Looking Back: Nashvillian Lillian Jackson Played in the AAGPBL

By Bill Traughber / Nashville Sounds | August 17, 2017 10:58 AM ET


Next week, August 22, the Sounds will host "A League of Their Own" night to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the movie that starred Tom Hanks and Geena Davis. Sounds' fans are asked to wear clothing from that World War II era. This interview between Lillian "Bird Dog" Jackson and Bill Traughber is from 2001. Jackson was from Nashville and played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). Jackson died October 30, 2003 at age 84.

   "There's no crying in baseball," exclaimed actor Tom Hanks in his role of Jimmy Dugan in the movie "A League of Their Own." The movie portrays the players' lives of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).

   The league came into existence when the Office of War Information informed Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley and the other major league owners that the 1943 baseball season could be canceled.

   With World War II absorbing the country's manpower, the baseball leagues were affected. The possibility of canceling the season became real since the farm systems of the major leagues were severely depleted with the draft. This put a strain on the big-league talent level, which became a concern to the owners who believed the fans might lose interest.

   Such stars as Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams were in the service, enabling Wrigley to create a marketing ploy to fill a possible void. Wrigley led a drive to form a women's professional baseball league. Others became intrigued with the league's concept, including Brooklyn Dodgers' general manager Branch Rickey.

   The AAGPBL was formed with cities chosen close to Chicago: Racine (the Belles) and Kenosha (the Comets) in Wisconsin. Indiana teams included South Bend (the Blue Sox) and Rockford (the Peaches). These franchises were formed at a cost of $22,000 each, providing entertainment for the factory workers and their families. The major league season was not canceled, and the AAGPBL was in place for 1943.

   With women softball leagues the target, scouts scoured the country for the best talent. The women of the new league first played softball, but in latter years the base paths were lengthened while the pitching distance to the plate was also increased. The ball shrunk from 12 to 10 3/8 inches. One of these pioneer women was playing softball at Nashville's Shelby Park when she was discovered by one of these scouts.

   Lillian "Bird Dog" Jackson was one of a few Nashville women to have played in the AAGPBL. She was born in Nashville and lived on Meridian Street, while attending Schwab Elementary and Isaac Litton High School.

   "I started playing softball just when I could throw the ball and have a glove on my hand," Jackson said recently from her Arizona home. "My mother did not want me to play any kinds of things that were boyish. I would be getting dressed to go out to play and I looked for the boys because they threw harder and played better. I knew that would make me better.

   "She said, 'you're not going out today, Lillian.' I would just say 'No, I won't.' I would keep dressing. I'd get out and start for the door. My mother stopped me and I just told her that I was going outside to see whose playing. That's how I would get out to play. She did not want me to play any kind of sports like that because in that era they thought if a girl played softball, they would be called tomboys. So in order for me not to be called a tomboy, she would not let me play. But I wanted to play."

   Jackson did participate on the girl's softball teams at Schwab and Isaac Litton. She played at recess and on occasions the girls would gather after school for games. Since her mother objected to her tomboyish sporting events, she would have to sneak out of the house.

   "When I'd come back, I would always make sure that my father was there," said Jackson who is 81 years old. "He would always take up for me. He was a sweetheart and so was my mother. I wasn't a tomboy. I wasn't that boyish looking or acting.

   "Most players had nicknames, my nickname is 'Bird Dog.' They had a race for the girls at school and a man was there to catch the winner. I was so fast that when I won, I sprung this man around three or four times since I was going so fast.

   "After I got out of high school I was playing at Shelby Park. This team came down to play us from Mayfield, KY. A girl from the other team, who watched me play in the outfield said, 'You know you are a human basket.' I was so fast that I wouldn't let any balls that came my way, drop to the ground. I always caught them."

   When Jackson graduated from Isaac Litton she attended the Nashville Business College. The NBC was known nationally as a woman's basketball power into the 1960's, but never organized a softball team while Jackson was a student there. She continued her games at Shelby Park when her life was about to change.

   "I was out there playing in Shelby Park, where we practiced every afternoon after school," Jackson said. "That was when there was a ten-woman team and I was the one that was between the outfield and the infield because I was so fast. It was so fun because they couldn't believe I wouldn't drop a ball.

   "While I was playing in Shelby Park, I didn't know that I was being scouted. If I had known I was being scouted, I probably would have dropped them all. When I got through, the man walked up to me and said, 'Miss Jackson, we would like for you to try out for the All-American.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'The All-American Baseball League. We'll start you at $65.00 a week.'

   "I almost fell over. Because back then I was making $18.00 a week at an office. So he told me that I would have to go to Chicago and stay at the Allerton; they would pick me up and take care of me. I went home to tell my mother and she said, 'No, you are not going.' I said, 'All right mother,' and I kept packing while waiting for my father."

   Jackson's father convinced his wife that the experience would be good for their daughter; so later he drove Lillian to the Nashville airport. She arrived in Chicago where she was taken to her living quarters in a hotel. Over 200 girls were invited to the tryouts where Jackson was taken to Wrigley Field, which greatly impressed her.

   She had never traveled out of Nashville before and the size of Chicago was an exciting experience. This was in 1943, which was the inaugural year of AAGPBL players. Wrigley wanted his girls to be ladies and he sent them to charm school.

   "Wrigley wanted ladies and not tomboys," Jackson said. "Twenty of the girls were sent to Helena Rubenstein. We were taught how to put a coat on, take it off and how to get in and out of a chair properly. She was great to us. Twenty of us would leave every morning to learn how to be perfect ladies. And you think you don't remember that, you sure do.

