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99-year-old paved way for today’s women athletes


The Arizona Republic
September 28, 2019
By Lin Sue Cooney

These days, we’re used to seeing women excel in sports. But imagine what it was like 75 years ago for those intrepid females who paved the way. I was humbled to meet one such dynamo and hear her fascinating story.

Helen Nicol is a 99-year-old Hospice of the Valley patient who was in the right place at the right time — with a wicked right arm.

She was just 13 when a professional men’s baseball coach asked her to pitch for the senior ladies’ team. The 5-foot-3 powerhouse struck them all out and earned herself a spot on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which gave 600 women athletes the chance to make sports history and play pro ball from 1943 through 1952.

Today, Helen reminisces fondly about her audition at Wrigley Field and making the cut.

“I just love the game,” she gushes. “It taught me a lesson that if I put my mind to it and I try hard, I can survive. And I played 10 years professional.”

The league was created by Major League Baseball executives who wanted to keep the game alive while the country’s able-bodied men served in World War II. Helen, also known as Nickie Fox, became one of the league’s greatest pitchers, holding several all-time records, including 163 wins and 1,076 strikeouts. She played for the most successful team, the Rockford Peaches, which Hollywood captured on the big screen in the 1992 blockbuster “A League of Their Own.”

Helen and her teammates were serious athletes, marketed as a feminine ideal — an image that meant tightly belted uniforms with short flared skirts.

“When we first saw those outfits, we just nearly died!” she giggled.

And then, there was mandatory charm school, taught by legendary cosmetic entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein. Her rules were strict: no drinking, no smoking, no short hair and, at all times, wear lipstick.

“We refused to wear mascara, though,” Helen said, “because it would run into our eyes and burn.”

They were also required to have perfect posture.

“Helena taught us how to sit. How to walk with a stupid book on our head,” Helen scoffed. “And if it fell, we weren’t walking right, so she made us go back and do it again.”

But the girls all did it, because they had a burning passion to play ball.

They good-naturedly balanced being a jock and a lady. They worked extremely hard and were paid very little. They followed all the rules but shattered stereotypes. They didn’t know it at the time, but they laid the groundwork for generations of women to come.

Before I left, I handed Helen a rubber ball and asked her if she could still throw. She gave me a big grin, wound up, best as she could in her wheelchair, and let it fly straight at my head.

I ducked just in time, but clearly, she’s still got it.