Maybelle Blair entered a sporting goods store in her early ’90s with a mission: to try a pair of nails.
The seller suggested she meant to order sneakers. But Blair, a former bowler in the All-American Major League Baseball, insisted on baseball cleats. “He looked at me like I lost her,” Blair, now 95, recalled in a recent interview.
The cleats have finally appeared.
“He put them on my feet. I got up and walked around, and I heard a clicking in my head and I was never happy,” said Blair.
After taking the cleats for a walk in the store, Blair took them off, put them in their box, and told the salesman she would not take them.
“It was such a huge thrill in my life, just to put on my sneakers and walk again,” she said.
For Blair, the sound of the cleats brought back memories of dressing up as Peoria Redwing and walking down the field, her favorite baseball ritual.
“I was very proud of myself because it seemed to me: I played the game I loved and cherished,” she said. “I would wear my spikes and walk down the driveway and walk in the field, hit his back, hit his back. That was the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.”
Blair was one of more than 600 women who joined Major League Baseball, which was founded in 1943 in response to World War II. When the young men were recruited, fears spread that the war would be the demise of professional baseball and its stadiums. So the women played instead.
The league was folded in 1954 and brought back to life in the 1992 film A League of Their Own. Amazon Prime will have its own version of a new TV series under the same title in August.
Blair played with the league only for the 1948 season, but it was one of the many border-crossing moments in her life. She worked for 37 years at Northrop Corporation (now Northrop Grumman) where she became the company’s third female director. Blair has been instrumental in promoting the story of league and women in baseball and is the founding director of International Women’s Baseball Center In Rockford, Illinois.
In June, Blair broke another limit. During a press tour of the new show, Blair gave up a long-kept secret.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for these young players to realize that they are not alone and you shouldn’t hide,” she said, publicly as gay. “I hid for 75, 85 years, and this is actually, basically, the first time I’ve ever been out.”
She was greeted by cheers. Blair said she was inspired by watching young women play baseball at an event recently held by Baseball For All, a group that promotes inclusivity in the sport. And the time she spent working with producers on Amazon, which addresses a fuller scope of the league’s story, including issues of gender and race, also got her thinking.
“I could see their suffering, their little eyes and their love for the game,” Blair said of watching young female baseball players. “I said, ‘You know, Maybelle, 95, it probably wouldn’t be that bad. Maybe your family wouldn’t disown you. You’ve got to do it.'”
And she continued, “I just sat there on that platform, my mouth opened and he walked in and out.” “I felt relieved.”
Blair was one of about 20 former players that the show’s producer, Will Graham, and actress Abby Jacobson spoke to in order to develop the show. Graham said that Blair was open about her sexuality with them while doing the show, but he did not expect her to appear in a public forum. He called her an “extraordinary person”.
“We have a tendency to think that life before Stonewall for gay people was very bleak, and of course it was difficult and still is in many ways. But she found joy and she found herself, and I think gay people always do that anytime, anywhere,” Graham said. “I am so grateful to have her in my life.”
Blair first became aware of her sexuality in the fifth grade, and her first love came when she was in high school in high school. “I will never forget her,” she said. But she kept her relationships private and never married.
“I was very worried about my family because in those days no one knew anything about people being gay or what you had. It was nerve-racking,” she said.
She found herself happiest on the court. Blair, who grew up in Texas and California, said she was “born a baseball fan.”
“If I hadn’t, my father would have gotten rid of me,” she said with a laugh. “Playing baseball was the only entertainment we had besides cracking horses.”
Blair was playing softball in Redondo Beach, California, when a scout came over. Her mother was initially resistant to the idea, but when she learned that Blair would be getting paid $55 a week, she put Blair on a train to Chicago.
When Blair got into the league, “I found out there were more people like me and she gave me more freedom and these girls more freedom,” she said of the league’s rare inclusive environment. Blair said the players would meet frequently in Chicago during a day off and go to a gay bar.
But outside of Major League Baseball, you won’t find the same amenities. Blair said she obtained a high-security clearance while working on the Northman B2 bomber. This responsibility also came with scrutiny.
“They would walk around asking neighbors all about you,” she said. “It was nerve-wracking. Every time I moved, I was afraid someone would find out I was gay and if they did I would be fired immediately.”
Blair eventually retired. These days, she has dedicated her life to getting women and girls involved in baseball, primarily through the International Women’s Baseball Center. She said the education center is still in the fundraising stages, but “to get that shovel into the ground, I had to keep going.”
She hopes to live to at least 100 years and plans to pass on some of the lessons she learned from baseball to the next generation.
“These girls deserve it,” said Blair. “For some of these girls, there is no place for them to play baseball. We will run our own league again.”