   "We worked out for ten days, then they put on the boards our names with the teams that we were assigned. Thank the Lord I did make one of those first four teams ever formed, the Rockford Peaches. Of course, I then had to move to a boarding house in Rockford, IL.

   "The nights traveling on the team bus passed by with singing and playing cards. Sometimes we shot craps. We'd get down in the aisle of the bus. The chaperon would watch us, and not say a word. Somebody would have a mouth organ and another a guitar, and we'd harmonize for hours."

   "I once helped win a championship. A ball was sailing like crazy and it was going over into the bleachers, and I didn't know how close I was. I ran right into the bleachers and had to have four stitches in my lip, but I caught the ball. It was all exciting because it was new stuff and people could not get enough of us. Especially when we were working out and they could come watch us."

    Jackson's AAGPBL experience is parallel to the Penny Marshall movie, "A League of Their Own." Did Jackson like the movie version and was it factually correct?

   "The movie was very, very good except we all asked Penny Marshall, 'Why did she put that one gross thing in there," said Jackson. "You know when he (Tom Hanks) went in the girl's locker room. We didn't want people thinking that our managers drank. We never smelt a thing on them, never. Some of the scenes were unfair to the managers and we always tried to let people know that if they drank, we never knew it.

   "They were very good. All of them were big league managers and former players. The managers never came into our locker rooms. We practiced every day at 11:00 a.m., and when practice was over and he wanted to talk to us he would say, 'O.K. girls, let's have a meeting.' We would sit outside on the grass and that's where our meetings would be. He never came in the place. They were always gentlemen.

   "I was fortunate to be able to play in a professional league and tried to play the best I could. In the outfield there was no doubt that I was one of the best, it was just my pitiful hitting that hurt me. I could not seem to watch that ball. One of my coaches, which tried to help my hitting was (Bill) Wambsganss, who was very good and nice."

   The innovation of a new baseball league for girls meant experimentation was necessary. The equipment needed to be adjusted to adapt to the women's style of play. The playing field needed to be changed for the slower women and weaker arms compared to the major leagues.

   "We could get our own bats that felt good in our hands, but there was also a weight specification," Jackson said. "When we first started playing, we used a regular softball then Wrigley starting cutting it. He eventfully cut it to where it was only a half-inch larger than a man's regular baseball. That's when the girls started throwing the ball sideways. Those catchers said those pitchers could really throw that apple in there.

  "Later they threw over-handed, they moved the bases back, and the pitchers mound back, everything. The pitchers were good with strong arms. The catchers said they threw curves, a drop and everything just like the men did. 

   "The uniforms, I thought were darling. Mr. Wrigley had a designer to design them for us, and they had the flare skirts so you could run. We also wore tight leg fitted shorts right under that skirt. There were no problems and I thought they were very feminine which is what they wanted it to look like and it did.

   "Oh brother! When we would slide, the strawberries we got were terrible. But hey, that was one of the things. We just lay in the sun and tried to dry them up. But don't you think they hurt? Oh boy, did they. Just poor raw skin there.

   "I was very fast, but not a good hitter. In 1944-45 they started throwing overhand for the pitchers and then they started whipping it sideways. Those catchers said if you don't think those pitchers have plenty arm, they do. I wasn't hitting well, I was about a .220 hitter so I left the league and went back to Chicago to play in a non-professional league."

   Jackson played for Fort Wayne (Ind.), one of the teams later added to the league, when she left the AAGPBL in 1945. She took a job in Chicago where she resided for nearly fifty years, until her doctor suggested she move to a warmer climate for health considerations. She moved to Green Valley, Ariz., a few years ago where she knew a close friend. She says she has enjoys the scenery and the warm climate.

   In the latter years more teams were added to the league, but many factors contributed to the league's demise. As the war ended the novelty of the league was long over. Without a farm system to develop players by converting them from softball to baseball, the talent level declined. At the end of the 1954 season, the AAGPBL ended.

   Most of the girls found work back home or in the cities they played with, got married and raised families. Each year reunions are held in these Mid-western cities with the memories and friendships continuing to survive. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY established a "Women in Baseball" permanent exhibit to honor these pioneers of professional baseball.

Traughber's Tidbit: Babe Ruth was notorious for breaking team rules such as curfews. Once when the Yankees were on the road, New York Yankees' manager Miller Huggins and road secretary Mark Roth were staked out in the hotel lobby when they saw Ruth walk into the hotel after curfew. "Tomorrow I'll have a talk with Babe about the late hours he keeps," Huggins said to Roth. The next day Ruth clubbed two home runs in a game. That night Roth and Huggins again caught Ruth entering the lobby after curfew. "He's done it again," Roth said to Huggins. "Are you going to talk to him?" Huggins answered, "I sure am." As Ruth walked by, Huggins called out, "Hi, Babe. How are you?"

Tidbit Two: On sale is the book "Nashville Baseball History: From Sulphur Dell to the Sounds." The paperback book consists of 227 pages, 33 chapters covering 19th century Nashville baseball through the Nashville Sounds through First Tennessee Park. There are 86 illustrations and the book can be purchased from Parnassus Books (Green Hills) Barnes & Nobles, Amazon.com and Summer Game Books. Nashville baseball enthusiast and the first Sounds general manager Farrell Owens wrote the foreword to the book.

   If you have any comments or suggestions contact Bill Traughber via email, WLTraughber@aol.com.


This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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