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Rock Hill woman starred in World War II-era women’s baseball

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/27/21/46/337-1kSLFB.Em.6.jpeg|269
    PHOTOS BY Andy Burriss - aburriss@heraldonline.com
    Jean Faut, a star pro female baseball player back in the day, lives in Rock Hill. She played for the South Bend Blue Sox, mainly as a pitcher. She was recently one of the players featured in Winthrop's exhibit on the women's pro baseball league. Jean Faut looks at a jacket she wore when she played for the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/27/21/46/604-Ux69c.Em.6.jpeg|248
    Andy Burriss - aburriss@heraldonline.com
    Artist Buck Paulson in 2009 created a portrait of Faut as a pitcher. She was recruited to play in 1946 because of her local reputation.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/27/21/46/444-14l68P.Em.6.jpeg|468
    Andy Burriss - aburriss@heraldonline.com
    Jean Faut, a star professional baseball player in the 1940s and early 1950s, lives in Rock Hill. She played for the South Bend Blue Sox, mainly as a pitcher. She holds a book about her championship team.

Sixty-seven years ago, Jean Faut could have stayed home to tend a victory garden and keep her factory job in a small town in Pennsylvania.

“Those were the days when the women just stayed home, had kids and took care of the meals,” the 88-year-old Rock Hill grandmother said.

But Faut – now considered the best female professional baseball pitcher in history – had caught the attention of an All-American Girls Professional Baseball League scout.

Like most everyone else in the United States in 1946, Faut had a “war job” that supported the nation’s efforts in World War II: She worked in a factory making military officers’ uniform pants.

“I didn’t like it,” she said. “I mean, I was making money, but it’s not really what you want to do.”

So it didn’t take much for a baseball scout to convince her to join an upcoming spring training session.

Faut got on the scout’s radar while he was visiting Allentown, Pa., in 1946 to recruit players for two new teams joining the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She nearly lost her chance when she missed tryouts near her home. But years of helping out at practices for a local semi-pro baseball team paid off.

The men’s team used a practice field just two blocks from her house. At 13, she was shagging fly balls in the outfield and pitching to the players during batting practice. Faut was known for her good arm. Word got around to the scout that he should find Faut and invite her to spring training in Pascagoula, Miss. He called her two weeks after leaving Allentown.

League born out of war

Though the league had three seasons under its belt, Faut said, she’d never heard about women’s professional baseball until the day she was recruited.

The league, started in 1943 as the All-American Girls Professional Softball League, was developed as a way to keep Major League Baseball stadiums in operation while men were at war.

Many Major League Baseball and minor league players were drafted or enlisted in the military, leaving team owners concerned about profits. Philip K. Wrigley, chewing gum mogul and then-owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, gave the league its initial financial backing.

While Faut’s mother was unsure about her daughter leaving home to play baseball, her father was enthused.

Faut joined nearly 500 other rookies at spring training that year. The league took over a vacant naval base in Pascagoula, and new players tried out a week before veteran players arrived.

Each night of the seven-day tryout period, some women were sent home. Faut remembers checking the list of names of those cut every morning, but her name never showed up. That 1946 spring training was her start to eight seasons playing professional baseball.

She figures she was more athletic and had stronger wrists than most girls her age because it was her duty to split firewood for the family. Her eventual skills on the pitcher’s mound probably had roots in her childhood pastime of playing in an alley near her home, where she threw rocks at telephone poles.

Success on the mound

Faut’s pitching prowess earned her the league’s Player of the Year award twice between 1946 and 1953. She recorded the league’s lowest-ever earned-run average of 1.23 and was the only pitcher to throw two perfect games during her career.

Her team, the South Bend Blue Sox, won back-to-back championships in 1951 and 1952.

She remembers the uncertainty about the team’s chances heading into the 1952 playoffs, after six of the Blue Sox’s starting players abruptly quit because of a conflict with the team manager.

The loss of talent meant “nobody gave us a chance,” Faut said.

Still, her team beat the Fort Wayne Daisies to grab the title.

It was the loyalty of remaining players, she said, that led the Blue Sox to victory.

Though women playing professional sports was new to the nation, Faut said, she and other players took the game seriously. Competition was fierce.

League officials sometimes updated the game’s rules, and play grew faster over time.

“The tougher it got, the more we liked it,” she said.

The league garnered national media attention, and many games drew large crowds. Faut remembers a crowd of 10,000 people at a July 4 double-header in South Bend during her first season.

Off the field, the players had to follow strict rules, Faut said, but playing professional baseball left little time for a social or private life anyway.

The women did not have personal cars. They lived in private family homes during the season and walked to the ballpark every day.

Usually, they were expected to be at the ballpark at 10 a.m. to practice. They got a couple of hours for lunch and rest before reporting back at 5 p.m. for batting and infield practice.

Most nights there was a game, sometimes a double-header.

In the early years of the league, players earned up to $85 a week. Later, salaries increased to more than $100 a week for many. Faut usually sent $50 a week to her mother to save.

Much of Faut’s memorabilia from her playing days was on display in October at a Winthrop University library exhibit honoring the more than 600 women who played professional baseball.

She was surprised, she said, to see many college students with an interest in the league’s history.

Faut has given most of her baseball items to the university’s archives. She still has some league history books, her team jacket and small items in her apartment at Rock Hill’s Chandler Place senior living and retirement community.

Life after the league

After leaving the league in 1953, Faut became an administrative assistant at the mosquito disease research center at the University of Notre Dame. She worked with graduate students from around the world and professors who were studying ways to combat diseases carried by mosquitoes.

She loved that job and wanted to take college classes, but she didn’t have the time. Later, she worked for a pharmaceutical company.

Her second husband’s work as a salesman in the automotive industry brought the couple to South Carolina. They opened a business in Rock Hill.

Both of Faut’s sons, Larry and Kevin Winsch, live in Rock Hill. Her four grandchildren live in different places around the country.

She remains active with the league’s alumni group and plans to attend a player reunion next year in Albuquerque, N.M. She often gets requests for autographs and interviews – some from as far away as Africa and Europe.

In the 1990s, Faut was called to be an adviser for the movie “A League Of Their Own,” which is based on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

She couldn’t participate in making the movie, though, because her first husband was ill and in hospice care at that time.

The movie’s depiction of the league and its players was a little “too Hollywood,” she said, and isn’t necessarily an accurate account of her experience.

Still, she appreciates the interest people have in the league she loved and the impact it had on American society during and after World War II.

The league’s influence on society “gave women a lot more freedom to do what they wanted to do,” Faut said.

The national attention on women playing sports, coupled with many women having to take over jobs while men went to war, played an important role in the advancement of women’s rights, she said.

Faut played until nearly the league’s last season.

As the league’s popularity dwindled, team owners began operating independently. Baseball historians say that lack of centralized organization caused the league and its talented players to suffer.

There were five teams left for the final season in 1954.

Faut’s memories of her days playing baseball are fresh. Given the choice between a mundane war job and making history in the nation’s first women’s professional athletic league, she said, she’d chose baseball again.

“Absolutely. ... Who wants to just sit and sew in a factory?”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068
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