By Jef Rietsma
Collector? Leigh Fitzgerald.
Collection? Memorabilia from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
What sparked your interest in this short-lived league? “The film ‘A League of Their Own’ came out in 1992 and I had always been a huge baseball fan. I really enjoyed the movie, it really intrigued me. My collection started in July 2004, after the league staged a reunion in Kalamazoo and that sparked my quest to collect and preserve AAGPBL memorabilia. I soon discovered there was a minute supply.”
Fitzgerald went on to explain that when the league discontinued in 1954 after 12 seasons, league officials required players to donate their memorabilia to two museums in which AAGPBL items would be on permanent display. One museum is in South Bend, the other in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Apparently, you were tenacious in your attempt at making a collection. “I was diagnosed with cancer in May 2004 and underwent a major surgery. During my battle with cancer, my focus on the collection intensified and I wrote letters to literally every player in an address list I purchased. I wrote about 350 letters and pleaded I was not going to re-sell anything.”
Fitzgerald said he had purchased a specially-produced set of baseball cards featuring the league’s players. He included a player’s card in a self-addressed, stamped envelope. As a result, Fitzgerald has about 260 signed cards. The lone item of memorabilia provided to him was a broken bat from a Ft. Wayne Daisies player named Jean Havlish.
How did assembling the collection of autographed cards and other items affect you? “Oh, I cherish Jean’s bat more than anything. More than that, though, her generosity and kindness really lifted my spirits at a time when I was experiencing a lot of depression over the cancer. Though they did not have anything to offer, the majority of the ladies wrote me back, returned their cards and shared their stories. That really lifted my spirits, it was a positive distraction and I have saved all the letters; they’re in a binder and part of my collection.”
Fitzgerald said the bat from Havlish, a shortstop nicknamed “Grasshopper” who played for two seasons, was cracked when she hit a home run during a game in Kalamazoo.
Are you still in touch with Havlish? “She is listed somewhere as one of the Top 50 athletes from Minnesota. She went on to be a standout pro bowler in the women’s bowling league. She never married and lived as a caregiver for a priest in St. Paul. I go online to check and see if she’s still alive. She’s 87 now but I don’t know if she’s still around. I had always wanted to meet her but haven’t. She wasn’t a player who chose to participate in the frequent gatherings or reunions. I’d sure love to know if she’s still with us.”
What would you estimate the value of your collection? “I really don’t know. I mean, it’s probably the biggest collection that’s not in either museum. There are about 275 autographed cards, plus the bat, my collection of letters, I have a miniature home plate autographed by several players at a reunion (not in Kalamazoo), I have a couple programs from the 1950s and an actual miniature bat sold at their games, too. But I have no intention of selling anything so the value doesn’t really matter.”
You also have another one-of-a-kind item not on display at a museum. Yes, it’s an item I bought on eBay from a paperback-book dealer who clearly didn’t know the value of it. It’s a cardboard form, a scouting report from 1943. The coach who was scouting some first-base players in Louisiana trying out for the league, had handwritten the names of players and an assessment of their talent. Some of those players ended up going on to be pretty big stars in the league. It’s the only scouting report known to exist.”
Fitzgerald said he paid about $40 for the item.
What’s the most you ever paid for an item? “The programs are really rare and I think I paid about $500 for one from the Kalamazoo Lassies team.”
Have you had a chance to showcase your collection? “My goal has always been to build this up and take it places to show people. I had several things set up that fell through … I was booked to have a display at one of the White Caps games in Grand Rapids One of the former (AAGPBL) players was scheduled to attend and throw out the first pitch, but she passed away a week or two before, so that wiped that out. I was going to appear at (minor-league) games in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek but they, too, got cancelled, so I’ve never really gotten the opportunity to show my traveling display. It’s really too bad.”
Fitzgerald said he has offered to bring his collection to schools, libraries and senior facilities, but has not had any takers.
Footnotes: Fitzgerald, 71, lives at Barton Lake. A former police officer, Fitzgerald said he has custom-made T-shirts that read: “These Heroines Didn’t Wear Capes, They Wore Baseball Uniforms.” Fitzgerald is a Kalamazoo native and a Vietnam veteran.
By Jef Rietsma