By JOE McFARLAND
Blink and you’ll miss Ardley, Alberta. You would never guess this tiny Red Deer County community of just 16 (according to the last census) is home to one of Alberta’s greatest baseball exports. And she is no stranger to Hall of Fame status.
Born May 9, 1920, Helen Nicol (later Helen Fox) had one of the most storied careers in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The accolades, though, expand beyond the baseball world. Before she fired pitches for the Kenosha Comets and Rockford Peaches, Nicol was known as a multisport athlete, adding hockey, speedskating, golf and softball to her baseball repertoire.
It was that athletic prowess that got her noticed, and paved the way for the right-hander to move from making just a few dollars a week for the Hudson’s Bay Company, to making $85/week playing baseball in the United States.
The AAGPBL Years
The legend of Helen Nicol began right away with the Kenosha Comets. At 23, she pitched her way to an unbelievable 31-8 record in 47 games in 1943, posting a blistering 1.81 ERA. Heading into her sophomore season, the Comets had high hopes for Nicol.
“The Calgary, Canada “chucker” as Miss Nicol was tabbed, rated as the professional league’s standout star at her position with a record of 31 victories and eight defeats in the regular season, plus a pair of setbacks in the title series which was annexed by the Racine Belles,” wrote Eddie McKenna in the Kenosha Evening News on May 5, 1944.
“Her victory string, an unmatched mark that is likely to stand for several seasons, was entered in the U.S. sports annals as one of the oustanding feats of 1943,” McKenna continued. “She was presented an exquisite trophy by the Kenosha Eagles’ club in recognition of her league achievements while the American Legion also staged a special night in her behalf at which she was given a fitted traveling bag of handsome quality and design of her own selection.”
Nicol’s win-loss record that season might have fallen to 17-11, but her ERA was cut in half, to an unheard of 0.93. According to the AAGPBL record book, she won the league pitching title both seasons. Nicol followed that up with a 24-19 record in 1945, posting a 1.34 ERA. She also married that year, taking the surname Fox.
“The brand of ball we played was pretty high class,” Fox told the East Valley Tribune in 2011, ahead of a reunion which she wasn’t able to attend. “A lot of fans came to our games. The women never played against the men – that was a no-no. We were built differently than the men, and that would not have been good.”
The 1947 season was a year of transition for pitchers in the league. Fox usually pitched underhand, but that year the league changed the rules so that pitchers had to toss sidearm. The bases and the mound were also pushed back. But she adjusted.
Fox also joined the Rockford Peaches that year, and while she wasn’t putting up the same kinds of numbers she did in her first three seasons, she would help the Peaches win the AAGPBL title in three-straight seasons (1948-1950). She was credited with four of the ten playoff wins in 1948, including two in the finals. In the 1950 finals, she would flourish again, getting credit for three of the team’s four victories, including a shutout in the seventh and deciding game.
In 1951, Fox continued to dominate, going 18-7 with a 2.57 ERA and 23 complete games, while she went 8-7 with a 2.80 ERA in her final season. In her career (1943-1952), she never had an ERA over 2.80. She eclipsed the 200 strikeout plateau twice (1943 and 1945) and posted more than 13 wins in all but two seasons (1947 and 1952).
A total of 64 Canadians donned the colours of All-American Girls Professional Baseball League teams, including several Albertans like Betty Dunn (Carveth), who was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in the summer 2017. Nicol was given that honour in 1996. The league was also inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1988.
That induction created a new level of interest in the AAGPBL. In 1992, A League Of Their Own came out in movie theatres to rave reviews.
Nicol and the Canadian contingent gained induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998. Before that, Nicol was part of the Army and Navy Pats organization that was inducted into the Softball Alberta Hall of Fame in 1987.p
“I enjoyed playing very much, and I enjoyed meeting the people,” Fox said in the East Valley Tribune article. “A lot of people said, ‘I bet you had fun.’ We did, but it was a job. We took the game seriously.”
And while Helen Nicol (Fox) made her mark on the baseball world and put Ardley, Alberta on the map, the same couldn’t be said for the community. Despite having a grain elevator, bowling alley, hotel and more during its hey-day, Ardley is considered a ghost town now.