Aunt Millie could really slug a ball. Once at the old Madison Square Garden in New York she hit a softball so far that even Babe Ruth was impressed. He posed with her and squeezed her biceps.
But like the rest of America, niece Joan Barker didn't know much about her Aunt Millie's playing days until the movie A League of Their Own.
"When the movie first came out, I never got off the phone . . ." Mildred "Millie" Deegan told the St. Petersburg Times in a 1992 interview. "To me it felt like being reincarnated. I felt like grabbing my duffel bag and going off to play."
Ms. Deegan, whose family said she was known as "the Babe Ruth of Woman's Softball," died Sunday (July 21, 2002). She was 82.
The softball player turned hardball player and joined the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League from its founding in 1943 until 1952. The league lasted just two years after she left. It was the brainchild of chewing gum mogul Philip Wrigley, who feared that major league ballparks would sit empty during World War II.
For six of her years in the league, Ms. Deegan pitched and played second base for the famed Rockford Peaches, the team that featured Madonna, Geena Davis and Tom Hanks in the 1992 hit movie.
The actors didn't represent specific players, Ms. Deegan's niece Joan Barker said Tuesday. Rosie O'Donnell played Rockford's second baseman.
"I don't think that that was supposed to be Aunt Millie," Barker said.
But the movie was largely true to life, Ms. Deegan told her family. The players really did have to go to charm school to become "all-American girls." (The charm school manual told them: "One of the most noticeable attributes of a girl is her hair, woman's crowning glory.") They really did wear dresses. And former big league sluggers really did coach their teams.
After the movie's release, Ms. Deegan, who once worked out with the Brooklyn Dodgers, recounted her stories for her relatives. She told them about the low points. During extra innings of the 1946 championship game, she gave up the winning run to the Racine Belles.
She told them the funny tales, too. The women on her team often traveled to a lake on their off days, she said. The coach warned them that anyone who got sunburned would be fined $25.
Sure enough, Ms. Deegan got burned. The next day she managed to hide her burns _ until she got a triple and had to stand on third base, directly in front of the dugout. Her manager walked out to her, slapped her on the back and watched her drop to the ground in pain.
But she got back up and avoided a fine, she told her family.
After retiring from baseball, Ms. Deegan joined a New Jersey softball team, which she remained with as a coach for about 20 years. She moved to Florida in 1976 and lived in Pinellas Park until moving to New Port Richey nine years ago.
Ms. Deegan was writing her life story when she was diagnosed with cancer two years ago.
Her niece said, "She didn't get to finish it."