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Thelma Jo Walmesley: Sudbury’s pioneering baseball player

Legend has it that Thelma Jo Walmesley may have been the inspiration for Geena Davis’s character in the movie A League of Their Own.

 

By Andrew Hind

 

Sudbury can boast a pantheon of sporting heroes, but only one has ever been enshrined in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.

Thelma Jo Walmesley* was born in Copper Cliff in 1918. The rugged character of the community rubbed off on her: she grew into a strong-willed, independent, and athletic young woman. She excelled at sports in school and, refusing to be confined to the traditional roles of women of the day, pursued softball – the sport she loved the most.

Her brother, Frederick Arthur (Wiggy), played for Copper Cliff and eventually moved to Toronto to play for the Maple Leafs Baseball Team.

Walmesley played competitively with the Montreal Royals of the Montreal Major Ladies’ Softball League. She was earning a salary, admittedly a small one, for playing the game she loved. The story likely would have ended there if not for the Second World War.

When the United States entered the war Dec. 7, 1941 after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, it turned professional sports in North America upside down. Professional athletes, young men in their primes, were being called up to serve in the armed forces, leaving leagues bereft of talent. Baseball teams were gutted of players and there was the very real possibility that professional baseball would be forced to shutter its doors until war’s end.

Chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley, in collaboration with a number of baseball executives, started the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League – popularized by the 1992 movie A League of Their Own.

According to Sudbury Museums website, it is believed the character of Dottie Hinson, played by actress Geena Davis was based on Walmesley.

The inaugural season of the AAGPBL, which consisted of 10 teams in the midwest, was in 1943. The league proved so popular that even at war’s end in 1945, it continued to thrive with attendance peaking in 1948.

Walmesley was one of more than 600 young women who played in the league. She was recruited out of Montreal and played with the Racine Wisconsin Belles for the 1946 season. She jumped at the opportunity to earn an excellent wage (about $1,200 a week in modern currency).

The people of Sudbury followed her exploits in newspapers, proud to have a native daughter playing professional ball.

The year Walmseley played with the Belles, her team won the league pennant.

 

Walmesley was ideally suited to a league where players were selected not only for skill but for their wholesome feminine appearance. Indeed, during spring training the players were required to attend evening charm school classes to learn proper etiquette and players were issued beauty kits and instructions on how to use them.

As a part of the leagues rules of conduct, players were not permitted to have short hair, smoke or drink in public places, and they were required to wear lipstick at all times.

Walmesley played just the single season in the AAGPBL. We don’t know why her stint was limited to a single year. Certainly her statistics show she wasn’t out of her depth by any stretch. Perhaps the independent young woman who bristled at being confined by gender conventions resented the strict code of conduct?

The Racine Belles played their last season in 1950. The franchise and its players were later assigned to Battle Creek, Michigan. under new management. The Battle Creek Belles folded after the 1952 season.

Though the AAGPBL folded in 1954, it was a forerunner for all-female professional sports leagues, and every player a groundbreaking pioneer of sorts.

In 1998, Walmesley and all of the other 63 Canadian women who played in the AAGPBL were inducted as a group into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.

This honour resurrected Thelma Jo Walmesley’s name and renewed interest in her exploits. Her Racine Belles jacket is one of the star exhibits of the Copper Cliff Museum.

Sadly, Walmesley didn’t live to see her legend reborn. She died a year before the Hall of Fame induction.

* Walmesley is misspelled Walmsley on many baseball-related websites.

 

 

 

 

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