In 1944, Marge Maxwell supervised women stamping metal for use in warplanes to be flown against the Nazis and Imperial Japan.
When spring arrived, she traded her red kerchief and blue coveralls for a wool cap and the pastel flannels of a baseball team, leaving Vancouver to pursue a summertime career as a professional ballplayer in the American Midwest.
Ms. Maxwell, who has died at 97, spent eight seasons wearing bloomers and a skirt as she slid into bases, dove for ground balls and crashed into opposing catchers. She often played alongside her younger sister, Helen Callaghan, a terror at the plate who was described as the “female Ted Williams.” A broken ankle shortened Ms. Maxwell’s career and she returned home, where she played amateur sports and raised a family.
Even as social movements broke down barriers to women in the workplace, she rarely spoke of her pioneering role as a pro-athlete until after the 1992 release of the Hollywood movie A League of Their Own, starring Madonna, Tom Hanks and Geena Davis. The movie was inspired by a documentary of the same name made by her nephew, who was inspired by his aunt’s scrapbooks.
Sixty-four Canadians went south to play in a circuit described in headlines as the “glamour league” and the “lipstick loop.” The young women took lessons in etiquette, deportment and makeup, as well as in bunting, stealing and hitting the cut-off fielder. Each team was accompanied by a matronly chaperone.
The decision to leave a secure wartime factory job for the unpredictability of pro sports was an easy one to make.
“At home, I was working eight hours a day, six days a week, and I was earning $24 a week,” she once said. “Baseball paid $65 a week.”
Her father encouraged her to go to keep an eye on her younger sister. Helen was a five-foot-one pepper pot, flamboyant and playful, while Marge, two inches taller, was more serious. Of course, the young players, most of whom were away from home for the first time, engaged in hijinks.
“We did a lot of short-sheeting,” she said. “We’d hide brassieres, or slip a rubber snake into a chaperone’s bed. We were always sneaking out on dates. How could they keep track of 19 girls at once?”
Margaret June Callaghan was born in Vancouver on Dec. 23, 1921, to the former Hazel May Terryberry, a teamster’s daughter, and Albert Callaghan, a truck driver who later operated Pop’s Bicycle Shop. A sister, Helen, arrived 15 months later. The family would count two boys and four girls before tragedy struck, as their 33-year-old mother died a few weeks before Christmas and Marge’s 10th birthday in 1931.
The girls grew up in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, playing softball, basketball and even lacrosse for King Edward High and district teams. They starred for the Western Mutuals softball team, which barnstormed across the continent in 1943 before playing in a world championship tournament at Detroit.
They were scouted at the tournament by representatives of a fledgling women’s league started by W.K. Wrigley, the chewing-gum magnate who owned Wrigley Field. The Callaghan sisters were top prospects as the scouts delighted in Helen’s speed and hitting prowess, as well as Marge’s dependable glove.
The Callaghan sisters played together for four seasons with the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Daisies on a team including fellow Canadians Penny (Peanuts) O’Brian (later Cooke), Audrey (Dimples) Haine (later Daniels), Arleene Johnson (later Noga) (obituary, April 9, 2017), and Yolande Teillet (later Schick), a Métis from Manitoba who was Louis Riel’s grandniece. The team was managed by former major-league infielder Bill Wambsganss, noted for having completed the only unassisted triple-play in World Series history in 1920.
Marge also played for the Minneapolis Millerettes, Peoria (Ill.) Redwings, Battle Creek (Mich.) Belles, and the South Bend (Ind.) Blue Sox. In winter, she returned to office and bank clerking jobs in Vancouver while also playing basketball for such teams as Hedlunds.
One of the highlights for the third baseman was a spring training held in 1947 in Havana, as huge crowds of Cubans flocked to watch the women play baseball.
After the 1951 season, she returned home to Vancouver, where she married Merv Maxwell in 1952 before giving birth to the first of their two sons the following April. Mr. Maxwell, a truck driver who later spent 35 years as a longshoreman, was also a talented multi-sport amateur athlete who played soccer, basketball and baseball. The couple divorced in 1960.
Ms. Maxwell died on Jan. 11. She leaves a son, Dale. She was predeceased by a son, Guy, as well as by her baseball-playing sister, Helen, who died of breast cancer in California in 1992, aged 69.
The Hollywood movie brought overdue attention to the league and its players. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum at Cooperstown, N.Y., opened a permanent exhibit honouring women in baseball. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame at St. Marys, Ont., inducted all 64 Canadian players in 1998. The Callaghan sisters were inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.
For her part, Ms. Maxwell was not so much awed by the honour as by the opportunity to meet the glamorous Olympic figure skater Karen Magnussen. “I’d watched her skate for years and here she was asking me to pose with her for a photograph,” she said. “Imagine. Her admiring me?!?”