Maybelle Blair walked into a sporting goods store in her early 90s with a mission: to try on a pair of spikes.
The salesperson assumed that she wanted to ask for sneakers. But Blair, a former All-American Women’s Professional Baseball League pitcher, insisted on wearing baseball boots. “He looked at me like I was passed out,” Blair, now 95, recalled in a recent interview.
The boots have finally arrived.
“He put them on my feet. I got up and marched and I heard this click in my head and I’ve never been happier,” Blair said.
Taking the boots for a walk to the store, Blair took them off, put them in a box and told the seller that she would not take them.
“It was the biggest thrill of my life just putting on my boots and walking again,” she said.
For Blair, the sound of the boots brought back memories of dressing up in a Peoria Redwing suit and stepping onto the field, her favorite baseball ritual.
“I was so proud of myself because it dawned on me: I have to play the game that I loved and cherished,” she said. “I put on my spikes and walked down the aisle, went out on the field, clicked, clicked. It was the most beautiful music I have ever heard.”
Blair was one of over 600 women who joined the baseball league, created in 1943 in response to World War II. As young men were drafted, fears spread that the war would be the end of professional baseball and its stadiums. Women played instead.
The league folded in 1954 and was revived in the 1992 film. “Their own league.” Amazon Prime will have its own version in a new series of the same name in August.
Blair only played in the league for the 1948 season, but that was one of the many turning points in her life. She went on to a 37-year career at Northrop Corporation (now known as Northrop Grumman), where she became the company’s third female manager. Blair was instrumental in advancing the history of the league and women in baseball and is a founding director International Women’s Baseball Center in Rockford, Illinois.
In June, Blair broke another boundary. During a press tour for the new show, Blair revealed a long-held secret.
“I think this is a great opportunity for these young ball-playing girls to realize that they are not alone and you don’t have to hide,” she said, publicly stating that she is a lesbian. “I’ve been in hiding for 75, 85 years and this is actually the first time I’ve been out.”
She was greeted with applause. Blair said she was inspired by watching young women play baseball at an event recently hosted by the Baseball for All group, which promotes inclusion in the sport. Her time with the producers on the Amazon show, which more fully explores the history of the league, including issues of sexuality and race, also got her thinking.
“I could see their struggle, their little eyes and their love of the game,” Blair said as he watched the young baseball players. “I said, ‘You know, Maybel, at 95, maybe things won’t be so bad. Maybe your family won’t disown you. You have to do it”.
“I was sitting there on that stage and my mouth fell open and it came out,” she continued. “I felt relieved.”
Blair was one of about 20 former players that show producer Will Graham and actress Abbi Jacobson spoke to about developing the show. Graham said that Blair was open about her sexuality with them during the making of the show, but he didn’t expect her to speak in a public forum. He called her “an extraordinary person.”
“We have a tendency to think that life for queer people before Stonewall was pretty grim, and of course it was hard and still is in many ways. But she found joy and found herself, and I think that’s what queer people always do, whenever and wherever we are,” Graham said. “I’m 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. “I will never forget her,” she said. But she kept her relationship a secret and never married.
“I was so worried about my family because in those days no one knew anything about people being gay or anything. It was so nerve-wracking,” she said.
She was the happiest person on the field. Blair, who grew up in Texas and California, said she was “born a baseball fan”.
“If I didn’t, my father would have got rid of me,” she said with a laugh. “Playing baseball was the only pastime we had besides breaking horses.”
Blair was playing softball in Redondo Beach, California when a scout showed up. Her mother initially resisted the idea, but when she found out that Blair would be making $55 a week, she put Blair on a train to Chicago.
When Blair got into the league, she “found there were more people like me, and that gave me more freedom and these girls more freedom,” she said of the league’s rare inclusive environment. According to Blair, the players often met in Chicago on weekends and went to a gay bar.
But outside of the baseball league, she wouldn’t have found the same amenities. Blair said she had a high security clearance when she was working on the Northman B-2 bomber. This responsibility also came with careful scrutiny.
“They went and asked the neighbors about you,” she said. “It was nerve-wracking. Every time I moved, I was afraid that someone would find out that I was gay, and if they found out, I would be fired immediately.”
Blair eventually retired. Today, her life is dedicated to getting women and girls into baseball, primarily through the Women’s International Baseball Center. The education center is still in the fundraising phase, but “until I bury this shovel in the ground, I must continue,” she said.
She hopes to live to at least 100 and plans to pass on some of the lessons she learned from baseball to the next generation.
“These girls deserve it; they need help,” Blair said. “Some of these girls have nowhere to play baseball. We’ll run our own league again.”