by Dan Swanson
In the summer of 1943, the world was still at war, with the Allies versus the Axis. People at home in the United States were trying to live their lives as normally as possible, dealing with rationing of many things, including sugar and gasoline, as well as travel restrictions, and the constant possibility of the deaths of friends and loved ones on one of the many battlefields of the war.
The owner of the Chicago Cubs, Phillip Wrigley, was worried that Major League Baseball would have to shut down because so many players were enlisting or being drafted. So he set up a professional baseball league for women, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The first season of play for the new league was in 1943, and Lily DeLuna was one of the players in that first year. Besides baseball, she had some other excitement during that first season as well.
In May, 1943, Lily graduated from Redcliff High School in Redcliff, Ohio, just east of Cleveland on the shore of Lake Erie. She immediately landed a job that most kids could only dream of having when they grew up: left fielder for the South Bend Blue Sox in the brand-new All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. At seventeen years old, she still wasn’t the youngest player in the league. Her teammate, shortstop Dottie Schroeder, was only fifteen at the time. Despite their youth, Lily and Dottie were two of the best players in the league, and they became good friends. Many of the women in the league, including Lily, played under assumed names to protect their families from the publicity associated with women being professional athletes. Lily called herself Thadea (Tedi) Villas, giving herself a similar name to her role model, Ted Williams.
Lily enjoyed the first half of the season, and she had made many new friends, and a significant enemy, as well.
Early in the season, the Blue Sox were playing the Kenosha Comets in Kenosha. The starting pitcher for the Comets, Freeda Hammond, was the largest woman Lily had ever seen, and much of her bulk was muscle. She was already famous throughout the league for trying to intimidate her opponents. She had hit so many people that she had already been tossed from two games. This led to a league review of her conduct, and the league had warned her that if she was ejected again, she would be thrown out of the league and blacklisted for life in every affiliated baseball and softball association.
Dottie was wearing a knee brace, and Hammond managed to hit her in the knee, knocking her out of the game. The umpire should have thrown her out of the game then, but he was reluctant to blacklist her for life. Instead, he gave both teams a warning. Lily was extremely upset when Hammond remained in the game. She, along with everyone else in the park, knew that Hammond had hit her friend deliberately, trying to do further damage to her existing injury. Lily wasn’t normally the type to take revenge or deliberately goad someone, but Dottie was her best friend.
The next time Lily batted, she made a point of asking the umpire to point out the inner line of the batter’s box. She then leaned out over the plate so that Hammond could hardly throw strikes without hitting her. She clearly was willing to be hit by Hammond’s hardest pitch in order to get her thrown out. Hammond walked her on four pitches. Lily stole second, then stole third, and went home on a wild pitch.
The home crowd booed Hammond for allowing the go-ahead run, and she was clearly struggling to contain her temper. Somehow she did, and she was able to harness the anger, adding a little zip to her fastball. Neither team scored again, and they went to the bottom of the ninth inning, with the Sox ahead one to nothing.
The Comets loaded the bases with no outs, and Hammond came to the plate. If she could get a hit, the Comets would almost certainly win. The Sox had to take some risks. They brought the outfield in to play shallow, hoping to hold the Comets to one run if Hammond hit a single. Lily in particular came deep in until she was almost playing infield. Then she yelled at Hammond, “Hey, battle-axe! I don’t think you can hit the ball out of the infield! Nyah-nyah!” She danced around, making sure Hammond knew how close she was playing, and trying to distract her. She was counting on Hammond’s losing control due to her anger. This kind of taunting was out of character for Lily, but she was young, and still very angry about her friend.
All Hammond had to do was hit the ball over Lily’s head, but she was determined to hit a home run. She would show that young punk; she would show everyone. The first pitch looked hittable, so she lunged at it, and hit it. But she didn’t hit it well, and instead of a home run, she hit it extremely high to left field. Lily’s gamble had paid off. Even though the ball was hit over her head, it was high enough that she had plenty of time to run under it. And it wasn’t hit far enough to drive the runner home from third base. The Comets’ third base coach wasn’t willing to test Lily’s arm. She led the league in outfield assists. It would only be one out, and the Comets would have two more chances, so he held all the runners at their bases.
Hammond was disgusted; she threw her bat and headed back to the dugout, even before Lily caught the ball. It was a routine putout, and virtually everyone in the park figured that the play was over.
However, Lily had something else in mind. At the last second, she pulled her glove away, letting the ball fall instead of catching it. She caught the ball on the bounce and fired to home. The runner on third hardly had a chance to leave the bag before she was called out. The catcher then threw the ball to second, forcing the runner who had been on first base. The Sox completed the improbably triple play when the second baseman threw to first, forcing out Hammond who was already halfway to the dugout. Game over. The Sox won.
