ROCKFORD, Ill. – Shirley Burkovich watched as women milled about a downtown Rockford theater in vintage dresses and hats and replica Rockford Peaches uniforms.
“It’s overwhelming,” she said.
Burkovich played for the Peaches, a team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which celebrated the 75th anniversary of its first season.
Former Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley created the league to keep baseball in the public eye when many major-league players served in World War II.
The Peaches played their first game on May 30, 1943, making it a landmark moment for women’s athletics.
At a gala, former players signed autographs. Actor Megan Cavanagh, who played Marla Hooch in the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own,” based on the Peaches, posed for photographs. Little girls bought Peaches T-shirts in the lobby.
The festivities launched a $7 million fundraising campaign to help build the International Women’s Baseball Center and Museum in Rockford.
Burkovich, 85, played for the Peaches in 1951.
“At that time, there was nothing for girls,” said Burkovich, who grew up in Pittsburgh and joined the league at 16 after her older brother persuaded her to try out. “Playing baseball was such a passion of ours. But we never thought it was special. We were just doing what we loved.”
Maybelle Blair, 91, wore hot pink nail polish and a Rockford Peaches T-shirt and used a cane in the shape of a baseball bat while she sipped on beer and mingled. In 1948, she played in the league for the Peoria Red Wings.
She said she can still hear the click-clack sound her cleats made walking on concrete and the joy it brought her while she wore her red uniform.
“I want girls today to have a league of their own,” she said.
Cavanagh, who grew up in Oak Park, said she is still approached by female fans of the movie, which starred Tom Hanks, Geena Davis and Madonna. Cavanagh said the fans tell her it inspired them to play sports.
“I hear it all the time. People say, ‘We watched the movie on the bus on the way to our games,’ ” she said. “So many girls say if it wasn’t for the movie, they wouldn’t have played ball. What more can you ask for? This weekend feels like a culmination of it all.”
The event also left female baseball pioneers hoping for more.
Blair said she hopes to live to see a female general manager in baseball or a female umpire work a major-league game.
“Our eyes work the same as men, right?” she asked.
Burkovich stopped playing a few years before the league disbanded in 1954, opting to take a job with a telephone company because she could sense the collapse.
“It was devastating,” she said. “I thought baseball was going to be my career. I figured I’d play forever.”
She still sees progress in the sport with more women breaking into executive roles in MLB and girls playing youth baseball.
“There’s still a ways to go,” she said. “But, boy, did we make a dent.”