When Viola Thompson was 9 years old she was watching a girls’ softball game. A ball came rolling over to her. She picked it up and threw it back. Barney Smith, manager of the girls’ textile team, saw it. He said he thought she could pitch, and asked her to try out for the team. That was the beginning of an amazing trip. Her father, Henry J. Thompson, came from the Cherokee Indian Tribe in western NC.
Her mother was Mae Abercrombie. They moved from Oconee County to Anderson a few years after Viola Thompson was born (January 2, 1922) and her father went to work at Anderson Mill. There were 6 boys and 5 girls in the family.
“Our recreation had to be basic”, she recalled in a recorded interview in September of 2004 for a segment in Anderson County Twentieth Century Memories and Reflections, Book 11. Not being able to afford toys,“we tended to go toward the sporting world. As we got older the girls started playing softball. The boys got into boxing.”
She was a left-hander with a strong fast pitch and played softball with textile mill teams in spite of criticism from some church ladies because girls were wearing shorts. After graduating from High School she went to Greenville to Mills Mill where she was athletic director and played ball with the boys teams during the morning and the girls at night. It was there in 1943 when one day a baseball scout came on to the field and asked if she would be interested in going to Chicago to try out for a girls’ professional baseball team.
The All-American Girls Professional League had been formed by Phillip Wrigley (of chewing gum fame) to fill in for all the men entering military service during World War II. It was a thrilling opportunity and she was off to Chicago in 1944. “There were hundreds of girls from all over. Just to walk out on Wrigley Field was such a thrill. I looked at all those girls and, boy, they looked so confident and they could throw that ball and they knew all about baseball.”
“We were learning from the best former major league baseball players. There were Jimmy Foxx and Max Carey, both subsequently in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.” She wound up on Max Carey’s team with the Milwaukee Chicks. All the girls were traded around to keep the teams evenly matched and she also played for the South Bend Blue Sox
“At night we went to charm school. They taught us how to look like girls, how to comb our hair, how to wear makeup. We had to have lipstick on and we had to have long hair. They didn’t want mannish looking girls. They taught us how to sit and how to walk. They taught us how to dress and how to eat properly because we were going to be invited out to civic meetings in our teams’ hometowns. They wanted us to make a good showing.”
Each team had a chaperone. They looked after the players like a den mother. They were just a few years older than the players.
“The skirts we were wearing were kind of full and they would get in the way, especially with an underhand pitch. Our chaperone had big old safety pins and she would pull my skirt over real tight and pin it on my left side since I was pitching left-handed. Then the skirt wouldn’t hit and flap while I was pitching.”
“The first year in Milwaukee in 1944 we won the championship which was a really exciting experience –to win the world championship. While we were in Milwaukee, they had a men Triple A team, the Milwaukee Brewers. Their manager was Casey Stengel.” He did not like that a bunch of girls were playing on their field. Max Carey challenged Stengel’s team to just a three or four inning game. “We beat them.”
They did spring training in Mississippi, Florida and Cuba. The entire league would go to those locations. They played exhibition games throughout the South and for service personnel.
After the war the league faded. Players got married or continued their education. The girls were getting older.
She played eight years in the All-American League and then four in the National League where she switched because the former league had changed to side-arm and then overhand pitching. Then she came home and got married to Claude Griffin. They had two daughters, Claudia and Carol.
Penny Marshall who had played in the TV show Lavern and Shirley acquired the rights to the league’s story. She made the movie A League of Their Own that debuted in the summer of 1991.“Allof those years came back almost like in Technicolor. Here we were again.” She went out with a group of the former players to help in the making of the movie and work with those playing their parts.
Lori Petty played Viola Thompson. They practiced together and she said some of the actresses were pretty good players. She was scheduled for a speaking part but it was eliminated because she did not belong to the actors’ union. However, she did appear briefly in a scene showing the original players at the end of the film entering the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Tom Hanks played Jimmy Foxx. “I thought he did a good job but they showed him right off the bat going in the girls’ clubhouse and using the bathroom. That appalled me so when I saw it.” That never would have happened. There were some “Hollywood” things in the movie that would not have occurred such as Madonna catching a ball in her cap. “We would have been fined, sent home, no telling what all, if we had tried some of those stunts.” But she felt the movie “pretty much told the story.”
Viola Thompson Griffin passed away December 31, 2017.