- Associated Press - Saturday, June 6, 2015

JUPITER, Fla. (AP) - The Jupiter Hammerheads catcher tried to come out to the mound, but pitcher Margaret Wigiser waved him off.

Get back down, she gestured with her non-throwing hand. So he did.

He crouched behind the plate again and dug a second side-arm pitch from Wigiser out of the dirt at Roger Dean Stadium. He started to stand up again when Wigiser just pointed and gave him a look.

He squatted back down.

“Go, Margaret, go! Go, Margaret, go!” yelled fans behind home plate.

When her third pitch skipped over the plate, she waved both arms in disgust and walked off the mound.

Call in a reliever, skipper.

The media swarmed her for a quote. How did it feel throw out the first pitch, someone asked. A lifelong Yankees fan, she channeled Yogi Berra.

“It hurt,” she said. “Other than that, it felt good.”

Wigiser was asked to throw out the first pitch recently at a game where half the proceeds went to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, where she volunteers as an usher.

This might be a fair amount of drama for any other 90-year-old woman.

But not for Wigiser.

Wigiser, who lives in Hobe Sound, was a member of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, immortalized by Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna and Tom Hanks in the film “A League of Their Own.” She helped entertain an anxious America while the country’s men went off to fight World War II.

And she hadn’t been just any player. Wigiser - “Wiggie” to her teammates - holds the record for the longest home run at Rockford Park, home of the Peaches who were the stars of the Hollywood film. And her name is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Professional baseball was just the start for Wigiser. She would go on to a career in sports and education and change the lives of countless girls who played high school sports in New York.

Two years before Title IX became law in 1972, she helped spur the New York City Board of Education to start interscholastic high school sports for girls. And by the time she retired as the first director of girls high school sports, more than 10,000 girls were competing in 12 different sports.

And it all started with baseball. She reminisced while watching the rest of that Hammerheads game from the stands, the first game she had attended in so long she couldn’t remember.

“Such a great game that young boys and young women can play with their kids,” she said, sitting next to three friends who drove her. “And play it for a long time and enjoy it.”

A great opportunity

Her love of sports started from her apartment window.

As a girl, the oldest of three sisters, she sat at the window of her parents’ apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and watched boys and girls play in separate parks across the street

The girls park had a slide, swings and a maypole. The boys park, however, had a climbing gym and rings.

Her father told her to stop dreaming and start acting. He encouraged her to play in the boys park, and if he saw a park official happen by, he would whistle from the apartment window to alert her.

She grew up playing stickball in the street with boys and girls, but hated that there was nothing more than recreational league softball for her, even as a teenager.

Then came the news that Philip K. Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs and chewing gum company magnate, was starting a professional baseball league for women. There would be preliminary tryouts at a park in New Jersey. She was 17 when she and four friends chipped in 10 cents each to buy enough gas to drive to the tryout.

Hundreds of girls overran the softball diamonds with baseball dreams. But only three were chosen. Wigiser was one of them.

She would fly out to Chicago for spring training, where she would be assigned to a professional team in the AAGPBL, an underhand-pitch hybrid of baseball and softball that led to today’s fast-pitch softball.

But at home, her parents were divided - and not the way she expected.

“My father didn’t want me to go because he didn’t want me getting on a plane by myself and flying across the country,” Wigiser remembers.

Her mother, however, sympathized. She had once been chosen a local beauty queen but her conservative parents never let her compete beyond that.

“I didn’t get my chance, but she’s going to get her chance,” her mother told her father.

And she did.

Wigiser signed to play for the Minneapolis Millerettes for $75 a week that summer of 1944.

“It was good money!” she recalled. “I’m making $75 a week throughout the summer, all my expenses paid. I never had to ask my father for money ever again.”

She traveled throughout the Midwest playing in the 15-team league, where she was a power hitter. No one knew it better than the team in Rockford, Ill.

She had been playing for Minneapolis when she hit a home run, one of the rarest feats in women’s baseball. It got the attention of the Peaches, who traded for her before the end of the season. She would hit four homers in her 3½ seasons.

“I was smart. I hit it hard enough to where I didn’t have to slide,” she said.

And the next season, with her starting in center field, the Peaches won the first of their league-record four championships.

Her life with the Peaches wasn’t like the movie version, though. “It was Hollywood, OK?” she said of the film, in which Madonna played the center fielder - Wigiser’s position.

“For one thing, we didn’t have a drunken manager,” she said, referencing Jimmy “There’s No Crying In Baseball” Dugan, Tom Hanks’ character.

Her manager, Bill Allington, sat in the lobby of the team hotel with a pencil and pad and took roll whenever the girls had an afternoon out on the town.

“I’m not going to say some of the girls didn’t sneak out a window, but I didn’t,” she laughed. “I was one of the young ones.”

She went town-to-town, playing and signing autographs for starry-eyed girls and fans who had season tickets.

“It made you feel like Mrs. Big,” she said.

Wigiser’s father even made several trips to Chicago to watch his daughter play, a memory that still brings tears to Wigiser’s eyes.

“I was so overwhelmed,” she said. “I was his girl.”

Wigiser played every summer through her years at Hunter College until 1946. While in college, she also played varsity basketball, field hockey and threw the shot put and discus in track and field. But she left pro baseball when she entered the workforce.

“No boss was going to let you take the summers off to play baseball, so I had to stop,” she said. “I didn’t really insist, because I had new things to accomplish.”

‘I got mad, and went to war’

It wasn’t just wishful thinking.

With her degree in physical education, she started working in New York state schools and was eventually named chairwoman of health and physical education at Francis Lewis High in Queens.

The school built a brilliant athletic field. The day it opened, she headed for her car in the parking lot and was stopped in her tracks. One thing stood out glaringly about the new facility.

“Not one girl was on the athletic fields. Not one,” she said, still roiled at the memory half a century later. “I got mad. So we went to war.”

Girls did not have varsity sports before 1970 in New York City schools. This was especially irritating to Wigiser, to whom sports had given so much.

She worked with others who believed in the cause, picketing the school board, until a program for girls was established. She oversaw the hiring of hundreds of coaches. And the school board hired her as the first director of girls high school sports.

“She didn’t take no for an answer,” said Mary Ann Kelly, 78, the former chairwoman of the girls high school games committee, who worked alongside Wigiser at the New York schools. “She took on a male-oriented organization and continued pushing and pushing.”

Her story seems especially alive, still, as she sits in the stands at Roger Dean Stadium after her first pitch, the crack of a wooden bat punctuating her memories.

She sits alongside her three friends - Joanne Weiland, Elaine Gargano, Judy Hendren - under an overcast sky, talking sports.

Wigiser still follows the Yankees and lives on a golf course where she can “fall out of bed and be on the fifth green in five minutes,” she said.

She competes regularly in the golf community’s tournaments and won this year’s club championship.

“And she is so competitive,” Weiland said.

“The people she beat were younger than she was!” Hendren added. “She’s amazing.”

Wigiser gives a knowing smirk. But her eyes are fixed on the field.

Out there, young men are trying to make their mark. In the stands watching them is a woman who has already made hers.

Wigiser said she is glad to see the kind of advancements women have made in sports and beyond and feels proud she played a small role.

“I look at girls today and it’s kind of overwhelming,” Wigiser says, watching the action. “I think to myself, ‘It’s a different world today, Margaret.’ But they’re OK. They’re OK.”


Information from: The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, https://www.pbpost.com

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