How American Women’s Pro Baseball Kept Lesbians in the Closet

Elise Harney, pitcher for the Kenosha Comets, refreshes her makeup between innings as teammate Janice O'Hara and another player look on. The women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League were required to look their best whether on or off the field, and received "charm school" training to teach them how to maintain that feminine look. (Getty Images)

“A League of Their Own,” the film starring Rosie O’Donnell and Geena Davis, told the story of a women’s professional baseball team that played in an all-girl league in the 1940s and ’50s — a time when many gays were still in the closet. Partly truth, partly fiction, “the film does to the history of the league what the owners tried to do its existence — erase lesbians from the narrative.”

At Narratively, Britni de la Cretaz looks at the history of lesbianism in early pro women’s baseball and at the beautiful, lifetime love stories the film chose to ignore.

When Terry Donahue met Pat Henschel in 1947, Donahue was a 22-year-old catcher and utility infielder in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She grew up playing ball with her younger brother, Tom, on their family’s farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. “She claimed that she was five-foot-two. She was about five-foot,” Henschel tells me over the phone from the home she shares with Donahue. “She had dark hair, blue eyes, and was very attractive, and she was wonderfully liked.”

Today, Donahue, who has Parkinson’s disease, is 92. Henschel is 89. For seven decades the two told almost everyone, aside from their inner circle, that they were best friends. The Chronicle story calls Henschel Donahue’s “cousin and roommate.” But the truth was much more than that. For 70 years theirs has been a love story, originating in a time when the only love stories we were allowed to tell were those between a man and a woman. Try to ask most former players about the issue and they clam up. “I don’t think it was really even talked about, frankly,” Henschel says.

Catcher Eunice Taylor and her partner of 45 years, Diana Walega, owned and operated a pet supply store for 40 years. Outfielder Barbara Sowers was with her “loving companion” Shirley Ann Weaver for 45 years. And there are many more, players with “longtime,” “beloved companions,” whose names I have chosen not to include here out of respect for the fact that they were likely still closeted during their lives. Their obituaries, which are historical documents, offer us glimpses into their lives and are open for us to interpret.

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