the promised gold watch they had for me. I chose graduation not knowing if or when I'd get another chance for a tryout. However, the Providence Journal schoolboy sports writer solved my problem for me by writing to Hall of Famer Max Carey in Chicago who was then President of the AAGPBL. It was arranged for my parents to drive me 1000 miles to the nearest league city which was Ft. Wayne, Indiana. After an all night drive we arrived in Ft. Wayne just before game time. The Daisies, all in uniform, were having their pre-game batting practice when I arrived on the scene. I was trying out as a first baseman or a catcher. The manager put me at first base. Once I got acclimated to baseballs flying all over the place from the batters hitting, fielders throwing the batted balls back to the mound, the manager hitting ground balls to the infielders in turn which they threw to me at first base and I returned to the girl catching for the manager, I somehow survived the ordeal. I finally got to hit. The manager pitched to me instead of one of the girls who had pitched to the Daisies. I felt very much at home at the plate as I had only ever faced male pitching. When the tryout was over my parents, cousin and I watched the game from box seats behind home plate. No mention had been made to us whether I had made the league or not at that point.
Later, meeting with the manager in the Van Orman Hotel, we were told I had made the league. Immediately fear and trembling set in. The thought of my parents leaving me alone so far from home brought a flood of tears. I didn't want to stay. Nobody knew what to do so the manager called Max Carey in Chicago and he said offer her money. Money had nothing to do with it. I was just scared. While my parents and the manager discussed the situation my cousin and I went to the coffee shop in the hotel. While there my cousin told me that one of my fathers' "best" friends had told him that even if I ever did get a chance to play professionally my father wouldn't let me as he always wanted one or both of my older brothers to play. I knew that wasn't true. My father would never have done that. Right then and there I made up my mind to stay. We went back to join my parents and the manager who had gotten me more money to stay and my father said to me, "stay, if you don't like it you can always come home." Without my father ever knowing what really made me make up my mind - I stayed.
No contract was presented to us at that time. It was probably around 11PM and the Daisy office was long closed for the day and my parents were leaving as soon as I was settled in a room there at the hotel. I don't really remember when I got the actual contract, but since they had my parents oral permission to stay, that was all that mattered at the time. I think the actual contract came during the off season. Whenever - after reading it my father didn't sign, it was it wasn't necessary to sign one every year, which he felt he should since I was still a minor. Sometime either during that rookie season or before the start of the next season the Business Manager asked me for my contract. Since my father still hadn't signed it I signed his name and handed it in and never mentioned it to him. I don't think my father ever knew that. If he did, he never mentioned it to anyone.
That's the only contract I ever had a copy of. All others I just signed my name and they were kept in the office file.
3) What position(s) did you play?
I played right field for the Daisies my rookie season (1948) and stayed there until the left fielder broke her ankle sliding into second base. I was moved to left field for the rest of my career with the exception of two weeks at first base in 1952 under manager Jimmie Foxx. I made an error on my very first play and begged Jimmie to put me back in the outfield. He finally did and that's where I stayed for six seasons with the Daisies and the final 1954 season with the South Bend Blue Sox.
4) What was the best thing about playing pro ball?
The best thing about playing pro ball was playing baseball every night of the week with Sunday and holiday double-headers. Doing what I loved to do and even getting paid to do it. Meeting and playing with and against so many great ball players. Also, getting to have two Hall of Famers as managers - Max Carey (1950-1) and Jimmie Foxx (1952). Meeting so many appreciative fans, many who became lifetime friends.
5) What was the worst thing about playing ball?
Fifty years ago I could have thought of dozens of things such as playing in Kenosha, Wisconsin right on Lake Michigan when the fog rolled in and the outfield grass was soaking wet, or the long bus rides, the strict dress code, the Daisies muddy infield after or during rain, having to dress up to go to all-men luncheons such as the Rotary Club and feeling like we were on display.
However, in hind-sight, I'd give anything to be able to do it all again.
6) What was the highlight of your career?
