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Nancy Mudge Cato: In a league of her own

  • Updated: December 29, 2012 - 10:44 PM

A World War II-era shortage of men for pro baseball teams created an opening for female athletes. Nancy Mudge Cato, 83, was among those who carved a place for themselves in a sport dominated by men.

She grew up a true tomboy.

As other girls played with dolls in the 1930s, Nancy Mudge Cato played football with the boys outside the two-room schoolhouse she and her brother, Baden Powell Mudge, attended in upstate New York. She coaxed him to throw passes deeper than her reach, knowing she would be able to fight to get under them, while the defense wouldn't.

In summer, the gang took over a farmer's cow pasture for makeshift baseball games. Two captains picked sides.

"If I would choose first, I would choose my sister. If the other boy chose first, he would choose my sister," Baden, now 87, remembers with a laugh. "She was a player."

When she ended up in the legendary All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940s and '50s -- the league that inspired the 1992 movie "A League of Their Own" -- her brother was off in college. He didn't have money to travel to see her play second base.

Fingering yellowing newspapers, he sees his tiny sister in black-and-white photos, hunched over in a batting stance or scampering to scoop up a ground ball. Her uniform was starched, white and skirted. Her lipstick was red, an AAGPBL mandate. Players were required to act prim and proper running the bases.

She spent six years in the league before a knee injury caused her to pack away the uniform. She took a job as a physical education teacher at the University of Minnesota and stayed for 20 years.

Her brother never got to see her snagging infield grounders that seemed surely out of her reach. But when he read about it in old newspaper stories, he could tell it was his sister.

"If she could reach it, she would stop it," he said.

AMELIA RAYNO

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