Women at Play: 25th Anniversary Edition

For the past several years I’ve posted a free chapter from one of my books as part of my New Year’s blog. That book has been Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

But this year’s giveaway chapter comes from my best-known book, Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, published twenty-five years ago (Harcourt). The paperback version has been out of print for twenty years, and there has never been an ebook version.

Until today. I’m publishing Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball as an ebook. A text-only ebook, because photo permissions cost way too much.

All the stories are here: Maud Nelson, Margaret Gisolo, Jackie Mitchell, Babe Didrikson, Dottie Collins, Rose Gacioch, Jean Faut, Lois Youngen, Bernice Gera, Pam Postema, Julie Croteau, the Sun Sox. And more. All the original sidebars are here, as are the charts, credits, etc.

The new cover design is by Robin Koontz. The baseball on the front cover was given to me by Nellie Kearns, who played with Maud Nelson’s All-Star Ranger Girls during the 1930s.

The free chapter is below.

WAP-EBOOK

 

 

Jean Faut

 

In seven years of overhand pitching, two perfect games were pitched in the All-American Girls Baseball League—and Jean Faut of the South Bend Blue Sox hurled them both. “She had great strength,” says catcher Shirley Stovroff, “and she was very smart. She had a mixture of pitches—fastball, curve, drop, slowball—and she had excellent control.” The league’s leading hitter, Dottie Kamenshek, evaluates Faut this way: “She put them all just where she wanted.” Pitching overhand was never foreign to the Blue Sox ace. She grew up playing hardball, and when the league switched to overhand, Jean was like a fish in water, moving effortlessly through the environment.

Few pitchers were able to make a successful transition from underhand to overhand. Among those who did were Dottie Wiltse Collins, Joanne Winter, and Helen Nicol Fox. Those who couldn’t went back to softball or, like Connie Wisniewski, converted to another position. By 1948, when the league went overhand, softball had all but obliterated baseball as a sport for women, and ironically the AAGBL, which started out by capitalizing on the softball craze, found as it moved toward the more exciting and exacting game of baseball that pitchers were suddenly difficult to find. In desperation league managers began to convert their hardest-throwing outfielders (who naturally throw overhand) into pitchers.

These converted outfielders learned about pitching from their managers, from watching their teammates, and from being on the mound themselves. Their knowledge was only as deep as their league pitching experience. Jean Faut’s was not. “I had more experience than most of the girls in the AAGBL,” she contends. “I came into the league with a fastball, a sharp curve, screwball, drop and change—and a lot of deviations from these basic pitches.” Born January 17, 1925, in East Greenville, Pennsylvania, Jean grew up two blocks away from the practice field of a semipro baseball team. She hung around the field and yearned to play, and by the time she was thirteen the players had taught her how to pitch. Faut learned so well that when she was still in high school she pitched several exhibition games for the semipro Buck-Montgomery League, an experience she describes as “a great thrill.”

In 1946 a scout from Allentown, Pennsylvania, offered the five-foot-four, 137-pound young ballplayer a chance to attend AAGBL spring training in Pascagoula, Mississippi. “The rookies went in first,” she remembers. “All the representatives were there from the cities, the board of directors. They chose who they wanted.” After finishing fifth out of six teams in 1945 with a 40-60 record, the South Bend Blue Sox would have been among the first to select players. Board Director Harold Dailey, who had smarted so badly from losing Rose Gacioch to Rockford in 1945, wrote of the 1946 tryouts, “We got Wirth and Faut out of the deal.”

The Blue Sox started Senaida “Shoo Shoo” Wirth as shortstop and Jean Faut as third baseman. “I had a strong arm,” she says, “so third was a natural spot.” Late in her rookie season, the league permitted some sidearm pitching and manager Chet Grant asked Faut to take the mound. Although she didn’t like to pitch sidearm because “it’s not very good for your arm, almost like throwing a screwball,” she started twelve games, winning eight and losing three. The League went to overhand in 1948. “I was ready then,” she states. “I was home free.”

