A League of Her Own

Helen Nicol was an Albertan star of American baseball.

Helen Nicol. Photos via East Valley Tribune.

Most people are familiar with the 1992 baseball film A League of Their Own, about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). Directed by Penny Marshall, the movie stars Geena Davis, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Lori Petty, and Tom Hanks.

Even avid baseball fans from around these parts might not know, however, that one of the AAGPBL’s greatest stars, Helen Nicol (married name Helen Fox, and nicknamed Nickie Fox) was from Alberta. I didn’t, either, until reading this excerpt in Brant E. Ducey’s The Rajah of Renfrew: The Life and Times of John Ducey:

“Travelling with her at the time was Helen Nicol, who had been an all-star pitcher for Harry Cohen’s Army & Navy Pats. Nicol won a place on the South Bend Blue Sox in 1943 and went on to AGL stardom, pitching until 1952.”

In fact, Nicol never played for the Blue Sox. But she was a star.

The right-handed pitcher was born Helen Nicol in Ardley, Alberta, in 1920. Nicol was a talented athlete, playing softball as well as hockey. (She was also a speed skater, and later in life became an excellent golfer.) In 1943, Nicol was making $12.50 a week working at the Army & Navy in Edmonton when she was offered $85 a week to play in the U.S. She had been noticed by scout and former Chicago Blackhawks player Johnny Gottselig at the Western Canada Playoffs in Regina playing for the Army & Navy Pats. She left for the States, and was an original member of AAGPBL, playing in the league from 1943–1952.

The AAGPBL was founded in 1943 as the All-American Girls Softball League by Philip K. Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs. The league was created to offset a possible decline in Major League Baseball attendance during World War II. The game was a hybrid between softball and baseball, and the women were required to play in short-skirted tunics. They were also required to attend charm school, carry beauty kits, and adhere to very precise rules of conduct.

Originally, there were four teams: the Kenosha Comets, the Racine Belles, the Rockford Peaches, and the South Bend Blue Sox. Nicol played with the Comets from 1943–1947, and then with the Peaches from 1947–1952.

There were 21 Canadians in the AAGPBL in 1943, and Nicol quickly established herself as a dominant force in the fledgling league. In 1943, she won the Pitcher of the Year Award after winning the pitching Triple Crown. She led the league in wins (her record was 31–8), strikeouts (220), and ERA (1.81). She also led the league in winning percentage (.795), consecutive wins (13), shutouts (8), and innings pitched (348).

On July 1, 1943 — Dominion Day in Canada — Nicol took part in an historic baseball moment. She was a member of a Wisconsin all-star team that played an All-American Girls Softball League exhibition game at Wrigley Field. The team was made up of players from Kenosha and Racine, and it was the first night game ever played under the lights at the hallowed field. Nicol pitched three innings of no-hit ball, and her Wisconsin team beat the Illinois-Indiana team (made up of all-stars from Rockford and South Bend) 16–0. Another night game was not played at Wrigley Field until 1988, 45 years after Nicol and her female counterparts walked off the diamond.

In 1944, Nicol won her second Pitcher of the Year Award, going 17–11 with 136 strikeouts and a 0.93 ERA in 243 innings. She also hurled a no-hitter and threw four one-hit games. In 1945, Nicol was married, and became Helen Fox.

1946 and 1947 were the only two years in Nicol’s career in which she did not have a winning record. She pitched underhand, using a figure-eight delivery commonly used by many of the Canadian pitchers throughout the league. In 1947, however, the league changed the rules so that pitchers were forced to pitch sidearm. (The bases and mound were also pushed back.) Fox struggled, and it wasn’t until 1948 that she became comfortable pitching sidearm and overhand, and her winning ways returned.

Nicol had joined the Rockford Peaches during the 1947 season, and won three AAGPBL championships with the team (1948–1950). She had a career record of 13–7 with a 1.83 ERA in the postseason. She left the AAGPBL after the 1952 season, and is the AAGPBL all-time record holder for appearances (313), wins (163), consecutive wins (13), strikeouts (1,076), batters faced (7,537), and innings pitched (2,382).

