Max Carey was not Jimmy Dugan.
Carey was indeed a famous retired big-league baseball star when he agreed to manage a team in the fledgling All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. That’s where his parallels end with Jimmy Dugan, the fictional character played by Tom Hanks in the classic 1992 movie “A League of Their Own.” Hanks portrayed an irascible, hard-drinking, carousing, washed-up slugger so disinterested in the women’s team he managed, the Rockford Peaches, that he slept through their early-season games.
Carey shared lessons from his 20-season Hall of Fame career with his AAGPBL players, and bragged about their proficiency. The Terre Haute native, who died in 1976, not only managed two of the league’s teams, but also served as its president from 1945 to ’50 — the AAGPBL’s heyday.
“He was a perfect gentleman,” the late Sylvia Wronksi, a pitcher for Carey’s 1944 Milwaukee Chicks, told baseball researcher Jim Nitz in 1993. “I have no clue who Hanks was supposed to be like, but it sure wasn’t Carey.”
Legends say Hanks’ Jimmy Dugan was loosely based on another ex-big-league star, Jimmie Foxx, who managed one season in the AAGPBL.
The once-forgotten league, revived in pop culture by the movie, was born 75 years ago this summer. It was the brainchild of Chicago chewing gum millionaire Philip Wrigley, who wanted to preserve professional baseball during World War II. Most major league players were serving in the military, and the teams’ farm clubs began drying up, too. Wrigley thought Americans needed baseball as a diversion from the war news, and figured women’s teams could fill the void if major league baseball shuttered during the conflict.
His four-team league launched in 1943 in the nation’s heartland — Rockford, Illinois; Kenosha and Racine, Wisconsin; and South Bend, Indiana. Its popularity inspired Wrigley’s “big-city experiment” the following season. He added clubs in Milwaukee and Minneapolis, serving as owner of both. Wrigley asked Carey — hero of the 1925 World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates — to manage the Milwaukee team.
The gum icon impressed Carey. “He really did like Mr. Wrigley, because [Wrigley] had a vision and he respected people with a vision,” Clif Carey, Max’s grandson, said by phone last month from Colorado.
Since retiring as a player in 1929, Carey had managed the Brooklyn Robins (later the Dodgers) for two seasons, left pro baseball after being fired and replaced by Casey Stengel, and then he invested in Florida real estate and Minute-Rub liniment, but also kept active in the sport that made him famous. Carey shared ownership of a Florida baseball school, and toured the world, teaching baseball to young people in Japan, Cuba and Latin America, Clif said.
“Mister Wrigley knew about this,” Clif said of his grandfather’s eagerness to teach the game and serve as its ambassador.
Max’s wife, Aurelia, had a few questions before her husband agreed to manage a women’s professional team, grandson Clif explained. “She said, ‘Well, what kind of uniforms are they going to wear?’” Clif said, retelling the story his grandparents shared with him, years ago. “This was an interesting back-and-forth between my grandfather and grandmother.”
Wrigley’s short-skirt uniform design, accurately depicted in “A League of Their Own,” definitely wasn’t Mrs. Carey’s preference. Still, Aurelia and Max strongly supported Wrigley’s overarching goal of providing baseball to people on the home front during wartime, including soldiers home on leave. Wrigley wanted talented players who also would smile on the diamond, freshen makeup between innings, sign autographs and exhibit the behaviors learned in their required charm-school sessions.
“The idea was, there was nothing better than being home and watching a baseball game and being entertained,” Clif said. “And [the women] played well and looked good.”
His ‘happiest’ years
In that atmosphere, Max Carey’s demanding yet patient style, engaging personality and willingness to promote baseball fit the AAGPBL well. He accepted Wrigley’s offer in 1944, the league’s second year, and managed the Milwaukee Chicks to a championship. Wrigley elevated him to league president in 1945, and Carey remained in that job through 1950. He returned to the dugout in the middle of the 1950 season to manage the Fort Wayne Daisies, and stayed on through 1951.
Max and Aurelia raised a family in Miami Beach. He’d retired as the National League’s all-time leading base stealer (later surpassed by Lou Brock and others), with 2,665 base hits, a .285 lifetime batting average and several defensive records. The National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y., inducted Carey in 1961.
Amid all his big-league heroics, Max later insisted that his years with the All-American Girls league were “his happiest” in baseball, according to the Society of Baseball Researchers. Players in the league, especially those he managed in Milwaukee, “thought the world of him,” said Nitz, a native of that Wisconsin city and a SABR member.
In the wake of the movie’s popularity, Nitz and others dug into the history of the Chicks’ 1944 season. Unfortunately, none of the former players are still living, but Nitz’s interviews with several in 1993 helped preserve a memory of that year and the groundbreaking women’s league. The Chicks alums hailed Carey as a tutor and leader of a team forgotten by Milwaukee until the nostalgia surrounding “A League of Their Own” revived its niche in history.
Milwaukee owns just three pro sports world championships — major league baseball’s Braves in 1957, the NBA’s Bucks in 1971 and the Chicks of 1944. Unlike the Braves and Bucks, the Chicks’ lasted just one season in the city. Wrigley’s “big-city experiment” flopped at the ticket gate, because residents of Milwaukee and Minneapolis had more entertainment options than smaller cities like Rockford and South Bend. The women also had to share the 10,000-seat Borchert Field with the established, male minor-league club, the Milwaukee Brewers, managed in 1944 by Casey Stengel. The Triple-A-level Brewers got the prime-time slots, night games, while the Chicks played in daytime. Schedule conflicts even forced the Chicks to play all seven of their World Series games at rival Kenosha’s ballpark.