The crowd exploded in a roar of boos and hisses. Hammond’s teammates couldn’t believe her stupidity, and they started yelling at her. Her manager exploded out of the dugout, getting in her face and screaming at her. She was larger than him, and she flattened him with a single punch. Picking up a bat, she headed for Lily in the outfield. She might never play ball again, but she was going to get her revenge. When a couple of her teammates tried to stop her, she struck them with the bat, breaking one’s arm. Everyone got out of her way after that. But Lily didn’t run; she didn’t even look worried. This enraged Hammond even more.
What Lily was doing was preparing to defend herself. She was reciting a calming mantra, concentrating on her body, and focusing her energy on the upcoming confrontation. She had practiced against opponents with blades, sticks, chains, throwing stars, and just about every handheld striking weapon used in the martial arts, but she had never faced an opponent armed with a baseball bat. And she had never before faced an opponent who really wanted to hurt her. She experienced a fear she had never felt before, and she hoped the adrenaline reaction to that fear would help her fight just a little bit better than ever before.
Lily watched Hammond closely, and was able to anticipate the first swing of the bat. Hammond swung it like an axe, straight over her head, and Lily moved aside. The bat hit the ground hard and left a small crater, but it would have killed Lily if it had hit. Hammond pulled it back and swung again, this time just as if she were hitting a baseball. Lily moved slightly backward, just enough to avoid the swing. Hammond had control of the bat this time, and immediately swung it back the other way, trying to catch Lily by surprise. Lily wasn’t impressed; Hammond was strong, but her reactions were slow. Lily’s mom, who was twice Hammond’s age, was much faster, and Lily had become adept at avoiding her mom’s attacks in training. She could avoid these blows all day, but her mom had warned her repeatedly never to be overconfident. She might slip on the grass and be unable to move in time, or somebody else may get too close and get hurt. So she determined to end this fight quickly.
Lily started circling Hammond, and Hammond was forced to turn to keep Lily in her sight. She took another swing at Lily, in the direction they were both turning, and the added momentum of her turn made her a little slower to recover than the last time. Lily stepped toward her inside the radius of Hammond’s swing. Hammond thought Lily had made a mistake and continued to swing all the way around, trying to catch Lily on the second pass.
Hammond did succeed in surprising Lily, since she had been expecting another backhand swipe. But it didn’t matter; Lily had ample time to react. She concentrated, willing her arms to become unbending bars of iron, convincing herself that she was the immovable object, and that Hammond’s bat was a supremely resistible force. When Hammond did swing the bat at her, she saw it almost like it was in slow motion. She caught the head of the bat with her left hand and the handle, just above Hammond’s grip, with her right hand. She realized she would pay for this tomorrow with major bruises, but for the moment she hardly felt the impact.
But Hammond and the bat definitely felt it. The bat broke just below Lily’s right hand, and Hammond staggered off-balance as she continued to spin. Lily stuck out a foot and tripped her, and Hammond fell hard to the ground. Lily didn’t want to get into close hand-to-hand combat with this woman, who was much stronger than she was, and who could probably take a tremendous battering and keep fighting. And she knew that as soon as her adrenaline rush passed, her hands were going to hurt like hell. So she raised the broken bat high over her head and plunged the shattered pointed end down at Hammond with all her strength. Hammond looked up and saw her death flashing toward her chest, but didn’t even have time to scream.
Lily drove the sharp end of the bat a foot into the ground. If the bat had struck Hammond, it would have passed completely through her body. But Lily’s aim was precise. The bat drove a fold of Hammond’s uniform shirt into the ground and pinned her there, unable to move unless she took her shirt off. In frustration she threw the bat handle at Lily, who easily avoided it. Lily turned and headed back to her dugout as the crowd and all the ball players cheered. This was the best theater any of them had ever seen at a baseball game.
Hammond was banned from organized baseball and softball for life. The Kenosha police wanted Lily to press assault charges. The league didn’t want that kind of publicity and tried to convince Lily not to press charges. But Lily realized that if she didn’t help put Freeda Hammond in jail, Hammond would only go on to hurt someone else. It was too late to keep this incident out of the news, anyway, as it had been filmed by more than one of the newsreel companies and distributed across the country. Freeda Hammond was eventually sent to prison for ten years for assault.
As for Lily, she was forced to take a few days off. Her left hand was so swollen the next day that she couldn’t hold a bat or catch a ball, but no bones were broken. Her mother eventually saw the incident when watching a Saturday matinee newsreel. She analyzed every move she could see from the camera angle the news photographer used. All in all, she was quite pleased, and wrote Lily a letter to express her approval. She also included a couple of suggestions that would help Lily avoid the bruising if she ever had to do that kind of thing again.