The tiny wood grandstand in the Saskatchewan town of Ogema has a shed roof protecting nine rows of bench seating. It stands behind a home plate buried in the prairie soil. Fencing extends from the dirt to the roof, protecting spectators from foul balls even as it makes them look like chickens in a coop.
In 2004, the modest bleacher, painted white with green trim like a farmhouse, was named the Arleene Johnson Noga Grandstand after the town’s most honoured athlete.
Nearly 60 years earlier, the farmer’s daughter left the prairies for a baseball tryout in Chicago. She earned a roster spot in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a circuit made famous a generation later as the subject for the popular Hollywood movie A League of Their Own, starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis and the singer Madonna.
Ms. Noga, who has died in her native province at 93, was one of 64 Canadian women who headed south to play baseball for pay in the U.S. Midwest.
A petite, bespectacled infielder who flashed a smile as quickly as she pounced on a bunted ball, Ms. Noga spent four seasons playing professional baseball, a rare opportunity for a female athlete in an era when a woman’s place was said to be in the home, not at home plate.
The league played serious baseball, though the athletes were also instructed in the application of makeup as well as a tag, and studied the rules of etiquette as well as the sport’s rule book. The players wore skirts with bloomers, bare legs often scraped in slides. A chaperone was assigned to each team.
The player, known as Johnnie Johnson in her playing days, also earned the nickname Iron Lady for her consistency in the field and for rarely missing a game. Sportswriters referred to her as the swatting secretary and the slugging stenographer.
Her sojourn as a pro athlete ended when she returned home to marry and begin a more ordinary office career. The league folded after the 1954 season, the pioneering athletes ignored and forgotten for decades. A documentary film by a son of the former Helen Callaghan, a star hitter from Vancouver, renewed interest in the athletes, who were soon after featured in a 1988 display at the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y.
Movie director Penny Marshall saw the documentary and began to put together a feature film, which would share a name with the documentary. Ms. Noga was hired as a technical adviser, her job to teach the comic actor Rosie O’Donnell to play shortstop. She also showed Madonna how to slide. The former player herself can be seen near the end of the movie taking part in an alumni game on a baseball field at Cooperstown.
Arleene Cecilia Johnson was born on New Year’s Day in 1924, the second daughter of Leoda Beatrix (née Baird) and Henry Dewey Johnson, who were wheat farmers on an acreage south of Ogema. She starred at softball, basketball and volleyball in high school. On graduation, her principal encouraged her to continue playing sports in the big city.
The young woman moved 115 kilometres north to Regina to seek work as a secretary. She joined the Meadows Diamond softball team and was playing at Central Park when scouted by Hub Bishop, a hockey scout pressed into service by the fledgling women’s league.
In 1945, the Ogema export played shortstop and third base for the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Daisies, an expansion club whose roster included Miss Callaghan and her sister Margaret. The right-handed infielder spent the next two seasons with Michigan’s Muskegon Lassies, playing in 224 consecutive games over two seasons. Though a poor hitter (batting .163 one season and .165 the next), she was a peerless fielder, setting standards for the league at a position known as the hot corner for the sudden arrival of batted balls. She won a league pennant with the Lassies (69 wins, 43 losses) in 1947.
Her sojourn in the league included a spring training spent in Havana in 1948, where large crowds gathered at the Gran Estadio to watch doubleheaders and the players spent their off-hours lounging at the swanky Blackstone Hotel.
After billeting with families in Indiana and Michigan during the summer, she returned home to Saskatchewan in the off-season. After a few years, her father suggested her itinerant playing days come to an end.
“He said girls don’t go on forever in ball,” she told Maclean’s magazine three years ago. “He thought it was best that I carry on with a family and job.”
She did both, marrying and finding work, spending three decades as a civil servant, including five years with the premier’s secretariat. She did not hang up her glove, regaining amateur status to play softball for the Regina Govins, winning nine provincial championships and five Western Canadian titles. She twice won the league batting crown and was twice named most valuable player.
In 1953, by then known as Arleene Stuhr, she travelled with Regina’s Canadian Legion to Toronto to play in the world amateur softball championships. Unfortunately, she committed an error in a 4-1 loss to the Toronto Gartens to be eliminated from the tournament.
She was also a bowler and an accomplished curler. Her Regina rink claimed local and city championships. In 1961, the rink skipped by Ms. Stuhr, including Pauline Klaudeman, Marj MacPherson and Elsie Hunter, won the Hudson’s Bay Trophy at the annual Manitoba Ladies’ Curling Association bonspiel in Winnipeg. After retiring as a player, Ms. Noga became a coach and an indefatigable promoter of baseball for girls and women, conducting clinics and speaking to countless school assemblies, luncheon meetings and senior’s groups. She spent 12 years on the board of directors for the alumni of the All-American league and served as a spokesperson for the league’s Canadian players.
Ms. Noga died on March 14. She leaves a daughter, Carol Lee Scott; a son, Rob Noga; four grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and, her younger brother, Dewey Johnson. She was predeceased by her second husband, Ron Noga, whom she married in 1963 and who died in 1994, and by sisters Ethel Dennis, Frances Moerike and Maxine Treleaven. For more than 30 years, the women who had played in the All-American league were forgotten by all except the most dedicated baseball fans. After the documentary and movie, however, they were feted and honoured as pioneers of women’s sports. All 64 Canadian players were inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998. Ms. Noga had earlier been inducted as a player into the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame in North Battleford. She was enshrined in the Regina Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.
Last year, some of Ms. Noga’s exploits were portrayed on stage by the actor Malia Becker, who starred in Maureen Ulrich’s one-woman play Diamond Girls. The production barnstormed the prairies with 40 performances.
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