Nicol’s outstanding career in softball and baseball has been recognized both locally and in the U.S. In 1987, the Army & Navy Pats were inducted into the Softball Alberta Hall of Fame. In 1988, the Baseball Hall of Fame launched its Women in Baseball Exhibit, which would lead to renewed interest in the AAGPBL, and the filming of A League of Their Own. In 1996, Nicol was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame. In 1998 she and the 63 other Canadians who played in the AAGPBL, were inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.

Helen Nicol Fox passed away on July 25, 2021, at the age of 101.

Batter up! Hear that call!
The time has come for one and all
To play ball.
We are the members of the All-American League.
We come from cities near and far.
We’ve got Canadians, Irishmen and Swedes,
We’re all for one, we’re one for all
We’re All-Americans!

Other Alberta Connections in the AAGBPL

Penny Cooke (O’Brian) (Marteniuk)
Born in Smoky Lake, Alberta; played baseball in Edmonton, Alberta; stole 43 bases for the Fort Wayne Daisies in 1945; passed away at age 90 in 2010.

Betty Dunn (Carveth)
Grew up in Grande Prairie; played with Edmonton Walk-Rites softball team; pitched 21 games for the Fort Wayne Daisies and Rockford Peaches in 1945; first woman in Edmonton to coach little league baseball; threw out first pitch at Edmonton Prospects game in 2014; passed away at age 93 in 2019.

Olga Grant
From Calgary; played 21 games for the Milwaukee Chicks in 1944; current status unknown.

Marjorie Hanna
From Calgary; pitched for the Kenosha Comets in 1944; current status unknown.

Martha Manning (Rommelaere)
Grew up in LaFleche, Saskatchewan; moved to Edmonton, Alberta; played 68 games for the Chicago Colleens, Kenosha Comets, and Springfield Sallies in 1950; passed away at age 88 in 2011.

Anne Jane McFarlane (Thompson)
From Edmonton; pitched 32 games for the Racine Belles in 1943; played with Edmonton Walk-Rites softball team; deceased, date unknown.

Vickie Panos
Born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan; played baseball in Edmonton; stole 141 bases in 114 games for the Milwaukee Chicks and South Bend Blue Sox in 1944; deceased, date unknown.

Lucella Ross (Maclean)
Born in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan; stole 65 bases in 101 games in 1943 and 1944 for the South Bend Blue Sox; started the first triple play in league history; played with the Edmonton Army & Navy Pats in 1945; member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame; member of the Softball Alberta Hall of Fame; member of the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame; passed away at age 91 in 2012.

Mildred McCauley (Warwick)
Born in Regina, Saskatchewan; played third base for the Rockford Peaches in 1943 and 1944; played with Edmonton Mortons softball team; member of Warwick family (Billy, Grant and Dick); married New York Rangers goalie Ken McAuley; member of the Alberta Baseball Hall of Fame; member of the Softball Alberta Hall of Fame; member of Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame; passed away at age 84 in 2006.

Kay McDaniel (Heim)-Athabasca
Helen Nicol’s battery mate for two years in Kenosha; played with the Edmonton Army & Navy Pats softball team; member of the Softball Alberta Hall of Fame; passed away at age 97 on May 11, 2015.

Muriel Coben
Born in Gelert, Ontario; pitched 37 games for the Rockford Peaches and South Bend Blue Sox in 1943; played for the Edmonton Mortons softball team from 1950–1952; member of the Softball Alberta Hall of Fame; member of the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame; member of the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame; passed away at age 58 in 1979.

Agnes Holmes (Zurowski)
Born in Edenwold, Saskatchewan; pitched four games for the Fort Wayne Daisies and Racine Belles in 1945; played for the Edmonton Mortons softball team; member of the Softball Alberta Hall of Fame; passed away at the age of 93 in 2013.

King of Nightlandia