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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS

Gas Money
By Kelly Candaele

The sportswriters of the 1940s called my mom "The Female Ted Williams." When I look at the old black-and-white picture of my mother at the plate in 1945, I know why. She had the kind of swing you associate with Williams or Barry Bonds; smooth and sweeping, arms extended, weight shifting from back foot to front at just the right moment.

My mother was a baseball player. At least that's what the newspapers said when she died late in 1992. The obituary headline in The New York Times read, "Helen Candaele, Athlete Inspired Movie."

For those who didn't know her in Lompoc, a small town on the central California coast, she became "the woman they made the movie about." She was actually the woman they made two movies about. In 1989 I made a documentary film that I called A League of Their Own, which aired on PBS. It was about my mom's years as a player in the 1940s-era All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Film director Penny Marshall kept the title and turned the idea into the 1992 Columbia Pictures feature hit.

The screenwriter's term for most characters that actually end up in movies is "composite." It's a term applied to a character when a writer's depth of understanding is not profound enough to carry the complexity of a real person onto the screen. So for the writers and producers of the Hollywood version of A League of Their Own, a little pinch of my mom was in the Geena Davis character, the long-ball-hitting catcher who eventually left the league to raise a family. My mother, who actually was an outfielder during her four seasons in the league, was merged with a number of other players—a composite. But in Lompoc, where my mom lived the last thirty-four of her sixty-nine years, Geena Davis was her.

Through the intervention and invention of Hollywood, the seemingly random and at times messy events of my mother's life took on a narrative coherence. There is a sense in which the contours of a life are "created" after the fact and that the "story" of a life is formed by those who insist upon the value of remembering and repeating what they remember. In my family, much of what we have remembered has centered on baseball.

Growing up in Lompoc, I don't remember her talking much about her playing days. She and her sister Marge were recruited from Vancouver, Canada, by one of Phillip K. Wrigley's scouts, who I hope was as charming as John Lovitz was in the movie. She started her career playing for the Minneapolis Millerettes in 1944 and spent 1945, 1946, and 1948 with the Fort Wayne Daisies. In 1947 she sat out the year, giving birth to my oldest brother, Rick.

She didn't save news clippings from her batting championship year in 1945. She couldn't rattle off statistics like some of the ex-players, nor could she recall how each season actually turned out for her team. She didn't keep memorabilia or old dark leather laceless gloves to prove to her kids how tough it was in "those days." To her, the past wasn't something you polished until its sheen was rubbed away.

When she did talk about her years as a professional ballplayer, it was as if what she remembered was what her body recalled, the intricacies of the game that were somehow stored in her hands, legs, feet, and arms. She spoke with precision about how a bat felt in her hands and the movement of her wrists as she sent line drives screaming toward the fence. She could demonstrate how she turned toward second on a steal and the importance of that first crossover step. She knew exactly where the thumb should go when laying down a drag bunt.

These were the things that ultimately were important, the gifts that she could carry forward and offer to her children for their use. Batting averages and total putouts were numbers for the baseball accountants. She was a player of flesh and blood.

From the time they were nine through eighteen and beyond, she watched her five boys live to the rhythm of baseball season. She seemed to know right when to pull the gloves out of the closet and start preparing our bodies to meet the demands of the game. My father was also from Canada but grew up playing hockey, that country's national sport. Although he took on the traditional "fatherly" role as coach—and threw my sixty-five-pound body into catcher's gear, the baseball equivalent to the hockey goalie he had been in his youth—it is the images of playing catch with my mom that are today more vivid in my mind.

She didn't "throw like a girl." I have no knowledge of whether there are any anatomical differences in the arms and shoulders of men or women that would account for the fact that most girls I knew growing up flung the ball rather than threw it. And even posing the question today may expose me to charges of sexism, political incorrectness, or just plain ignorance. But any incipient ideas I may have had about women not being able to do the things that men could do, or couldn't accomplish what we could, ended when I was nine years old.

Playing catch with my mom as a Little Leaguer was humbling—she was better at it than I was, much better. I don't remember her talking much as we threw the ball back and forth, her with a large left-handed outfielder's glove that she seemed to wear at the end of her fingers. I just remember the easy rhythm of the exchange and the sense of security and serenity I felt knowing that she could handle anything I threw at her.

If there is a more iconic image than a father playing catch with a son, I don't know of it. The associations are of bonding and teaching, the passing on of esoteric knowledge and the preservation of a national tradition. The actual experience, however, if my random observations are at least anecdotally valid, is often one of hectoring, performance pressure, and frustration.

But playing catch with my mom was about reciprocity and trust; it was a calming experience.

I gleefully anticipated the yearly "powderpuff" game that the city fathers dreamed up to provide a little midseason fun by having the mothers of the Little League players take to the field for a few innings. In what passed for kicks at that time, the men gathered behind the fences and backstop to laugh and make wisecracks as the women fulfilled their proscribed roles by jiggling and stumbling around the bases. All of them, that is, except my mom.

She invariably put on a display of hitting, running, throwing, and catching that left the men watching slack-jawed and me and my brothers proud. Out of the corner of my eye, I would watch the fathers of the other kids when she came to the plate, knowing that she would hammer the ball somewhere and be off like a gazelle. She was proud of herself and just a tad "cocky," placing the bat over the plate to measure her stance, scraping the dirt with her shoes to dig in, tugging at her shirt just like the big leaguers did.

When the game mercifully ended, kids and their parents would gather round and ask the same question every year. "Where did your mom learn to play baseball?" I always answered quickly and with a sly smile. "She played professional baseball in the 1940s." "You mean softball," they'd say. "No, I mean hardball—overhand, stealing, sliding, real baseball."

This was the early 1960s, a decade before Title IX, when women were just beginning to rediscover the submerged history of the ongoing battle for equal rights and opportunity. Looking back, I recognize that social change is made up of these seemingly insignificant moments. I wonder how many young girls, watching my mom dominate the baseball diamond for that brief time, began to imagine a different future for themselves—a future that they could demand would be different from the past their own mothers tolerated.


To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2002 issue.

—EFQ

 

KELLY CANDAELE is a writer living in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and other national publications. He produced the PBS documentary film A League of Their Own.

© 2002 Kelly Candaele

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