Pay close attention during the tryout scene in the first episode of Amazon Prime’s series “A League of Their Own.”
Two women, one wearing a plaid jacket and the other in a red sweater that contrasts with her puffy white hair, are sitting in the stands and applauding while a group of brave women show off their pitching, batting and fielding skills in hopes of winning spots in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
The two spectators are smiling, as if they know something you don’t. They look like people you should recognize but can’t quite place.
Who are they? Why are they there? Too quickly, the camera moves on.
The woman on the left is Shirley Burkovich, who spent three seasons in the AAGPBL and died in March at 89. Beside her in the red sweater is 95-year-old Maybelle Blair of Sunset Beach. She’s one of the few surviving players from the AAGPBL, which was launched in 1943 to keep baseball alive while many major leaguers were serving in World War II. By every definition, Blair always has been in a league of her own.
Leg injuries limited Blair to one game in one AAGPBL season with the Peoria Redwings, barely longer than her time on screen in Amazon Prime’s reimagined take on the marvelous 1992 movie “A League of Their Own.” But she has had a lasting impact on baseball through her efforts to keep alive memories of the AAGPBL and her passionate advocacy for giving women chances to play baseball.
“Maybelle is definitely a force of nature,” said Justine Siegal, whose nonprofit Baseball For All is one of Blair’s pet causes.
Blair depends on a baseball bat-shaped cane to get around, but she lives alone. She hasn’t slowed down, happily traveling on behalf of Baseball For All, which provides girls the opportunities to play, coach and develop leadership skills, and to publicize the latest version of “A League of Their Own,” which will premiere on Friday. She’s scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Dodger Stadium on Aug. 21. She deserves a standing ovation.
Her star turn in the series was brief yet significant. “Was I lovely?” Blair responded when asked about her cameo. “If you blinked, you wouldn’t see me, but I guess you didn’t blink.”
Each of the eight episodes lasts about an hour. Blair was consulted before filming began for the series, which includes a sassy character named Maybelle.
“I went to Hollywood, and they had all these papers all over the wall. About 55 writers, I think. And one dog,” Blair said of the creation process. “That’s how it happened. It’s amazing how they put that together. I love it.”
“It’s things that Penny Marshall couldn’t say in 1992. People weren’t ready for any of this, but it needed to be told because it is the truth.”
— Maybelle Blair on Amazon Prime’s “A League of Their Own” series
The series isn’t a remake of the Penny Marshall-directed movie, which was historically accurate but featured characters who were composites of actual members of the Rockford Peaches. Rosie O’Donnell had a role in the movie that was cast in this series as a secondary character. Creators Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham spoke with Marshall, who died in 2018, while their project was in its early stages.
They were smart enough to not attempt to duplicate the movie. Jacobson — who also stars as catcher Carson Shaw — and Graham shifted the focus to the prevailing racism that kept Black women out of the league and to the sexual relationships among the players. Blair considers it an accurate depiction of the era.
“I’m very happy with what they’ve done. It’s things that Penny Marshall couldn’t say in 1992,” Blair said. “People weren’t ready for any of this, but it needed to be told because it is the truth. These are the things that I really appreciated.”
Blair came out as a lesbian in June, while promoting the series at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. She had kept her secret for decades, deflecting questions about whether she’d ever been married by saying no man would have her. In truth, she feared losing her security clearance at her job with Northrop Aircraft (now Northrop Grumman) and feared she’d be shunned by the parents of kids whose careers she wanted to advance. She would have been shattered if they’d rejected her.
She felt relieved after she came out but had a brief moment of uncertainty when she began to consider the reaction from her family, especially a great-nephew whose wife is expecting a baby girl.
“I was so afraid that maybe they wouldn’t want me to be included in that,” Blair said. “But the phone rang and they said, ‘Oh, Aunt Maybelle, don’t worry. We love you for what you are and that’s how we love you. Don’t worry about a thing. It’s OK with us.’
“My whole family came out and supported me. Thank goodness. Because I was worried. At my age I didn’t know what they would think or if they would disown me, but it had to come out because I had to help, if I could, all these young girls so they wouldn’t have to go through what I had to go through. If I could just tell a few, I was very happy with that.”
The women’s baseball community embraced her, too. During a recent trip to Arizona for Baseball for All’s national tournament she was hugged by a mom who said Blair had made it easier for her daughters to acknowledge they’re gay. Players flocked to her, as always, when she participated in a question-and-answer session and a “Cookies With Maybelle” event.
“Other than that, you could find her on a golf cart surrounded by kids asking if they could take pictures with her and get her autograph,” Siegal said. “She’s absolutely a great ambassador for baseball.”
Blair’s work is unfinished. She continues to raise funds to build the International Women’s Baseball Center in Rockford, Ill., home of the AAGPBL Peaches, and establish a place to honor female baseball pioneers and support future stars.
“We’ve got about $1 million now and if we had another million we can break the ground,” she said. “As soon as we get that money in, the shovel will go in the ground, and I don’t want that shovel for me. I want it for the building.”
But a bit of her fire flickered when Burkovich, also a fierce advocate of women’s baseball, died in March in Rancho Mirage. Blair has trouble talking about it. She still has the strong impulse to call Burkovich so they can laugh, share good news, or simply talk about their mission of making the future better for girls who play baseball.
“She died on me, so I have to pick up the slack and keep going,” Blair said.
And so she has, this woman who’s in a league uniquely and wonderfully her own.