Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of stories on the inductees into the Brookfield Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame.
Barbara Gregorich was never able to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a big league baseball player.
But, her love of baseball never wavered, and once she figured out that she wanted to be a writer – something she loved as much as playing baseball – she found a way to make a contribution to baseball without swinging a bat or throwing a pitch.
Although she has had a varied career as a writer – novelist, children’s author, poet, nonfiction author – Gregorich is arguably best known for her nonfiction work “Women At Play: The Story of Women in Baseball.”
In a presentation to Brookfield High School students on Sep. 20, Gregorich said she fell in love with baseball while growing up on Service Avenue in Masury.
“I played baseball every day, two or three games a day on weekends, and every day after school, roughly from mid-March to the end of October,” said the 1961 graduate of Brookfield High. “Baseball was my passion.”
She recalled seeing the Negro League team the Homestead Grays and the softball entertainment team the King and His Court at Elks Field, which was located where the Route 62 cloverleaf is today in Masury.
Her passion did not get in the way of her common sense and, at age 11, she realized “I was much slower than any of you,” making her an unlikely trailblazer.
“It took me to the age of 11 (to realize), ‘Duh, there are no women in the Major Leagues,’” said Gregorich, who now lives in Chicago. “I sort of gave up the whole fight to be a baseball player right then and there. I figured I couldn’t buck the establishment – the Major Leagues would never accept women.”
Gregorich worked on her writing under the tutelage of English teacher Dorothy Drummond – the grandmother of hall of fame inductee Elizabeth Drummond – but didn’t pursue it as a career right away.
“I went to Kent State University, University of Wisconsin and Harvard University and decided that I would teach for a while,” she said, taking a job at a community college.
“Then, I left that and became a typesetter for the Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune, and after that I decided to become a letter carrier for the United States Postal Service,” Gregorich said. “I actually loved that job.”
She finally became a full-time writer in 1979, taking on freelance pieces for newspapers, magazines and publishers. At about the age of 30, Gregorich decided she wanted to write a book.
Who’s on first?
“I had two books in mind,” she said. “One of these was a mystery novel, because I grew up reading the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and other mysteries, and I loved mysteries. But, the other novel I had in mind was about a woman who plays in the Major Leagues.”
After many walks with her husband, Phil, and inspired by the story of Pam Postema, who nearly became the first female umpire in the Major Leagues, Gregorich chose to write the baseball novel, which was titled “She’s On First.”
“I wrote the book. I got an agent, a literary agent, and she sent it out to 33 different major publishing houses, which means, pretty much, that she sent it to every existing publisher in the United States. They all rejected it.”
It took more than two years for this process to play out, and her agent floated the idea of giving up.
“I said, ‘No, let’s send it back to the very first publisher that you sent it to because, if you remember, they said that they really liked the book but couldn’t take a financial risk because there was a book about a woman hockey player that had come out the year before and it bombed.’ I said, ‘Four years have gone by. They may have forgotten about that woman hockey player book.’ She sent it to them and they published it.”
The true story
Her author’s tour promoting “She’s on First” led her to “Women at Play.”
“Invariably, the question that I got the most was not, ‘How did you write this book?’ or anything like that, it was always, ‘Were there really women who played baseball?’ People wanted the true story.”
In about 1988, Gregorich went to libraries, searching card catalogs for anything about women or girls in baseball. There were no books listed. She went to the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, regularly published anthologies of newspaper and magazine stories on particular subjects.
“I actually found maybe seven or eight references to girls or women playing baseball,” Gregorich said. “One was that I actually already knew about, but I found more articles on, in 1931, a 17-year-old named Jackie Mitchell, a girl, pitched in an exhibition game in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Yankees were traveling northward from spring training in Florida, and she pitched against the New York Yankees, and struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, the two greatest sluggers of their time. I also stumbled across the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. How many of you have seen the film ‘A League of Their Own?’ That is the league that was written about. It existed from 1942 to 1954.”
Gregorich found the master’s thesis Debbie Shattuck had written at Brown University about women who played baseball in the 19th century that listed Maud Nelson as the greatest woman player of the time.
Digging in and digging deep
Gregorich continued her research by going through newspaper archives, and making cold calls to people whose last names matched the names of women she ran across in her research, extensively interviewing those with information to share.
She also contacted the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which collects historical data on all things baseball. She asked the hall “to send me what they have on women in baseball. They did and it consisted of five sheets of paper, all from the 1880s or 1890s, most of them mentioning Maud Nelson.”
After four years of research, assembling 8,000 sheets of research material and discovering that Maud Nelson was a stage name for Clementina Brida, an Italian immigrant who learned to play in Mahanoy City, Pa., Gregorich published “Women at Play” in 1993.
Having spent years writing “She’s on First” and “Women at Play,” “I thought that would be pretty much the end of my writing about baseball,” Gregorich said.
Who’s the expert now?
“Once you write nonfiction and offer what you write to the world, what happens is the world considers you a source of information,” she said. “The book was published on a Thursday in March. On Sunday, I began receiving telephone calls and letters from around the world of people wanting specific information about what they had read in my book. I would say that I spent the next 10 years answering these questions by email, letter and phone call. It took up a lot of my time, but I felt I had to do it, because I felt responsible for giving this information to world.”
The baseball hall of fame contacted her and tactfully asked if she would consider donating her notes to the hall’s library. She agreed, but, as she started organizing them for the donation, she hit upon two ideas: publishing the notes, and using the new research tool called the internet to check on the work she had done earlier. In pursing her new research, she learned something that “sent chills down my spine.”
Coming full circle
“I discovered that Maud Nelson played on a field on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border one block from where I grew up and played baseball.” That was Elks Field in Masury.
Gregorich, who cheers for the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs and White Sox, hand delivered her research notes to the hall in 2016.
“Our library collection of material on the history of women and baseball has grown substantially in the last few decades, thanks to generous donations from folks like Barbara Gregorich,” said hall of fame Librarian Jim Gates. “Our Library contains thousands of articles, books and scrapbooks related to women in baseball, much of which is available to the public at https://collection.baseballhall.org and is regularly used by researchers across North America and around the world. Our museum also includes our permanent exhibit “Diamond Dreams,” which features artifacts and documents detailing more than a century of historic contributions by women to the National Pastime.”
Gregorich said she told the story of her life in relation to baseball to show the students the importance of the experiences of youth, and also that literary techniques such as irony, foreshadowing and circular construction can happen in real life.
“I hope that shows that our early life definitely influences what we do and become later on, and also that life is like literature or that literature is like life.”