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Keep Swinging

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Keep Swinging: The Evelyn Gardner Story
by Stilwell Gardner

It has been my honor for the past two decades to share with the readers of this publication the highs and the lows of the greatest game in the world. Through my work here, I have had the opportunity to meet some of the best players of both the past and the present, and to share their stories. Today I would like to share with you the story of the most exceptional professional baseball player I have had the luck of knowing: my mother, Evelyn Gardner.

World War II was raging in Europe. Men were leaving home in droves, and they came back different—if they came back at all. Women were being offered career opportunities previously closed to them, and with these opportunities came a moral panic about how this transgression against the God-given roles of men and women would lead to the downfall of our way of life. It was against this backdrop that the unassuming Evelyn Gardner decided to try out for professional baseball.

Evelyn Gardner was born in Deerfield, Ill. Like most kids, she grew up playing baseball. Unlike most kids, she was good at it. She played in the city leagues through high school. If she had been born in any other time, this is where her career probably would have ended. She did what women were expected to do: she got married, quit her job, and had a child. She never stopped playing, though. Back then she lived right across the street from the neighborhood diamond, and Evelyn was out there every day with the neighborhood kids. When she was seven months pregnant, she was hitting grounders for the kids to practice with, and only one month after giving birth, she was back out there, her baby—me—in a basket in the dugout.

The story of how Evelyn made it to tryouts is a little unusual. She was out of the leagues at that point, but one of the girls, Francine Kovinski, who practiced with her in that neighborhood diamond was still playing, and she told my mom there was a scout holding tryouts down in Chicago. Kovinski was really good; she would eventually hold the record for the most home runs in National Girls Baseball League - the semi-pro softball league in the Chicago. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get down to Chicago on her own, and she asked Evelyn to drive her.

I still remember the car ride down to Chicago. It was my first time in the city proper and my first time in a real baseball stadium.

They got to the tryouts, and after Kovinski had her turn, the scout turned to Evelyn and asked, “You trying out too, sweetie?”

Evelyn didn’t even hesitate. I was passed off to Kovinski and my mom won a ticket to the official team tryouts. She went on to be one of the founding members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL).

Evelyn’s situation was unusual among the 60 women who played that first season. Most of them were single. Of those who were married, most had husbands who were overseas, and only six had children. Conservative media, pushing against the trend of women entering male-dominated fields even during the crisis of wartime, seized on the flagrant display of subversion Evelyn and the other mothers represented. Who would take care of the children? What sort of lawless, delinquent children would such women raise? They felt the very foundation of civilized society—the home, with the women safely confined to role of mother and wife—was being destroyed. Personally I think I turned out all right, though I do admit I was a bit of handful at times.

For the first part of that first season, I mostly stayed home with my dad. Sometime around the mid-season point, Evelyn started taking me with her to all the games. As an adult, I recognize now this was just part of a greater power play between them, the goal of which was to force Evelyn to quit the league and return home. Well, Evelyn did not quit. She found a way to make it work. If no one would watch her kid while she was playing baseball, then her kid could come watch her play. I was there for every game until I was old enough to be left home alone, and even then I was at games more often than not. It was the best education a baseball-obsessed kid could hope for.

That was where I learned to play. I was taught to pitch by Betty Spaghetti, taught to throw by All-the-Way Mae, taught to hit by Marla Hooch. I didn’t just learn skills from them. I learned about perseverance. I learned about sticking with something even when it got hard, especially when it got hard. I still remember in the second World Series, Evelyn went up to bat with a broken foot. She told me later that she knew she had to hit it out of the park because there was no way she was going to be able to run the bases. She did, and the Rockford Peaches won that year.

My mother stuck with the league for nine of its 11 years. She holds the record for the oldest player in the league at 33. She retired about the time I was starting high school and beginning my own short-lived career. She became my coach, my agent, and my manager all rolled in one. I think she always knew I didn’t have the skills she did, but she also knew you couldn’t let anyone tell you to give up. It’s thanks to her support that I had a baseball career at all, and it’s thanks to her passion that I found mine.

Today marks the 45th anniversary of the first game of the inaugural season of the AAGPBL. In two months’ time, the Baseball Hall of Fame, in a long overdue ceremony, will enter the first women into its hallowed halls. I will be there in lieu of my mother, who passed away two years ago. She was an inspiration to me and to the millions of fans who came to watch her and her teammates sometimes as often as six times a week, with a doubleheader on Sunday. If you are ever traveling in the vicinity of Cooperstown, N.Y., I recommend making a stop to spend a day with the greatest players, both men and women, who ever played the game.

I will leave you with a quote from the team manager of the Rockford Peaches, Jimmy Dugan. It’s a sentiment that Evelyn and her teammates had felt from the first moment they picked up a bat. It is a sentiment that you and I and everyone who’s loved this game has always shared.

“Baseball is what gets inside you, it’s what lights you up.”

You always did shine the brightest, Mom. I miss you every day. I’m so proud to be your son and carry on a small part of your legacy.