Mary Nesbitt Wisham
|All-American Girls Professional Baseball League|
|First base / Pitcher|
|Born: January 1, 1925|
Greenville, South Carolina
|Died: November 17, 2013 (aged 88)|
|Career highlights and awards|
Mary Nesbitt Wisham (January 1, 1925 – November 17, 2013) was an American baseball pitcher and first basewoman who played from 1943 through 1950 in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Listed at 5 ft 8 in (1.73 m), 155 lb., Nesbitt batted and threw left-handed. She was born Marie Crews Nesbitt in Greenville, South Carolina. Before becoming married in 1946 she played under the name of Mary Nesbitt.
Nesbitt enjoyed many firsts in her fruitful All-American Girls Professional Baseball League career. She is recognized as one of the sixty original founding members of the league. An ideal fastpitch, knuckleball left-handed, she was one of the most dominant pitchers in the early years of the circuit. The unpredictable movement of her pitches made it almost impossible to hit, until a severe injury suffered in a regular game shortened her promising career. She posted a 65–49 record with a 2.44 earned run average in 120 pitching appearances. After that she switched to first base, to become a dangerous and productive hitter through the rest of her career, ranking among the top 10 AAGPBL players for five out of her six seasons. Her accomplishments also included appearing in the first ever AAGPBL All-Star Game and by collecting a .422 on-base percentage and a .393 of slugging, while her .282 batting average ranks her sixth in the all-time list of hitters who had a minimum of 1000 at bat appearances.
Nesbitt played ball ever since elementary school. At age 12 she hurled in a fast-pitch softball league in her hometown, and later played for some championship teams in Illinois and Florida, as well as for a men's team in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where baseball scout Jimmy Hamilton was impressed with her talent. He decided to inviting the young pitcher to an All-American Girls Professional Baseball League tryout. The AAGPBL was a circuit that began to operate in 1943 in cities located on or near Lake Michigan. The main promoter was Philip K. Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, who worried about the viability of male professional baseball players during World War II decided to establish an alternate attraction. By sending out scouts and setting up try-outs in dozens of major cities, Wrigley attracted hundreds of women from all over United States and Canada who were eager to play in the new professional league. Of these, only 280 were invited to the final try-outs at Wrigley Field in Chicago, where 60 were chosen to become the first women to ever play professional baseball. The girls were placed on the rosters of four fifteen-player teams: Kenosha Comets, Racine Belles, Rockford Peaches and South Bend Blue Sox. Mary Nesbitt was one of them. Her tryout in Chicago was a success, and she was allocated to the Belles at the age of 18. The average full-time worker made $1,299 a year in the 1940s, according to one estimate, or about $25 a week. Players in the AAGBBL made between $50 and $125 a week during a three-month, 108-game season. At the time, clubs of girls (never called women) seemed like a way to fill ballparks, according to an article in Smithsonian magazine in 1989, but the league lasted twelve successful seasons before folding in 1954. It was a neglected chapter of sports history, at least until filmmaker Penny Marshall premiered her 1992 A League of Their Own, which was a fictionalized account of activities in the AAGPBL. Starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna, Lori Petty and Rosie O'Donnell, this film brought a rejuvenated interest to the extinct league.
During her first three seasons Nesbitt played first base when she was not pitching. In 1943, the Racine Belles, with Johnny Gottselig at the helm, won both the first half of the season and AAGPBL championship behind a strong effort by Nesbitt, who led the pitching staff with a 26–13 record for a .667 winning percentage (fifth-best of the league), including 308 innings of work in 47 appearances. She also hit .280, scored 34 runs, and drove in 29 more in 73 games.
At a time of the season, Nesbitt put together an 11-game winning streak. On July 1, 1943 took effect the first All-Star Game of the league, which coincidentally was the first night game ever played at Wrigley Field. The game was played under temporary lights between two teams composed of Blue Sox and Peaches players against Comets and Belles players.
