By Glen Sparks
Sophie Bergmann wanted her young daughter to take piano lessons. Erma opted to grab a bat and glove. The promises of a sun-filled sports world beat out any talk from mom about future concert recitals.
Erma grew up on the St. Louis sandlots, a tomboy in the 1930s and ‘40s. She starred as a teenager on a women’s fast-pitch team in the St. Louis Amateur Softball League. Scouts from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League took note.
Phillip K. Wrigley, the chewing-gum king and Chicago Cubs owner, organized the All-American League in 1943. Wrigley figured that it might keep fans interested in baseball even as more and more Major League players departed for Europe and the Pacific.
Teams included the Rockford (Ill.) Peaches, the Racine (Wisc.) Belles, the Kenosha (Wisc.) Comets and the South Bend (Ind.) Blue Sox, among others. Bergmann began playing after the fighting had ended. The Muskegon (Mich.) Sallies signed her in 1946. Converted from a third baseman into a pitcher, she compiled a 15-16 won-loss mark in her rookie campaign but with a 2.05 ERA in 35 appearances.
Erma stood 5-feet-7 inches. She threw right-handed and batted from the right side. In 1947, she finished with an 11-10 mark for Muskegon and again with an impressive ERA, 1.74 this time. Erma even hurled a no-hitter, on May 22 against the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Chicks.
The women played a hybrid game of baseball-softball. The ball, for instance, measured 12 inches in circumference, the same size as a softball, that first year. Pitchers threw from a mound 40 feet from home plate, not 60 feet, six inches. They also used an underhand windmill motion, like in softball. Further, the base paths did not extend as far as they did in baseball.
Over time, the rules and the style of play changed. The regulation ball got smaller almost every season, eventually resembling a baseball. The mound distance was lengthened and so was the distance between bases. Eventually, pitchers could throw overhand.
Uniforms looked like long, belted dresses, with a team logo sewn across the chest area. Players wore one-size-fits-all caps. And, yes, as you may be heard or read, all the girls were required to attend charm school each spring. They were taught how to dress correctly and how to maintain good personal hygiene. They were told not to wear their hair too short or to smoke or drink in public. They also were told to always wear lipstick. (One of the nicknames for the AAGPBL was “The Lipstick League.”)
Bergmann generally played for poor teams. She finished 9-19 for the Springfield (Ill.) Sallies, for instance, but recorded a 3.05 ERA. With the Racine Belles in 1949-50, she went 11-14 both seasons, but had ERAs of 2.09 and 2.68, respectively. Erma didn’t get much run support.
Following a down year in 1951 with the Battle Creek (Mich.) Belles, Erma left for the rival National Girls Baseball League. She played there for three seasons and once pitched a 23-inning game.
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League folded in September of 1954. Attendance, which peaked in 1948 at a little more than 900,000 fans for 10 teams, had been spiraling downhill for years. The Peaches won the most titles, four. More than 600 women total played in the league. The great Jimmie Foxx, “Double X”, even managed the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Daisies in 1952. At its peak, the players made as much as $125 a week.
Erma said this about her time in pro ball. “I was a poor kid that got the chance to play ball and travel … What more could you want?”
She later joined the St. Louis Police Department, often working for something called the Deployment Squad. She’d wear civilian clothes and walk around in tough neighborhoods as a unit decoy. In 1961, she shot and wounded a suspect.
“It was just like on the shooting range,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after it happened. “I had a mental picture of the bull’s-eye and aimed for that.”
Erma retired from the Police Department in 1981. She is a member of the St. Louis Amateur Softball Hall of Fame and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. Her picture, glove and contract are on permanent display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Erma Bergmann died Sept, 13, 2015, of infirmities at her house in south St. Louis. She was 91 years old.