Winding Up for the World Series – 3 October 28, 2013

With the World Series underway, I decided to look back in on some of the people I talked to when writing my baseball e-book, Contender. Here we get the women’s side of the story—a Canadian league of our own.

 

They were called the Florence Chicks, and they were five-time Ontario women’s softball champions in the 1950s. Star pitcher Maude McDonald says the team owner was a chicken dealer from the southwestern Ontario town of Florence, and newspaperman Bob Dunlop of the London Free Press christened them the Chicks in the dealer’s honour.    Partly in his honour, Maude chuckles.

Living in a time of billion-dollar professional sports, with 95-mile-an-hour fastballs blasted 420 feet in the Major League play-offs, it’s hard to imagine a time 60 years ago when baseball was so much more approachable.

Maude McDonald

Maude McDonald

But that’s the world Maude first led me into when I went to Bothwell, Ontario, to talk about her younger brother, Harry Fisher. Harry made it to the Major Leagues, as I’ve written in Contender, Triumph, Tragedy and Canadian Baseball Player Harry Fisher. He played with some of the greats, winning one storied July 4 game for the woebegone 1952 Pittsburgh Pirates, and kibbitzing with baseball fan Groucho Marx after batting practice with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League.

But Harry started out humbly in southwestern Ontario, pitching the type of games in which Maude played out her career. After talking about her brother, Maude pulled out her scrapbooks, painting a picture of women’s sports at a time when amateur baseball was all that even the most gifted female athletes could aspire to.

Maude was brought up in a baseball-crazy family. The patriarch, Harry Fisher Senior, coached a small-town ball team early in the twentieth century, and Harry’s eight older brothers and sisters played on teams from the 1920s through to 1959, when both the one-time pro Harry and Maude’s twin sister, Mae Fisher Brearley, reluctantly hung up their cleats.

Maude and Mae were born in 1920, when twins came as a surprise. Family members recall their mother, Carrie Kelley Fisher, staying in bed for longer than was customary after their birth, frantically knitting baby clothes for the unexpected bonus.

It was probably the last time they were coddled. The twins grew up playing baseball, often jousting with their brothers in pick-up games. The Fishers were a farm family and money was tight, but their father made sure all the Fishers had baseball gloves, boys and girls alike. Maude remembers that the gloves didn’t have much padding and the ball was small and hard. “Either you caught it or you got out of the way,” she says. “It packed a real punch.” They cut their bases out of cardboard, and there’s even a story of Harry stealing green apples from the family orchard so he could practice pitching.

Maude and Mae were born six years before the gifted Harry, but they had an earlier role model. Their eldest sister, Madelaine Fisher Partington, pitched for a barnstorming women’s softball team in the 1930s, the St. Thomas Purples, which travelled across the United States demolishing its rivals. “One of the best teams in the country,” Maude remembers. “Men or women.”

The Florence Chicks were formed in 1950, part of the Lambton Kent Ladies Softball League, which played twice-weekly games from the May 24 long weekend until playoffs ended in October. Maude was 30 when the team was formed, already mother to three daughters and a son. Mae had two kids, a boy and a girl. With Maude pitching and Mae at the bat, they played their home games on Saturday night, regularly drawing 1,000 fans and sometimes as many as 2,000. Holding bake sales and raffles meant the women paid for state-of-the-art bleachers and lights for their home-town field.

Like the players in A League of Their Own, the women wore blouses, short flared skirts, black stockings from foot to thigh and a pair of easily-removable anklets. If they were injured sliding into base, the anklets would pull off quickly. Otherwise, says Maude, life on the Florence Chicks wasn’t much like the shiny, conflict-ridden movie. The women got along because they had to, and didn’t enjoy the perks shown onscreen. No one even imagined having professional coaches and trainers, although there was usually a doctor on hand. In the Chicks’ case, it was the Florence town doctor, who offered a silver dollar to every woman who pegged a homer.

“We’d do our best to get our dollars,” Maude says, “so I hit a lot of home runs.”

Yet the game had its thrills, including travel. Every Tuesday, the team hit the road. Not all the women’s families had cars, so fans drove the players as far afield as Parry Sound and Scarborough, Bala, Woodstock, Sarnia, Hamilton and London. The players brought their children, with about a dozen kids routinely coming along for the ride—Maude took two—and younger fans babysitting while they played.

The Fisher family, with Maude and Mae at the rear.

The Fisher family, with Maude and Mae at the rear.

Their first year, the Florence Chicks won the 1950 Lambton Kent Ladies Softball Championship. Their second, after losing their first nine games, the team caught fire and won the Ontario provincial women’s softball championship, held that year in Parry Sound. With Maude on the mound, they pounded the Scarborough Spooners 25-5 to take the title. Maude remembers a train chugging along on the tracks behind centre field pulling to a stop so the crew could watch the game. Her scrapbook shows she pitched and won all the play-off games the Chicks played that year. “My biggest thrill,” she says.

All told, Maude pitched for three provincial championship teams, adding victories in 1952 and ’56. She seldom lost a game she pitched. Her sister Mae had extra boasting rights: one year, she won the Ontario women’s batting title with a .401 average.

Yet winning had its hazards, with over-enthusiastic fans storming the mound after playoff victories. “My husband didn’t think much of that,” Maude says. “So I told him, either I stop playing or you make sure you’re the first one out there. And he was.”

A bigger problem was the base pads, which were four inches high and made of straw. Maude remembers players regularly injuring their lower legs when they slid into the bags. Her only major injury came more classically, when she was plunked on the ankle by a come-backer to the mound. “The batter hit the ball hard and I couldn’t get out of the way,” she says. “You think you’re quite agile, but you’re never as quick as the ball.”

Yet it wasn’t an injury that made Maude finally hang up her cleats. When she was pregnant with her fifth child in 1956, she decided to call it a day. Mae played until the Florence Chicks were disbanded in 1959, winning two more provincial championships, in 1957 and ’59, and finally retiring when she was almost 40. Mae died in 2004, leaving Maude as the last of the nine Fisher brothers and sisters. In her scrapbooks is the half-forgotten history of baseball in southwestern Ontario. In her eyes, the pride of winning 60 years before, when Canada had leagues of its own.

 

For more on the Fisher family, read Contender: Triumph, Tragedy and Canadian Baseball Player Harry Fisher, available from Star Dispatches.