Obituary: Kathryn Vonderau (1927-2022)

RIP to Katie Vonderau, who spent eight years as a catcher in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and was an All-Star at the position. After her career ended, Dr. Kathryn Vondreau earned multiple degrees and taught and coached at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for more than 20 years. She died on August 10 at the age of 94. Vondreau played for the Fort Wayne Daisies (1946, 1950-52), Muskegon Lassies (1947, 1949), Chicago Colleens (1948), Peoria Redwings (1949) and Muskegon Belles (1953).

Kathryn Vonderau was born in Fort Wayne, Ind., on September 26, 1927. Like many of the ballplayers of the AAGPBL, she had a softball background. She was part of a team, Bob Inn, that won state titles in 1944 and 1945. The AAGPBL started off looking much like softball before evolving into fully fledged baseball. As a result, Vonderau fit in well and became known as one of the league’s most promising possibilities when she tried out for the AAGPBL in 1946. She joined the league as soon as she graduated from high school and was assigned to her hometown team, the Fort Wayne Daisies. She batted just .148 in her rookie season, but she had some timely hits. Fort Wayne knocked off the Grand Rapids Chicks and their dominant pitcher, Connie Wisniewski, on June 19, 1946. The final score was 1-0, and Vonderau drove in the winning run with a walk-off single, scoring Faye Dancer from second base.

Source: AAGPBL

For a catcher, Vonderau had excellent speed. She stole 26 bases in 1946, and while she never reached double digits again, she remained a good baserunner. Playing for the Muskegon Lassies in 1947, she scored the winning run in a 3-2 win over South Bend on June 27 by reaching on an error, stealing second base and crossing the plate after two sacrifice bunts. Vonderau was also a talented catcher — her AAGPBL biography mentions her “quick release and sure glove.” She didn’t play as much for Muskegon in 1947, appearing in only 45 games and batting .196, but she was still highly regarded as an excellent catcher. On July 18, she set what was believed to be an AAGPBL record by throwing out four South Bend baserunners in one game.

The league officials regulated the ballplayers pretty tightly, from a dress code that demanded they wear dresses at all times to charm school lessons. In an oral history interview, Vonderau said that some of those controls had vanished by the time she entered the league. “I never had to do that [take etiquette lessons], but we did have to follow the dress code pretty closely, and we had to know fraternization rules. We were not to fraternize with the other teams and that sort of thing,” she said.

Vonderau also played under a variety of managers during her travels. “I played for Jimmie Foxx and he was about like he was in the movie [“A League of Their Own”], but was certainly a gentleman. He wasn’t always as sober as he could have been, but he was always a gentleman. I played for Max Carey, I played for Bill Wambsganss, and they were both major-league ball players and they were both very good… I played for Leo Schrall in Peoria, and he was a teacher at one of the colleges in Peoria. He was a very good manager, he was interested in teaching us actually—how to do things. The others assumed that we knew everything, so he was more a teacher than he was a coach, so it was very good to play for him,” she related.

All the teams in the AAGPBL were controlled by the league executives, so trades were frequently made to help balance out the teams. As a result, Vonderau spent her first four years in the league playing for Fort Wayne, Muskegon, Chicago, Peoria, Muskegon again, and then Peoria again. She was one of a whopping eight players transferred to the Chicago Colleens through various trades in May of 1948 after the team lost 12 of its first 13 games. The AAGPBL needed to try and save the team before attendance completely dried up — a problem that was exacerbated by the presence of a rival woman’s baseball league in Chicago. The Colleens still finished with a 47-76 record, but the new talent at least made the team somewhat respectable. Vonderau hit a combined .174 for Peoria and Chicago that season.

After bouncing around for several seasons, Vonderau returned home to the Fort Wayne Daisies in 1950 and remained there for three seasons. She had her best years at the plate with the Daisies, too. After hitting .193 in 1950, she had a career-high .221 batting average in 1951, with 12 doubles and 32 RBIs. The Daisies won consecutive games in late August thanks to the timely hitting of Vonderau and outfielder Wilma Briggs. Each game, Vonderau reached second base on a double, and Briggs singled her in with the winning run. Fort Wayne finished 34-17 and 34-18 in the split season, reaching the playoffs but losing in the first round to the South Bend Blue Sox.

Source: The Evening Star (Washington D.C.), May 8, 1952.

Fort Wayne was named League Champions in 1952 with a 67-42 record — three games ahead of the Blue Sox. Vonderau batted .210 and also hit the only home run of her AAGPBL career. It came on June 16, 1952, against the Battle Creek Belles. Dottie Schroeder also homered for the Daisies, but it wasn’t enough as Battle Creek won 7-5, thanks in part to two successful steals of home. Vonderau wasn’t to blame for those steals. She had the day off until Daisies catcher Pepper Paire shoved home plate umpire Perky Slater after the second steal of home and was ejected. Her home run put the Daisies on top before the Belles came back with three late runs.

Vonderau’s final season with the AAGPBL came in 1953 with the Muskegon Belles. She played in a career-high 101 games and batted .202, drawing 33 walks (also a career high) against 21 strikeouts. She was named to the league’s All-Star team. The AAGPBL itself lasted for one more season before folding, though traveling teams continued to play for a time.

In 8 seasons of the AAGPBL, Vonderau played in a total of 642 games. She had a slash line of .189/.237/.220, with 385 hits that included 42 doubles, 9 triples and 1 home run. She drove in 169 runs and scored 147 times.

Vonderau returned to Indiana and served as an assistant director for a Girl Scout camp. She also taught physical education at all scholastic levels, from elementary to college, while working on her own higher education. According to her Wikipedia page, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Indiana University and a doctorate from the University of Iowa. Vonderau joined the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater faculty in 1966 and was given tenure in 1979. She was the Warhawks head softball coach from 1967-73 and head volleyball coach from 1972-74. She also served as chair of UWW’s Department of Health, Physical and Recreation. She retired from the university in 1988 and was named the Distinguished Service Award winner by the UWW Athletics Hall of Fame in 1996. The school created a display to recognize the trailblazing efforts of Vonderau and fellow AAGPBL ballplayer and UWW faculty member Dr. Corky Clark. A Vonderau/Clark Scholarship was established in 2006 and is awarded to a student pursuing a major in physical education, according to the school.

Vonderau retired to Albuquerque, where she enjoyed competing in amateur golf tournaments. Unlike some of the other AAGPBL alumni, she seemed to stay out of the spotlight created by “A League of Their Own.” The only in-depth interview I found from her is the oral history interview on the AAGPBL website via Grand Valley State University. She said that she never really discussed her baseball past during her academic career. However, she clearly loved her time, noting that she only retired from the game when the injuries sustained as a catcher started to pile up. But when asked about her status as a pioneer, she said that she never really thought about it until others started bringing it up. Her focus during her career was just enjoying the game.

“We loved playing ball,” she said. “I would have played without the pay, so it didn’t make any difference. They could have paid me half the salary and I still would have played… We just loved playing.”

A graphic that the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater created to honor Dr. Vonderau.

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