baseball

Maybelle Blair inspired ‘A League of Their Own.’ At 95, he is out of work.

Maybelle Blair walked into a sporting goods store in her early 90s with a mission: to try on a pair of spikes.

The salesman suggested he ask for sneakers. But Blair, a former pitcher in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, insisted on baseball cleats. “He looked at me like I’d lost it,” Blair, now 95, recalled in a recent interview.

Cleats finally appeared.

“They put me on my feet. I got up and walked around, and I heard that click-tick in my head, and I’ve never been happier,” Blair said.

After taking the cleats for a walk around the store, Blair took them off, put them in their box, and told the salesperson that she wouldn’t be taking them.

“That was one of the biggest thrills of my life, just to put the cleats on and march again,” he said.

For Blair, the sound of cleats brought back memories of being a Peoria Redwing and stepping onto the field, her favorite baseball celebration.

“I was very proud of myself because it dawned on me: I got to play the game I loved and cherished,” he said. “I put on my spikes and march down the aisle and walk onto the field, clickticklock, clickticklock. It was the most beautiful music I have ever heard.

Blair was one of more than 600 women to join the baseball league, which was created in 1943 in response to World War II. As youth was drafted, fears spread that the war would be the demise of professional baseball and its ballparks. So the women played instead.

The league was disbanded in 1954 and revived in the 1992 film “A League of Their Own”. Amazon Prime will have its own version of a new TV series under the same title in August.

Blair only played with the league for the 1948 season, but it was one of the boundary-breaking moments in his life. She went on to a 37-year career at Northrop Corporation (now known as Northrop Grumman) where she became the third female manager at the company. Blair has been instrumental in the league’s story and promotion of women in baseball and is the founding director of the International Women’s Baseball Center in Rockford, Ill.

In June, Blair broke yet another boundary. During a press tour for the new show, Blair let go of a long-held secret.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for these little girl ballplayers to realize they’re not alone and you don’t have to hide,” he said of coming out as gay publicly. “I’ve been in hiding for 75, 85 years and this is actually, basically the first time I’ve come out.”

She was greeted with cheers. Blair said she was inspired to see young women playing baseball at a recent event held by Baseball for All, a group that promotes inclusion in sports. Her time working with producers on an Amazon show that tackled the full scope of the League’s story, including issues of sexuality and race, also got her thinking.

“I could see their struggles and little eyes and love of the game,” Blair said of watching young female baseball players. “I said: ‘You know, Maybelle, at 95, maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe your family won’t disown you. You should do it.

“I sat on that stage, and my mouth dropped and it came out,” she continued. “I’m relieved.”

Blair was one of about 20 former players who the show’s producer Will Graham and actress Abbie Jacobson spoke to for the show’s development. Graham said he had been open about his sexuality with Blair during the making of the show, but he never expected it to come out on a public stage. He called her an “extraordinary human being.”

“We tend to believe that life before Stonewall was pretty bleak for queer people, and of course it was difficult and still is in many ways. But she found happiness and found herself, and I think queer people always do that, wherever and whenever we are,” Graham said. “I’m so grateful to have her in my life.”

Blair first began to learn about her sexuality in the fifth grade, and her first love came when she was a senior in high school. “I’ll never forget her,” she said. But she kept her relationships private and never married.

“I was very worried about my family because in those days nobody knew about people being gay or what have you. It was very nerve-racking,” he said.

She found herself happiest on the field. Raised in Texas and California, Blair said he was “born a baseball fan.”

“If I hadn’t, my father would have gotten rid of me,” she said with a laugh. “Besides breaking horses, playing baseball is the only recreation we have.”

Blair was playing softball in Redondo Beach, California when a scout arrived. Her mother was initially opposed to the idea, but when she learned that Blair would earn $55 a week, she put Blair on the train to Chicago.

When Blair came to the league, “she found out there were more people like me, and it gave me more freedom and it gave those girls more freedom,” she said of the league’s rare inclusive atmosphere. Blair said the players would often meet up in Chicago and go to a gay bar during a day off.

But outside of the baseball league, she doesn’t find the same amenities. Blair said she had a high security clearance while working on Northman’s B-2 bomber. That responsibility also came under scrutiny.

“They ask the neighbors about you,” he said. “It was nerve-racking. Every time I moved, I was afraid someone would find out I was gay and if they did I’d be fired on the spot.

Blair eventually retired. These days, her life is dedicated to the inclusion of women and girls in baseball, primarily through the International Women’s Baseball Center. The education center is still in the fundraising stages, but “until I get that shovel in the ground, I’ll keep going,” he said.

He hopes to live at least 100 years and plans to pass on some of the lessons he learned from baseball to the next generation.

“These girls deserve it; They need help,” Blair said. “For some of these girls, they don’t have a place to play baseball. We will run our own league again.

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