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A league of her own: Women’s sports pioneer Mary Pratt dies at 101

Charter member of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League pitched a no-hitter in 1944

“It was against the social dictates for women to play sports when I was growing up,” Ms. Pratt had said. “If you did you were tomboyish or mannish. It wasn’t the proper thing to do.”
“It was against the social dictates for women to play sports when I was growing up,” Ms. Pratt had said. “If you did you were tomboyish or mannish. It wasn’t the proper thing to do.”KREITER, Suzanne GLOBE STAFF/file

Standing a mere 5 foot 1 in her prime, Mary Pratt wasn’t an obvious first pick for a sports team, but she spent the better part of a century proving that hard work, talent, and heart go a long way on the playing field.

“My life is just a good example that if you have desire, there isn’t anything in this world you can’t do,” she told the Globe in 2001.

A charter member of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, featured in the 1992 film “A League of Their Own,” Ms. Pratt devoted her life to advocating for more sports opportunities for women.

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She was 101 when she died Wednesday in the John Scott skilled nursing facility in Braintree, her family said in a death notice.

Ms. Pratt had lived most of her years in Quincy, where she coached and taught public school physical education for more than four decades, spending each summer in the mid-1940s in the Midwest, pitching for the Rockford Peaches and the Kenosha Comets.

“Mary was the last known original Peaches player that played on the 1943 team,” the league tweeted Friday. “Her stories, her energy will be missed for a long time.”

A left-hander renowned for her finesse with the controlled slingshot, or windmill windup, she won 21 games in 1944, including pitching a no-hitter.

“I still have to emphasize that you don’t do it by yourself — your team played behind you. I’ve always felt that way,” she said in a 2009 oral history posted online by Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Ms. Pratt's baseball card.
Ms. Pratt's baseball card.

Ms. Pratt, whose nickname was Prattie with the league, “was a walking, talking example of how Title IX came about,” said Richard Johnson, curator of The Sports Museum in Boston, referring to the federal law prohibiting gender-based discrimination in education programs, which expanded women’s sports opportunities.

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“It wasn’t just Billie Jean King out there pushing the envelope,” Johnson added. “It was Mary Pratt doing so years before.”

In an era when high schools and colleges rarely let girls and women play team sports, Ms. Pratt made the most of every opportunity.

She made her first appearance on the Globe’s sports pages in 1931 as a 12-year-old, winning the girls’ baseball throw contest at a summer youth competition in Quincy.

As an undergraduate at the Sargent College component of Boston University in the late 1930s, she participated in nine intramural sports.

Though she was inducted into multiple halls of fame and has her own webpage at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Ms. Pratt didn’t consider baseball her top sport.

“Basketball was my best,” she told the Globe in 1994. “I’d be a point guard today. I’m only 5-foot-1, but I could always do that two-handed set shot.”

Her most enduring legacy, however, lay in her decades of tireless advocacy on behalf of girls and women who wanted a fair chance on playing fields.

She had ably competed alongside boys in her youth and often was the only female on summer league teams as an adult. She even made headlines in 1975 as the sole woman among more than two dozen applicants for North Quincy High School’s head football coach job.

Shrugging off her repeated ground-breaking moments, Ms. Pratt would have preferred that sports make room for all women, not just those with her determination.

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“Men always accepted me and boys on the playground let me play,” she said in the 1994 interview, “but I know now if there had been an option to compete with girls, I would have done it.”

Born in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1918, Mary Pratt was the daughter of William Y. Pratt and Daisy Gore.

Her father was a draftsman for a company that built submarines, and during the Great Depression the family moved to Quincy, his hometown, where he worked at the Fore River Shipyard, she recounted in “Preserving Our Legacy: A Peach of a Game,” a 2004 self-published autobiography.

In Bridgeport, she shot hoops with neighborhood boys, but found her sports aspirations largely thwarted in Quincy, which offered no girls’ teams.

“It was against the social dictates for women to play sports when I was growing up,” she told the Globe in 1992. “If you did you were tomboyish or mannish. It wasn’t the proper thing to do.”

While in college, she played for the Boston Olympets, an indoor softball team created to draw spectators to Boston Garden during summer months, and her success led to her five-year run as a professional pitcher.

Chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley, worried that World War II might close down Major League Baseball if too many men were drafted, created the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Ralph Wheeler of the Boston Herald sports department put Ms. Pratt in contact with Wrigley.

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With her baseball prowess — “I had always played with the boys on the playgrounds and so I always threw overhand,” she said in the oral history — she made the first Peaches team.

By then, she was already a physical education teacher and coach, having graduated from Boston University in 1940. She taught at Thayer Academy in Braintree, and then worked for the Quincy Public Schools for more than 40 years, finishing her career teaching and coaching at Salem State College.

Among her Quincy students was Ted Spencer, who went on to become chief curator and vice president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where one day he received a pamphlet about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

“It seemed to me, when I was a kid, that Mary used to go away in the summer and play ball somewhere,” Spencer, who has since retired, said Sunday. “So I called my aunt, who knew Mary very, very well. She said, ‘Yeah, she used to go out to Illinois to play baseball.’ ”

That moment ultimately led him to help launch the Women in Baseball exhibit in 1988, which provided inspiration for Penny Marshall to direct “A League of Their Own,” which starred Geena Davis, as another player, and Tom Hanks.

While the Hall of Fame exhibit and movie mined her past, Ms. Pratt looked forward to future greater opportunities for generations of women who passed through doors she helped throw open.

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“She was a person who remained engaged in sports,” Johnson said. “She wasn’t so much a yesterday person as she was a today and tomorrow person.”

Ms. Pratt threw out the first pitch to start the Newton girls' softball summer league in 1998.
Ms. Pratt threw out the first pitch to start the Newton girls' softball summer league in 1998.Polo, Globe Photo by Bill

Ms. Pratt’s brother William died in 1977 and her brother Donald died in 2010. She leaves her nephew, Walter, and niece, Susan. The family’s death notice said a private service was held Friday at Mount Wollaston Cemetery in Quincy.

“A League of Their Own” was a hit, and with newfound fame Ms. Pratt made hundreds of appearances in numerous venues, from schools to awards ceremonies to throwing out the first pitch at a Red Sox game in Fenway Park, where decades earlier she had taken her mother when tickets were 10 cents.

The movie highlighted the glory years Ms. Pratt experienced as a professional pitcher — the fierce competitiveness, the bus rides, the bruises from sliding into base while wearing short skirts, and the etiquette lessons, when teams practiced good posture by walking with books atop their heads because Wrigley wanted the ballplayers to be regarded as “ladies.”

“They were the most wonderful years of my life,” she told the Globe in 1992. “They are a time I will always truly treasure.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.