When Jean Faut moved to South Bend, Karl Winsch followed her there. A pitcher in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, Winsch was called up to the majors in 1946 along with his roommate Del Ennis, who flourished there. But Winsch sustained an injury in spring training that ended his career. When that happened, he moved to South Bend and in 1947 he and Jean were married. In that year, Chet Grant sent his sophomore to the mound in forty-four games, and she posted a 19-13 record with a 1.15 ERA. By midseason, Jean was pregnant; she gave birth to her first child in March 1948. Writing about the Blue Sox 1948 season, Harold Dailey opined that “Faut was not in condition until July owing to the drag on her by pregnancy.” Starting thirty-four games, she compiled a 16-11 record.
Faut turned twenty-four years old before the 1949 season started. “I started to mature,” she reflects. “You get better, your control gets better. You work on new pitches.” The overhand ace was now in her element. In 1949 she started thirty-four games and racked up a 24-8 record and a 1.10 ERA.

Unlike Lois Florreich, another great hurler of the overhand era, Faut didn’t have intimidating speed. Outstanding hitters such as Dottie Kamenshek rank Faut as the best pitcher of the League’s overhand days despite her lack of velocity, recognizing that what matters is whether the pitcher gets the batter out, not the speed of the ball as it crosses the plate. Yet many hitters’ perception of greatness is thrown off by speed: they rank the pitcher who gets them out on a blazing fastball higher than the one who gets them out on an adequate fastball, or on a combination of pitches. Umpires, too, were baffled by Faut’s success. One of the umpires even stepped into the batter’s box during practice and bragged, “I can hit you.” So Faut whiffed him. “Afterward, he still didn’t understand why he couldn’t hit me.” Even her own manager, Davy Bancroft, said he just didn’t understand why batters couldn’t hit her.

“My biggest asset was control,” Faut explains. “I have very strong wrists and could do things with the ball. I got that way splitting wood by the hour when I was a kid.” Her variety of pitches also helped. “I had a good curveball and could throw it overhand, three-quarters, or sidearm. If overhand, it went straight down. I threw a screwball, like a slider, but not often. And a fastball. I could throw them with different speeds.” And if, as they say in the majors, 90 percent of pitching is mental, Jean Faut had that, too. “Part of my success was that in my mind I could record the pitches and the order of pitches I threw to each girl, so they never saw the same thing twice. I was a mathematical whiz in school. They’d never know what was coming, so they’d start guessing. When batters start guessing, they’re never right.”

Some analysts of the All-American Girls Baseball League say that the reason batting averages went up so dramatically in the last third of the league’s existence was that there were few really good overhand pitchers. Faut disagrees, naming Lois Florreich, Maxine Kline, and Millie Earp as great overhand hurlers. She should know, for in addition to 35-45 pitching appearances a year, Jean often played an additional forty games at third base, where the Blue Sox counted on her fielding and hitting. Faut believes that the hitters coming into the AAGBL in the 1950s were strong athletes who mastered baseball hitting. She points to the Weaver sisters in particular: “Betty Foss would run the bases and the dirt would fly up. One time I was pitching and Betty Foss hit the ball straight at me. It came so straight and fast I couldn’t see the spin, couldn’t react. I saw the seam and then it hit me in the stomach, there wasn’t even time to get my glove up. When I undressed, I saw the stitch marks on my stomach.”

Strong hitters or not, Jean could handle them. On July 21, 1951, she pitched a perfect game in Rockford against the Peaches, retiring twenty-seven batters in a row. Dottie Kamenshek, who prided herself on not striking out, whiffed twice that night. It was, says Kammie, “the best game I’ve ever seen pitched. It was just perfect. Overpowering.” The next morning, the South Bend Tribune reported that “Jean Faut, a sturdy gal with a lot of heart, a fast ball that hops, and a curve that breaks off like a country road pitched a perfect no-hit, no-run game to subdue the Rockford Peaches, 2-0, at Playland Park Saturday night. . . . The chances of a no-hit game were never mentioned in the Blue Sox dugout during the game, according to baseball superstition, but the crowd of 1,490 were fully aware that baseball history was in the making.” Whiffing eleven of the twenty-seven batters, the Sox hurler got behind the count on only two. “She threw three balls to Eleanor Callow in the fifth and then fanned her. One other time she threw three balls, then two strikes, and the batter grounded out.”

