She inspired ‘A League of Their Own.’ At 95, she’s far from done.
By Remy Tumin
Maybelle Blair walked into a sporting goods store in her early 90s with a mission: to try on a pair of spikes.
The salesman suggested that she meant to ask for sneakers. But Blair, a former pitcher for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, insisted on baseball cleats. “He looked at me like I had lost it,” Blair, now 95, recalled in a recent interview.
The cleats finally appeared.
“He put them on my feet. I got up and marched around, and I heard that clicketyclack in my head and I was never so happy,” Blair said.
After taking the cleats for a walk in the store, Blair took them off, put them in their box and told the salesman that she wouldn’t be taking them.
“That was a big thrill of my life, just to put cleats on and march again,” she said.
For Blair, the sound of cleats brought back memories of suiting up as a Peoria Redwing and walking onto the field, her favorite baseball ritual.
“I was so proud of myself because it dawned on me: I got to play the game I loved and cherished,” she said. “I’d put on my spikes and march down the aisle and walk onto the field, clicketyclack, clicketyclack. That was the most beautiful music I have ever heard.”
Blair was one of more than 600 women to join the baseball league, created in 1943 in response to World War II. As young men were drafted, fears spread that the war would be the demise of professional baseball and its ballparks. So women played instead.
The league folded in 1954 and was brought back to life in the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own.” Amazon Prime will have its own version in a new TV series under the same title in August.
Blair played with the league for only the 1948 season, but it was one of many boundary-breaking moments in her life. She went on to a 37-year career at Northrop Corp. (now known as Northrop Grumman) where she became the third female manager in the company. Blair has been instrumental in promoting the league’s story and women in baseball and is a founding director of the International Women’s Baseball Center in Rockford, Illinois.
In June, Blair broke one more boundary. During a press tour for the new show, Blair let go of a long-kept secret.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for these young girl ballplayers to come to realize that they’re not alone and you don’t have to hide,” she said, publicly coming out as gay. “I hid for 75, 85 years, and this is actually, basically the first time I’ve ever come out.”
She was greeted by cheers. Blair said she was inspired by watching young women play baseball at an event held recently by Baseball For All, a group that promotes inclusivity in the sport. Her time working with producers on the Amazon show, which tackles a fuller scope of the story of the league, including issues of sexuality and race, also got her thinking.
“I could see their struggles and little eyes and love of the game,” Blair said of watching young female baseball players. “I said: ‘You know, Maybelle, at 95, maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe your family won’t disown you. You got to do it.’”
“I sat up there on that stage, and my mouth flew open and out it came,” she continued. “I was relieved.”
Blair was one of about 20 former players whom the show’s producer, Will Graham, and actress Abbi Jacobson spoke to for the show’s development. Graham said that Blair had been open about her sexuality with them during the making of the show, but he did not expect her to come out in a public forum. He called her “an extraordinary human being.”
“We have a tendency to believe that life before Stonewall for queer people was pretty bleak, and of course it was hard and still is in many ways. But she found joy and found herself, and I think queer people always do that whenever and wherever we are,” Graham said. “I’m so grateful that she’s in my life.”
Blair first began to become aware of her sexuality in fifth grade, and her first love came when she was a senior in high school. “I’ll never forget her,” she said. But she kept her relationships private and never married.
“I was so worried about my family because in those days nobody knew anything about people being gay or what have you. It was so nerve-wracking,” she said.
She found herself happiest on the field. Blair, who grew up in Texas and California, said she was “born a baseball fan.”
“If I hadn’t, my father would have gotten rid of me,” she said with a laugh. “Playing baseball was the only entertainment we had besides breaking horses.”
Blair was playing softball in Redondo Beach, California, when a scout came through. Her mother was resistant to the idea at first, but when she learned that Blair would be making $55 a week, she put Blair on a train to Chicago.
When Blair got to the league, she “found out there were more people like me and it gave me more freedom and those girls more freedom,” she said of the league’s rare inclusive environment. The players would frequently meet in Chicago during a day off and go to a gay bar, Blair said.
But outside the baseball league, she would not find the same comforts. Blair said she had a high security clearance while working on Northrop’s B-2 bomber. That responsibility also came with scrutiny.
“They would go around asking neighbors all about you,” she said. “It was nerve-wracking. Every time I moved, I was afraid somebody would discover that I was gay, and if they did I would be fired right on the spot.”
Blair eventually retired. These days, her life is dedicated to including women and girls in baseball, primarily through the International Women’s Baseball Center. The education center is still in the fundraising stages, but “until I get that shovel in the ground, I got to keep going,” she said.
She hopes to live to at least 100 and plans to pass on to the next generation some of the lessons she has learned from baseball.
“These girls deserve it; they need help,” Blair said. “For some of these girls, there’s no place for them to play baseball. We will be running a league of our own again.”