Obituary: Joyce (Hill) Westerman (1925-2021)

RIP to Joyce (Hill) Westerman, a member of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League from 1945 until 1952. She died on January 18 at the age of 95, with her family by her side. Westerman played for the Grand Rapids Chicks (1945), Fort Wayne Daisies (1946), South Bend Blue Sox (1946, 1952), Peoria Redwings (1947-48, 1950-51) and Racine Belles (1948-49).

Joyce Hill was born in Kenosha, Wis., on December 29, 1925. She gives her life story in this video interview, part of the Grand Valley State University digital collection. She grew up in the country in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., after her father lost his job in Kenosha during the Depression. She had started playing ball in Kenosha when she was 5 or 6, and she generally hit better than the neighborhood boys. When the family moved out of the county, she kept playing ball with her brothers and sisters. There wasn’t much in the way of competitive sports in high school, so it seems as though her options were limited to playing on a slow-pitch softball team at her job at American Motors. The company was making airplanes because of World War II.

Joyce Hill, behind the plate, auditions for a spot in the AAGPBL in 1942. Pat Shannon is at bat, and Vic Seitz, manager of Horlick Athletic Field in Kenosha, acts as umpire. Source: The Journal Times (Racine, Wis.), April 30, 1945.

Hill went to an AAGPBL tryout at Horlick Athletic Field in Kenosha in April of 1945 as a catcher. “There is one position that they might need more than anybody else and it would be catching. And I thought, ‘Well I can do that,'” she said. A total of 35 women from Wisconsin showed up, and Hill was one of the standouts. The Comets kept her as a reserve player, and manager Eddie Stumpf thought she would turn into a capable catcher with a little experience. “She has a good arm, her mechanical maneuvers are acceptable, and she is a good free swinger at the plate,” reported the Kenosha News.

Hill ended up making her debut later that year for the Grand Rapids Chicks, though. The team’s catcher, Emily Stevenson, was injured in a game at Fort Wayne, so Hill was transferred to the Chicks in late May. She appeared in 9 games and managed 2 hits for a .111 batting average.

Source: Kenosha Evening News, May 26, 1945.

Hill moved on to the Fort Wayne Daisies and South Bend Blue Sox in 1946. As the teams were all under one owner, the players were moved about at will to keep parity in the league. She didn’t play much on either team, serving mainly as a backup. She hit .123 in 21 games. Starting in 1947, though, she went to the Peoria Redwings and became a starting catcher and outfielder. She brought her batting average up all the way to .227 in 90 games and had a double and 3 singles against her former Fort Wayne team on May 10, 1947, as part of a 16-6 pasting of the Daisies.

She started the 1948 season with the Redwings once again and was traded in mid-season to the Racine Belles. The Belles moved Hill to the outfield, and she was part of a team that won 30 out of 37 games to finish first in the Western Division. The Belles knocked off the Redwings in the first round of the ’48 playoffs but were eliminated by the eventual champion Rockford Peaches. Hill batted .187 but drove in 28 runs. She also stole 18 bases, though speed was by her own admission not her strong suit.

The Belles, in need of a catcher, moved Hill back to behind the plate in 1949. She hit well with regular playing time, reaching base 11 times in 17 plate appearances at one point. However, she was a side-arm thrower, and trying to throw the ball over the top did not result in good throws to second base. She played in a total of 70 games for the Belles and hit .190. She also announced her engagement to Ray Westerman that September.

Hill rejoined the Peoria Redwings in 1950 and had the best season of her career to that point. Because of her power, she was given a full-time role as an outfielder and hit .254 in 70 games. She had 4 doubles and 2 triples with 19 RBIs and 26 runs scored. In the offseason, she and Ray married on December 2, 1950, at the First Presbyterian Church in Kenosha.

Now known as Joyce Westerman in the box scores and game recaps, she continued to hit for Peoria in 1951, setting career highs in games played (102), hits (86), run scored (51), doubles (12) and RBIs (50), while batting .242 and drawing 68 walks. She also began playing at first base, in addition to her occasional catching duties. She served as the team’s cleanup hitter for most of the season.

Source: AAGPBL

Hill ended her career on a high note, with the South Bend Blue Sox in 1952. The team went 64-45 during the regular season to finish in second place in the AAGPBL, behind Fort Wayne. In the playoffs, the Blue Sox beat Grand Rapids and the Rockford Peaches to win the league championship. Hill reached a personal best with a .277 batting average, knocking in 36 runs. She was a postseason star in the championship series. She hit a 2-out, bases loaded single in the 10th inning on September 10 to send South Bend home with a 2-1 win that tied the series at two wins apiece. In the deciding game, the Blue Sox sent their ace, Jean Faut, to the mound, and she led the Blue Sox to a 6-3 win. Westerman drove in the first run of the game with a first-inning double and squeezed home Betty Wagoner with another run in the seventh inning.

While that was all happening, the Westermans were building a home in Kenosha — literally. Joyce had some experience in home repair from when she was a child, and she bricked the house, mixed the cement and help shingle the roof. She decided to leave baseball and go back home to Kenosha, returning to the American Motors plant. She and Ray had two daughters, Janet and Judy.

In her 8 seasons with the AAGPBL, Westerman had 345 hits (33 doubles and 14 triples — she said she wasn’t fast enough to leg out a home run) for a .228 batting average. She also scored 191 runs, stole 81 bases, drew 292 walks and drove in 167 runs.

Westerman continued to play softball in Kenosha into the 1970s, first playing with her daughters and then coaching their teams. She also worked for the U.S. Postal Service until her retirement and was active in the 4-H program and Home and Community Education.

Westerman kept a large collection of AAGPBL memorabilia and lent some of it to local museum exhibits, as part of Kenosha’s baseball history. She had good memories of her time in pro ball, even if it was an occasionally grueling experience.

“We played every day, with doubleheaders on Sundays and holidays,” she recalled. “I met a nice bunch of girls and got to travel. I hadn’t been off the farm until I started playing ball.”

Of course, the movie A League of Their Own brought fame to her and the other surviving AAGPBL players. Westerman appeared in the movie as one of the players getting a tour of their exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Afterwards, she was invited to throw out the first pitch at a Milwaukee Brewers game in County Stadium and fired a strike to Bill Spiers.

“It was great,” she said later. “It was the thrill of a lifetime. It’s a beautiful field. Wouldn’t it be great to play out there?”

In 2012, Westerman’s life story was told in a book for young readers called Joyce Westerman: Baseball Hero, written by Bob Kann in 2012. Author Randy Donais collaborated with her on a memoir called Queen of Diamonds, in 2018. She was also inducted into the Kenosha Athletics Scholarship Foundation’s Public School Hall of Fame in 2003.

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