Fans also grumbled that the Chicks tickets cost the same as the men’s.
Small-town AAGPBL teams drew far more fans than the big-city Chicks. “They were largely unloved in that city, unfortunately,” said Chance Michaels, who writes a weekly blog focused primarily on pre-1950s Milwaukee baseball history.
The club moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, the next season. For the fans that did show up for Chicks games, they saw good baseball. At least, that’s how manager Max Carey saw it. His team ended the ‘44 regular season with a 70-45 record, before beating another new AAGPBL team — the Kenosha Comets — 4 games to 3 in the league’s World Series.
Carey insisted his lefty pitcher, Viola Thompson, had a better pickoff move than any of the Brooklyn hurlers he managed in the bigs. He pondered aloud whether his fellow major-leaguers would’ve endured the “strawberry” wounds the women incurred by sliding into bases in skirts. “Show me a big-league ballplayer who’ll slide into home plate bare-kneed and bare-legged,” Carey said, as quoted in a Nitz retrospective.
To Terre Haute and beyond
His outlook extended to the entire AAGPBL, not just his Chicks, as Carey moved from a manager to league president. After the Racine Belles beat the Rockford Peaches 1-0 in a 14-inning thriller before 5,630 fans to clinch the 1946 series, Carey declared it the greatest baseball game he’d witnessed, according to the 1993 book “A Whole New Ball Game” by Sue Macy. Carey also guided the league’s pitchers in converting from underhand softball throws (the style used in the first three seasons) to sidearm and overhand pitching from 1946 on.
Carey helped share the women’s game with the country and world. Arthur Meyerhoff, the league’s ad director, bought the AAGPBL from Wrigley after the 1944 season. After the war, Meyerhoff and Carey sent the women on tours, playing exhibition games from Terre Haute to Cuba, trying to grow interest and secure the league’s future. Girls youth baseball programs formed in U.S. towns. Carey and the league established professional “rookie” teams, similar to men’s pro farm clubs. In spite of those efforts, the AAGPBL folded in 1954, hurt by Americans’ fascination with television and the resurgence of big-league baseball.
Still, interest in the AAGPBL was at a peak in the summer of ‘49, when its rookie clubs played two exhibition series at Terre Haute’s Memorial Stadium.
The Terre Haute Tribune carried an advertisement for a pair of weekend games that August between the Chicago Colleens and Springfield Sallies at the stadium. “A Return Engagement by Popular Demand! New Teams! New Girls! New Thrills! 9 Innings — Real Baseball, Not Softball,” the ad said. Rain forced a rescheduled doubleheader on a Monday, and 2,136 fans showed up, a slight decrease from a May AAGPBL exhibition that drew a combined 9,600 fans for two games.
Tribune sports writer Bill Kelley praised the caliber of play at the May games. “The distaff players delighted the fans with their display of baseball ability which, coupled with a great deal of individual color and performance, made the two-game series a success in every way,” he wrote.
Carey attended both exhibitions, and dignitaries in his hometown gave him an engraved knife.
A monument honoring Carey, with a bronze relief image by sculptor Bill Wolfe, stands outside Memorial Stadium. It was dedicated in 2001, after a fund drive led by the late Robert Fiess, a longtime member of Immanuel Lutheran Church, which Carey’s family attended.
Carey was born and raised in Terre Haute, attending Immanuel Lutheran’s school. His immigrant father and mother groomed him to become a Lutheran pastor, sending him to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. Instead, he became a standout on the school’s baseball team, got a spot on a pro team from South Bend, changed his birth name “Carnarius” to “Carey” to protect his amateur college status and quickly climbed into the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He developed into a masterful center fielder, reliable hitter and cunning base stealer.
His All-American Girls league players later benefited from his baseball knowledge. Carey stood out among a handful of former big-leaguers chosen to manage the women’s teams.
“Not all of these mangers could teach,” Thompson, the former Chicks pitcher, said in those 1993 interviews. “They mighta been baseball players themselves in the big leagues, but this fella [Carey] knew how to teach, and I’m so grateful for that, because that was my first year up there, and I certainly needed it. And after that, the managers I had after that weren’t nearly in his caliber. And a perfect gentleman.”
“He enjoyed [coaching in the league],” Thompson added, “and he really believed in these girls. …”
Carey conducted a pregame ritual with the Chicks, involving all 17 players, chaperone Dorothy Hunter and himself. They joined hands in a circle, Nitz reported, and Carey would utter an inspirational message. “May this chain, with its 19 golden links, its ideals and its principles, carry us through to victory in the final tests just ahead, and through the years that are to come.”
Today, baseball historians in Milwaukee are urging the major-league Brewers to honor the Chicks with a “Turn Back the Clock” game next season — the 75th anniversary of the team’s championship. Michaels, the Milwaukee sports blogger, said the Brewers could wear uniforms matching the one Carey wore, alongside his female Chicks players — a gesture no major-league club has yet tried.
“It’s a chapter in the city’s history that went untold for a long time,” Michaels said, “and I’m pleased that the 75th anniversary is causing people to look back and hear these stories, because they’re amazing and need to be told.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.