The highlight of my career was hitting a grand slam with my parents visiting in South Bend in 1954. Leading the league in home runs in 1953 with the 10' ball. Playing for two Hall of Famers.
7) Who were the best players you played with or faced? Comments?
Teammates Dottie Schroeder (shortstop) and Tiby Eisen (centerfielder). Dottie was the most graceful player I ever saw play the game as well as a great shortstop. I can still see her leaping in the air and snagging a Texas Leaguer out of the air with her bare hand or diving for a ground ball on the first base side of second and throwing the runner out from a sitting position. Dottie was one of the best role models the league ever had. She was truly the All-American girl in the All-American League.
Tiby because of her unselfishness. She was the ultimate team player. When we needed a baserunner she would get on anyway she could, even if it meant taking one for the team. She was not only a great centerfielder, but a great base runner as well. I played both sides of her in the outfield and we never had a collision. She always called the play for me when I was fielding a ball so I never had to look to find the play before throwing. Just "wheel and deal".
As for opponents - every team had their Roger Clemens and their great hitters. Jean Faut was the was the most outstanding pitcher in the league. She played for the Blue Sox. Dottie Kamenshek, the first baseman for the Rockford Peaches, was one of the greatest league players. To name any others would be to leave someone out, so I won't try.
8) Do you think the fans and press accepted you more as the years wore on? (Describe how it was when you started. Did increased exposure change some minds?)
It's impossible for me to comment on the acceptance of the fans and press in the league's early years as the league was well established by 1948 my rookie season and the most successful year the league experienced. I'm sure increased exposure made both fans and press appreciate the quality of play exhibited by the players. If their original thoughts were to go and watch the girls play for the novelty of it, I'm sure they soon realized it was more than novel entertainment that they were witnessing. Many of the players had skills equal to or better than many men they had ever watched.
My own experience was a very positive one. In seven seasons I never heard a derogatory remark directed toward me as a player or a person.
9) Who were your favorite big league ballplayers during the era you played in?
During my playing years I was a Red Sox fan and my favorite players were Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio. However, once my eyes were adjusted I realized their lack of team spirit and togetherness was what prevented them from winning the way they had the talent to. I switched to the New York Yankees. Cohesiveness makes a winner. Though they didn't always have the talent they still had the spirit. That's what I like about the Yankees. They don't have to be spoon-fed. This year they just didn't have the talent. Before I say the Red Sox do, let me say first that the new Red Sox owners and general manager want to build a team, with the emphasis on team. Their team effort started with their new ownership and continued last year and we all know they went all the way this year. It remains to be seen if they can continue next year and the year after that. They have the talent, but can they keep them working as a team? Baseball is a team sport.
10) Do you follow big league ball now? If so, how do you think it compares with your day?
On radio I listen and keep score of all the Yankees games and check the standings and box scores of both leagues in the daily paper.
There's no comparison between the major leagues in my day and now. The game has changed so much: free agents, the designated hitter, pitch counts, huge salaries. All of these things take away team loyalty and team spirit. Even though many ball parks still have sell out crowds, the old time family interest has waned because of so many late night and high priced tickets. It's big corporations and cable TV money that's keeping it alive. Most families can't afford a hot dog, soda and parking, never mind tickets for the whole family. Plus the season is too long. In the East they start in the snow and end in the snow. Pretty soon all the teams will be in the warm states or be playing all on artificial turf with domes. To me that's not baseball. There are too many teams and not enough talent today. Too many home runs and too many walks per game. It's just my New England Yankee spirit that keeps me interested anymore.
11) Should women have their own pro league, should they play in the majors, or should we have both (a women's league and the chance for the best women players to play in the majors?)
