It started with an AT&T U-verse ad. A woman involved with Baseball for All, which encourages girls who want to play baseball, saw our U-verse ad featuring TV Everywhere. It showed a possible moment in history when the first woman pitches in the majors. She wrote to thank us.
That led to a connection with the Florida chapter of the Women of AT&T and our advertising group which together developed a short video to help promote Baseball for All first national girls baseball tournament. Retiree Shirley Burkovich was briefly in the video, which led us to her and her story.
“We love how this has come full circle, with our support of the female players of tomorrow leading back to the female players of the past,” said Allie Pettigrew, who worked on the ad. “The ad is meant to be aspirational and encourage girls to reach for something greater than themselves. We love how Shirley encourages girls to follow their dreams.”
Read on to learn how Shirley’s passion for baseball became a passion for her work at Pacific Telephone 62 years ago.
Shirley Burkovich’s eyes were filled with wonder that spring day in 1949 when she sat in the stands watching women take the field in an open tryout for a women’s baseball league. Just 16, her brother had brought her to Pittsburgh to give her a chance. Shirley watched for a while before deciding she needed to join them.
“Of course I had my glove with me,” said Shirley. “I didn’t go anywhere without my glove.”
Two weeks later the telegram came inviting her to spring training. “My dad was ecstatic. He and my brother are the ones who taught me the game. They would take me to games in Pittsburgh and we would pick one player each inning to watch and analyze. My mother was thrilled, but a bit more cautious. She went with me to training camp to meet the coaches and chaperones. They convinced her I would be safe and she left two days later. And there I was. Sixteen and living my dream of playing baseball.
“I had always played with boys before so this was my first time playing with girls. Playing with boys you had to be as good as them or even better or they wouldn’t let you play. This was a new experience.”
Road trips, lipstick and a few tears
Shirley earned $55 a week, more than her dad made in the steel mills. There was a $2 daily meal allowance and Shirley even saved a bit since she could get a hamburger for 25-cents. There were long bus trip between towns. When the women took the field not only did they have their gloves, but they had lipstick.
“We didn’t wear make-up because with the dirt it wasn’t practical. But we were required to wear lipstick and dig into a bar of soap to keep the dirt from under our nails. And there wasn’t a lot of crying, but boy oh boy when you got a strawberry (road rash from sliding into base) it was hard not to cry.”
Shirley played every position except catcher, with a .229 batting average in 37 games.
By 1951 Shirley could see the league was not going to survive so she headed to California to visit a cousin in Pasadena. She needed a job, and with her high school diploma she got hired at the phone company.
“I tell students to get an education. I didn’t have a good back-up plan besides baseball. I thought I would play baseball forever. It is my passion. I tell students have a Plan B because chances are you will need it.”
She got hired as an operator for $42.50 a week, a job she is still passionate about. “I loved setting goals for myself to see how many calls I could take in an hour. I would set a goal, and then beat it. I didn’t want to be just good. I wanted to be the best.”
Shirley said the teamwork skills she learned on the field carried over to other jobs in the company. “I got my job done, then helped my co-workers. I didn’t work as an individual at Pacific Telephone. It was team work. If I didn’t give the right line assignment to the installer then he couldn’t get his job done. We worked together to get it done.”
Shirley retired in 1983 from Pacific Telephone but she hasn’t retired from baseball. She is active in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She takes part in RBI clinics to help young players from the inner city improve their skills. She takes the field with them. “I don’t bat or field any more, but I do work with them on catching. I tell them just throw high so I don’t have to go after grounders.”
She was instrumental in getting a permanent display of Women in Baseball into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and after a stop at Fan Fest at the All-Star game, she will be back in Cooperstown to drum up support for a traveling exhibit of women in baseball. She wants it to stop at each major league park so girls can see women do play baseball.
She is active in the International Women’s Baseball Center which is bringing together women who play baseball from the past, the present, and the future. “I want to last long enough to see women play professional baseball again.”