By JOE McFARLAND
“We are the members of the All-American League.
We come from cities near and far.
We’ve got Canadians, Irishmen and Swedes.
We’re all for one, we’re one for all.
After watching A League Of Their Own it’s hard not to hum the movie’s victory song. Over the years, it remains one of the most-revered in sports.
One of the more overlooked aspects of the league the film profiles, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), is the fact that – as stated in that song – Canadians played a major part in its history.
Edmonton’s Betty Carveth Dunn and Ardley’s Helen Nicol Fox were among those who headed south to play baseball during World War II. Carveth Dunn was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 2017, while Nicol Fox was a dominant pitcher who was inducted into the same hall of fame in 1996.
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Meanwhile, a Canadian playwright/producer is taking another approach in highlighting Canada’s contingent in the AAGPBL.
Maureen Ulrich, who grew up in Edmonton and Calgary and now lives in Saskatchewan, is taking her one-woman baseball play to Australia after a successful couple of years touring it around her home country.
“Diamond Girls” recounts the lives of three Saskatchewan women who played in the AAGPBL: Arleene Johnson Noga, Daisy Junor and Mary “Bonnie” Baker. It was Baker who initially caught the interest of Maureen Ulrich.
“I had no idea what a big deal she was in the league,” Ulrich told Alberta Dugout Stories. “It was Mary who made me pay attention. She was a really big deal.”
Baker was born in Regina and became a star in the AAGPBL, not only catching for the South Bend Blue Sox, but later joining the Kalamazoo Lassies as a player/coach. She became the only woman to hold a coaching spot, and was installed into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 1985.
Ulrich saw a newspaper article about a ceremony for Baker in 2015, and that launched her into writing “Diamond Girls,” which is now on a journey into Australia for the Adelaide Fringe Festival.
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
Ulrich cites A League Of Their Own as one of her favourite movies. But she didn’t want to replicate the film for the stage.
Aside from learning about Baker, she met Arlene Johnson Noga, who was also an advisor for the 1992 film. She wanted to hear about their playing days, then set her sights on writing the one-woman play.
“It was a lot of work to write the show,” Ulrich admitted.
But she knew she could make it happen, thanks to the nature of the sport.
“What other sport does one individual’s contribution have as much effect on how things turn out?” Ulrich questioned. “Baseball is the most individual of team sports, standing at the plate or catching a ball, you’re on your own.”
It still presented some challenges.
“In one scene, Amanda (Trapp, the actress), plays three characters,” Ulrich said. “One is sitting on the bench and one is standing on either end and she rotates between those three.”
“But I think after a while, that’s when people bite on the show, ” she continued. “After watching that, you still envision the other two characters.”
Trapp, who took over the part from Malia Becker, then needs to depend on the audience’s collective imaginations. She interacts with the crowd, even pulling play-goers up to be a part of the experience in one part where the batter argues balls and strikes with the umpire. It’s all part of the series of characters she plays.
“I always ask my audience afterwards whether they felt like they watched a one-woman show and they say no,” Ulrich said. “They think they’ve seen five or six on stage. All are distinct and recognizable and she does 21.”
BRINGING IT BACK TO CANADA
Ulrich relishes in the idea of bringing the story of Canadian baseball heroes to another country like Australia. After finishing up several tour dates across the prairies in 2016 and then in Saskatchewan in 2017, Ulrich was able to book dates at the Adelaide Fringe Festival.
As soon as the dates were announced, she was getting requests for tickets, not just from the regular play-goers interested in a one-woman act, but those involved in the sport.
“The beauty of the play is that we don’t have to rely on Fringe audiences,” she said. “We can try and draw in baseball and softball fans who don’t go to plays.”
The response has been “great” so far because of that awareness. Ulrich feels like they were able to “get it right” with the relaunch in 2017.
“It does amaze me with the way that the play will appeal to both people who like sports and those who just like plays,” Ulrich continued. “It’s theatrical enough for the theatre people and, for the baseball people, it has enough theatre that I think it actually turns some of them into fans of theatre.”
She is quick to praise Trapp and director Kenn McLeod. She said McLeod’s vision, in particular, has allowed the play to thrive and is hopeful he will be on-board wherever it goes next.
Ulrich also wants to make sure the story continues to be told, especially as “A League Of Their Own” is now more than 25 years old.
“Having an opportunity to tell a fresh audience of people 35 and under who maybe have never heard of it is pretty fantastic,” Ulrich beams. “You want girls who are 13, 14, 15, 16 to know that at one time, there were women who played professional baseball.”
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“Keep beating the drum because maybe one day it’ll happen again,” Ulrich hopes.
And after coming to Alberta in 2016, the play may return to the province soon. Ulrich said she is looking at a potential Calgary date for the show in September.