I don't think women should play in the majors. As talented as many women are they still don't throw as hard, run as fast, or hit the long ball like the men. We should have our own league, but I don't see any big endorsements coming our way to start another woman's league. In 1943 it cost $100,000. You couldn't get one team for that today, and it seems few people care. To start another woman's league someone needs to develop pitchers. High schools and colleges aren't doing it. There are plenty of position players around, but pitchers are money are the problems today. There are a number of good amateur teams in the US, Japan, Canada and Australia, and they have a world tournament every year, but the teams are so far and few between and the players have to work to support themselves. I don't see much upward movement in the near future.
I would never want to see a woman in the majors as a token player. It would be demeaning to her and the game of baseball. Even if she were talented enough to make it she would be considered a token player.
12) How do you feel about the Silver Bullets?
I felt sorry for the Silver Bullets as I don't think the fans ever really had a chance to appreciated their talents. Too many lopsided scores with the Bullets on the loss side. If they had switched batteries the Bullets would have won many games. The Bullets were unable to hit the men's pitching with authority, thus defensively the men had an advantage. The men on the other hand were able to hit the women pitchers with greater authority which in turn made defensive play more difficult for the women. Simple switching of batteries would have balanced the playing field and made the fan realize the talent they were watching was awesome.
13) Briefly describe your life since your pro career ended.
My years in the league were the most exciting years of my life. Since the league ended in 1954, however, I've had fifty years of extremely rewarding experiences. The first was becoming a Christian. After working twelve years (started while still playing ball) as a foot-press operator at a knife company (a way to make ends meet, but not very fulfilling) I felt a higher calling. I took a couple of night courses at the University of Rhode Island. Having completed them successfully I quit my job and I enrolled in a small Christian college in the fall of 1962. My mother passed away quite unexpectedly that October. I had to drop out of school as there were some family matters to take care of. In 1965 I was able to try again and graduated with a BA degree in 1969. I spent 23 very rewarding years as a classroom teacher in grades 5 and 3, retiring in 1992. All of my teaching career I played amateur softball for a total of 37 years (fast pitch and the last few years slow pitch). I played softball and basketball in college as well. Before college I played basketball and our team went to two national AAU tournaments in St. Louis.
I served my church in a number of capacities, from Bible School teacher (several different age groups) to treasurer. I also served our Rhode Island church conference as treasurer and recreational director at our conference church sessions.
The ultimate for any ball player is to be recognized by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Our league was recognized with the unveiling of a "Women in Baseball" display in November of 1988. A plaque in the display bears the name and hometown of every All-American League player.
The movie "A League of Their Own" gave us national recognition and from that spawned many speaking engagements, autograph sessions and baseball workshops. I get letters every month asking for an autograph. Also book interviews, magazine and newspaper articles. We're more popular now than when we were playing, all due to exposure from the move. I've been inducted into five sports halls of fame. The East Greenwich Athletic Hall of Fame (first female), the International Scholar/Athlete Hall of Fame (in the initial Rhode Island class), the New England Women's Hall of Fame (for baseball), the Women's Baseball Hall of Fame and the Northeast Indiana Hall of Fame.
I was the first recipient of the Game of Legends award for softball contributions for women in Rhode Island. I was named 15th out of 50 of Rhode Island's Greatest Sports Figures from 1900-2000 by Sports Illustrated.
I've had numerous phone interviews (as far away as the state of Washington) for school projects and numerous questions from many students.
Had it not been for the AAGPBL most of these things would never have been achieved. That experience was life changing. I have been truly blessed.
14) What advice do you have for young women who want to become pro ballplayers?
I can only keep praying that sometime, someone will mine the gems that are waiting to be discovered and start another professional baseball league for women. "All things are possible, only believe." In the meantime try to organize a baseball team, form a league, develop pitchers and try to get connected to the organization s (amateur) that already exist. Don't give up!15) Any other memories or comments?
I've written too much already on memories, but I'd like to make a few comments that apply to all women athletes in all sports. Always conduct yourself in a ladylike manner. How you act not only exemplifies the sport you are playing but you as a person. We are judged by our acts and words on and off the field. Have strict rules and adhere to them. The stricter the rules the better the organization. Fifty years later you'll see the benefit of it.
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