Faut’s 1951 pitching record was 15-7 with a 1.33 ERA. She was chosen Player of the Year and helped lead the Blue Sox to their first Shaughnessy Series victory. In 1952 she went 20-2 (a .909 winning percentage), posted a 0.93 ERA, and once again helped lead her team to a series victory, batting in the cleanup position. With the playoff series tied, she hurled the deciding game against the Peaches, hitting two booming triples for extra measure. In 1953 she pitched her second perfect game, this one against the Kalamazoo Lassies on September 3. That year she was again elected Player of the Year, only the second person in League history to receive the award twice (the other was Doris Sams).

In major league ball, Hall-of-Famer Christy Mathewson compiled a .665 winning record and a 2.13 lifetime ERA, while later-day greats such as Sandy Koufax (.655 and 2.76), Bob Gibson (.591 and 2.91), and Tom Seaver (.603 and 2.86) had somewhat lower winning percentages and higher ERAs. Jean Faut’s career statistics are 140 wins and 64 losses—a .686 winning percentage and a 1.23 ERA. Of all her accomplishments, she is proudest of her ERA, because “that’s the most important statistic of a pitcher.”

Although Faut was a real team player, her life on the Blue Sox was that of a loner. It wasn’t just that Jean was married and therefore didn’t room with another player or take part in their pregame or postgame activities. And it wasn’t just that she was raising a child. In 1951, Karl Winsch became manager of the South Bend Blue Sox, a job he held until the league folded. Under Winsch, the Blue Sox won their only two championships, but there was tremendous dissension on the team. Groups of players wouldn’t talk to the manager, and then they wouldn’t talk to Jean. Winsch wouldn’t talk to Jean, either. “Neither side communicated with me” she says. “It was a big squabble.” At the end of the 1953 season, she retired from baseball at the age of twenty-eight because it was just too rough being married to the manager.

“I suffered because I wasn’t playing,” she remembers. At first, she’d go to the games and sit in the stands, but that would make her miserable because she wasn’t playing. So, “to fill the void I went to the bowling center.” Jean became such a good bowler that in 1960 she turned pro, retiring from that status in 1988. Today she bowls with the senior women’s tour. Her highest game to date is a 299, just short of perfect.

In 1946, the same year that Jean Faut attended the league tryouts, another Pennsylvania woman went to spring training in Pascagoula. For nine years, Ruth Williams played for the South Bend Blue Sox and then the Kalamazoo Lassies. She’ll always remember one game. “Jeannie Faut beat me in sixteen innings, one to nothing, back in 1952,” says Williams. “She was pitching for the Blue Sox, I was with the Lassies. I had pitched forty consecutive shutout innings, then I got tied up with Jeannie. She was the best player in the league. She doubled off me in the sixteenth, moved to third on a bunt, and scored on a sacrifice fly. Figured it would be Jeannie that would end my streak.” It figured because Jean Faut was to pitching what Dottie Kamenshek was to hitting and Sophie Kurys was to base stealing—without peer.

——————————————

To purchase the 25th anniversary edition of Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, click here.

 

3 thoughts on “Women at Play: 25th Anniversary Edition

  1. Barbara, some great stuff! I am awed at what these women accomplished, and I speak from experience. Well…sort of. I was pretty famous around the summer of ’62, when I struck-out, last at bat, last game of the season, Middleburg Hts, OH, “Tee-Ball league!” (in my defense it was a very windy that day!)

    Liked by 1 person

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