'A League of Their Own': A real-life former player on what the film got right

(ABC News) -- "A League of Their Own" came out 25 years ago today, but the Penny Marshall-directed film is far more than just a movie for the women who took the baseball diamond more than 70 years ago during World War II and for years after.
 
The 1992 blockbuster centers on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and the women who took over "America's pastime" when their male counterparts were in the war.
 
ABC News spoke to one of the players from that era, Jeneane "Jeanie" Lesko, who played in the last two seasons of the all-women's league and was there when Hollywood came calling with actresses like Madonna, Geena Davis and Rosie O'Donnell to tell the story of U.S. women's time in the ball yard.
 
Lesko joined the league a few years after the Second World War ended but she still got to know many of the athletes that had been there before, hear their stories and experience what it was like to play in the league. She has also helped to keep the memories of those female baseball players alive in the years since.
 
Lesko, who was a pitcher with the Grand Rapids Chicks still works with the All American Girls Professional Baseball League's players association and travels the country promoting the game she loves and inspiring young women.
 
Her story
 
Lesko, originally from Lakeview, Ohio, was a senior in high school in 1952 and a bat girl for the local men's team when she was told women were still playing professional baseball.
 
"It was scary, I had never been out of the state," she said. "I drove up my sister’s old DeSoto coupe, got to the field and saw all these women [just like in the movie], about 100 of them, trying out for the league.”
 
Then a shy 18-year-old, Lesko was caught off-guard by the uniforms and new surroundings.
 
“I saw all these girls in these little short skirts, I didn’t even know what they wore before I got there," she said. "We didn’t have TV at home or any way to see pictures of them. I never wore dresses to school, I always wore jeans. I really felt very naked when I went out on that field, but I said if they can do it I can do it,” Lesko said.
 

 
“I went out and didn’t talk to anybody," she said. "I just paid attention to myself and like they showed in the film, there was a board with names after we finished the tryouts and I was picked up by the Grand Rapids Chicks.”
 
Lesko played with the Chicks until 1954, when the league stopped operating.
 
The left-handed pitcher had a coach, Woody English, who she said was very similar to Tom Hanks' gruff Jimmy Dugan in the movie. After Lesko cut her hair too short without knowing the required length (it had to be around the shoulders at least), she made sure to keep her head down during that first season.
 
"Our manager was from the Chicago Cubs, a shortstop back in the '20s, and he was kind of a rough guy, chewed tobacco," she added. "I never let him see the back of my head … I was a little shy about that.”
 
The other pitchers on the team took Lesko under their wings and showed her the game.
 
“The first game I got in, I didn't know how to hold the runners on, I was balking time after time, finally the umpire came over and told me to stop,” she said.
 
What the film got right
 
Baseball at the time was the most popular, unifying sport in the country, and the women who took it up both during and after the war -- often stayed with local families and, for the most part, were welcomed.
 
"We paid $15 a month [to stay with these families] and there was two of us in each house," Lesko explained. "We were a couple blocks from the field, so we walked to practice in the morning and to games at night."
 
But it wasn't just the crowds that appreciated these women inspiring them and taking their minds off their daily lives. Lesko said a lot of the players' families relied on the girls for money to get by.
 

© 2017 ABC News


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