Obituary: Shirley Burkovich (1933-2022)

RIP to Shirley Burkovich, who took a career in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and turned it into a lifelong passion to let girls and women play baseball. She died on March 31 at the age of 89. Burkovich played for the Muskegon Lassies (1949), Chicago Colleens (1950), Springfield Sallies (1950) and Rockford Peaches (1951).

Like many of the AAGPBL alumni, Burkovich gained a higher profile with the release of “A League of Their Own” in 1992. She used her platform to promote baseball for everyone. She was a founding director of the International Women’s Baseball Center and worked with many groups, including Baseball For All. She made appearances all around the country, keeping the memories of the AAGPBL alive and encouraging girls to play baseball. She remained busy for the rest of her life. Just days before her death, she was scheduled to appear at a IWBC event.

Shirley Burkovich was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., on February 4, 1933, and was raised in nearby Swissvale. In interviews, including this entertaining episode of the Hall of Very Good podcast, she said that she played baseball as far back as she could remember. As none of the other neighborhood girls played baseball, she spent her youth playing against boys. Her brother recommended that she go to a local tryout for the AAGPBL in the summer of 1948. Though she was just 16 years old, Burkovich was one of the standouts of the tryout, which was held at Renziehausen Park in McKeesport. Scout Shirley Jameson signed just one player, infielder Norma Whitney, but Burkovich was one of 15 other aspiring ballplayers who would be considered for spring training contracts in 1949. And that’s just what happened, except that Burkovich’s mother went down to spring training with her daughter, just to make sure everything was on the level.

Source: IWBC/Photo by Irene Gottlieb.

“When mom saw that we had chaperones and the best of everything there, and was assured it was a safe place for me, she went home,” Burkovich recalled in a later interview.

Being one of the younger players in the league, Burkovich didn’t play much at the start. She was assigned to Muskegon in 1949, but the usually thorough AAGPBL website has no statistics available for her. “I was, I guess you call it, a utility player,” she said in a video interview that is available on the league’s website. “I played infield, I played the outfield, so I kind of filled a hole somewhere. Whenever someone wanted to sit down or someone was hurt or whatever, I played that, so I played right field, left field, center field and I played all the infield positions.”

In 1950, she was transferred to the Chicago Colleens and later the Springfield Sallies, which were traveling teams. They played in exhibition games across the Eastern U.S. Burkovich drove in four runs with a triple and two singles in one 11-3 victory for the Sallies. In another game, she whacked a single into center field to score the winning run in a 12-inning, 6-5 victory over Chicago. She did play in 20 games that are in the league’s official records, and she hit .286 with a couple of triples. She drove in 16 runs and scored 16 times.

Source: AAGPBL

Burkovich earned the nickname of “Hustle,” thanks to her all-out style of play. It occasionally had its drawbacks. On July 8 in at Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, Md., she fractured her left ankle sliding into third base and was lost for the season. Because of the injury, she missed out on a chance to play in Yankee Stadium, which was one of the next stops for the Colleens and Sallies. “Proof of the roughness of All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League action — they really play baseball and not softball — was furnished in a meeting between the Chicago Colleens and Springfield Sallies,” wrote The Scranton Times as it relayed news of her injury.

As a teenager, Burkovich still had to get her high school work done. So while the older players were able to socialize in the evenings, she stayed at the hotel to do her homework. It took an extra semester, but she got it done.

Burkovich joined the Rockford Peaches in 1951, which was a star-laden team. The Peaches had one of the League’s best hitters — Dorothy Kamenshek –and one of its best pitchers — Helen Nicol Fox. Burkovich had 2 hits in 28 at-bats and scored twice, according to her batting log. She also got into at least one game as a pitcher. South Bend pounded Rockford 15-1 on May 30, 1951, and Burkovich was sent in to relieve pitcher Marguerite Kerrigan. She walked the first batter she faced to load the bases but promptly struck out South Bend catcher Shirley Stovroff. The Blue Sox then tagged her for 7 runs before she was able to retire the side.

Burkovich said that after the 1951 season, she could see that the league was not going to last much longer. Indeed, it lasted just a few more seasons before folding in 1954. “The problem with our league was we didn’t have anybody coming up behind us like they do with minor leagues and farm teams now,” she said. “So we all got old together.”

Chicago Colleens manager Pat Barringer (#2 on the picture) talks pitching grips with her staff. Shirley Burkovich is #7 in the photo. Also shown are Ann Cindrio (#1), Isabel Alvarez (#3), Gloria Schweigerdt (#4), Frances Vukovich (#5), Eleanor Moore (#6) and Pat Brown (#8). Source: Knoxville News Sentinal, July 2, 1950.

Burkovich moved to California, where she had some family, and took a job as a telephone operator for Pacific Bell. In her 30 years with the company, she eventually moved up to the role of assistant engineer. She retired in 1983 and kept active in sports of all kinds, including bowling, golf and softball. She was able to attend the “Women in Baseball” exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, along with her brother, who pushed her into trying out for the AAGPBL in the first place, and her mother, who made sure that her daughter would be safe.

The Hall of Fame exhibit brought the AAGPBL players to Cooperstown, but it was “A League of Their Own” that made them celebrities. Once the movie became a hit, the surviving players became in-demand as special guests and public speakers. Burkovich even had a speaking role in the movie — she says the line, “Having you here is good luck, Dottie,” in the movie’s reunion scene.

“She’s the baby of the bunch,” joked Kamenshek in a 1993 Desert Sun article. “That’s why she could be in the movie. She could still get in a squatting position.”

Source: St. Lucie News Tribune, December 20, 2018.

Burkovich retired to Cathedral City, Calif., but as noted, she never really slowed down. She was one of 72 women who took part in a 24-hour baseball game in 2003 that raised $60,000 for U.S. Doctors for Africa to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa. The African Gray Birds beat the Red-Eye Nites 127-110. She served on the AAGPBL Board and was a regular at any tournament or event that promoted baseball for girls and women. She and fellow AAGPBL player Maybelle Blair were among the founders of the IWBC. The goal of the organization is to raise awareness and create opportunities for girls and women to continue to play baseball instead of being pushed into softball.

“Some of these girls don’t want to play softball, they want to play baseball,” Burkovich said in 2017. “There are women in the U.S., but also Japan and Australia, and we’re trying to get all these leagues under one umbrella.”

Blair and Burkovich helped to raise funds for an IWBC museum to be built in Rockford, in Beyer Park, the former home of the Peaches. The Rockford Park District approved the sale of the land to the organization in November of 2021. writer Dawn Klemish interviewed Blair and Burkovich for a story that was posted on March 22 of this year. They spoke about the evolution of women in baseball and programs that could give today’s female ballplayers a chance to play like they did 70 years ago.

““This is what we’ve wished for since ‘A League of Their Own’ ended,” said Burkovich. “Something for these girls to have the same opportunity that we had — to play baseball.”

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