Besides Nesbitt, the Belles also counted with Joanne Winter, who posted an 11–11 record, to give the team a strong one-two pitching staff, while Margaret Danhauser, Maddy English, Edythe Perlick and Claire Schillace could be counted on for their bats and solid defense. The attack was led by slugging right fielder Eleanor Dapkus, who hit a league-lead 10 home runs, while the speedy Sophie Kurys stole 44 bases and scored 60 runs. Irene Hickson, who shared the catching duties with Dorothy Maguire,was known as an opportune hitter with runners in scoring position during the late innings. Most importantly, Hickson was a solid fielding catcher with a strong throwing arm, and had a reputation as a good handler of pitchers. Early in the season, Nesbitt and Hickson were referred as the ″Belles Chattanooga Battery″, because both were scouted by Jimmy Hamilton in there.
The first AAGPBL Championship Series pitted first-half winner Racine against Kenosha Comets, second-half champ. In the best-of-five series, Racine swept Kenosha to clinch the first championship in the league's history. Nesbitt claimed complete-game victories in Games 1 and 3, and saved Game 2 after starter Winter ran into trouble in the eight inning. Meanwhile, Hickson led all-hitters with a .417 average and five RBI in the three games.
In 1944, when the league added the Milwaukee Chicks and the Minneapolis Millerettes, the Belles missed the playoffs, producing losing records of 28–32 and 26–31 while ranking fourth of the six teams in both halves of the season. Nesbitt posted the team's only winning record, 23–17, with a career-high 106 strikeouts in 45 games, while the other pitchers of Racine suffered off years. Winter slipped to a 15–23 ledger, and the rest of the staff combined for a 16–23 mark. Nesbitt also provided some help with her bat, hitting .220 with 14 runs and 23 RBI in 74 games.
Nesbitt stayed on the mound until she fractured her collarbone in 1945. She finished with a 16–19 record in 37 appearances, while hitting a league-best .319 in 66 games, while the league average was a measly .198 that year. Incidentally, the relatively low batting averages in the early years reflect mainly the high quality of AAGPBL pitchers, rather than a lack of skills by the hitters.
Nesbitt did not play in 1946. She married Vester Wisham, who worked for the Racine team. They were working a farm in Georgia when a scout was sent out to find her and see about coming back to play in the league again. The scout paid her a $500 bonus for sign up, and she opened 1947 with the Peoria Redwings. That season the AAGPBL moved its spring training camp to Havana, Cuba. Two hundred girls made the trip to Havana, and for many the flight was their first airplane trip. The girls stayed at the Seville-Biltmore Hotel and played their games at the Gran Stadium. All the teams were filmed for Fox News going down the steps at the University of Havana. After the injury, she had less command of her array of pitches, especially her hard knuckleball, and she was given the chance to play on a regular basis at first base. She responded with a .261 average in 110 games, including 47 runs, 58 RBI, and a grand slam. Her most productive season came in 1948, when she paced the league with 24 doubles and posted career numbers in average (.292), runs (69), RBI (58), at-bats (399), hits (128) and games played (126), ranking between the top ten in these offensive categories. She helped Peoria reach a 71–55 record, for the first and only winning season in team's history. It also was the first and only time the Redwings made the playoffs, only to be swept by the Racine Belles in three straight games.
In 1950, she posted a significant average of .340 with 25 runs and 22 RBI in just only 49 games. She quit baseball again, while she was pregnant with the first of her four children. Fanatics gave her a baby shower on the field. The family moved later to Hollister in Putnam County, Florida, after learning there were six acres and a house for sale.
Life after baseball
Mary did return to play for three months for a team in Miami, but it never caught on as it had in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball. She and her husband were married for 52 years, until his death in 1998. For more than 20 years she drove a school bus in Putnam County, but she did not give up playing ball, joining in with local women's leagues. Her daughter, Mary Elizabeth, joined her, and they were part of the team that won the state championships for fast-pitch softball in 1975. They finished ninth at the national championship. Nesbitt Wisham was 65 old when she played in that championship tournament held at Louisville, Kentucky. A recreation complex park in West Putnam has been named in her honor.
In November 1988, Mary Nesbitt Wisham along with her former teammates and opponents, received their long overdue recognition when the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York dedicated a permanent display to the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. She lived in Hollister, Florida until her death on November 17, 2013 in Palatka, Florida.
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