In 1992 a movie directed by Penny Marshall, starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis and Lori Petty hit the big screen. Since, “A League of Their Own,” debuted I have always watched it with the memory of a family doctor we had while growing up.
“What would Dr. Wagner think about this movie?” I nearly always manage to ask myself when it’s on the television and I imagine her saying, “Hogwash.”
However Teresa Goodlin, who worked for Audrey, but now lives in Arcata, believes differently, “I think would have enjoyed the movie.”
Audrey Wagner is one of the sixty original founding members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. A two-time member of the All-Star Team, she ranks eighth in the all-time list with 29 career home runs while her 55 triples rank second all-time to Eleanor Callow and an outfielder who played from 1943 through 1949 in the League.
She earned Player of the Year honors in 1948, and also led several offensive categories over her seven-year career in the league. Audrey later became an All Star outfielder in each of her four seasons in the competing National Girls Baseball League of Chicago.
Born Genevieve Audrey Wagner, December 27, 1927, she grew up in Bensenville, Illinois and began to play sandlot ball with the boys of her neighborhood when she was a little girl. At age 15, she attended Bensenville Community High School where she heard about Philip Wrigley and his plans to create a women professional baseball league during World War II.
“Her brother, George, whose my father, was the one who told her about the tryouts at Wrigley,” Forest adds. “He was the one who drove her to the tryouts.”
Wrigley, who was in charge both of the Wrigley Company and the Chicago Cubs, decided to found the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League as a promotional sideline to maintain interest in baseball. The league started its first season in 1943 with the teams Kenosha Comets, Racine Belles , Rockford Peaches and South Bend Blue Sox, and each team was made up of fifteen women.
Audrey was assigned to the Kenosha Comets, where she played her entire career in the circuit. But due to her studies, she saw limited action until graduating in 1946.
She entered the AAGPBL as a pitcher, but Comets manager Josh Billings promptly moved her to the outfield because of her hitting abilities. Audrey moved around center and right field.
In 1943, Audrey hit .230 in 73 games, scoring 30 runs while driving in 27 more and tied for second in triples and tied for third in home runs. She also appeared in the league’s first All-Star Game during the midseason, which was played under temporary lights at Wrigley Field , between two teams composed of Blue Sox and Peaches players versus Comets and Belles players.
It was also the first night game ever played in the ballpark.
The Comets had the third-best record at 56-52, but had won the second-half title, earning them a berth in the playoffs, only to be swept in three games by Racine. Helen Nicol, who led league pitchers in wins, strikeouts, ERA and shutouts, inexplicably failed in the playoffs after going 0-2 with a 4.50 ERA.
Audrey dropped to .189 with 26 RBI in 1944, but still managing to score 30 runs in 90 games. It was the only time in her AAGPBL career in which she failed to hit a home run.
The Comets again placed third and made the playoffs after win the first half. They took a 3-2 lead over the expansion Milwaukee Chicks in the Championship Series, but Nicol lost an 11-inning pitching duel with Connie Wisniewski in Game 7.
Audrey rebounded slightly in 1945, batting .198 with 26 runs and 26 RBI, but she led the league with nine triples and tied for second in home runs in a dominant pitching league. After becoming a full-time player in 1946, Audrey improved her offensive statistics by hitting a .281 average and leading the league with nine home runs and a .413 slugging average .
She also led in total bases and tied for the doubles lead, ending fourth in hits and eighth in RBI, while her average ranked fifth. However the Comets were out of contention in both years.
By 1947 the AAGPBL moved its spring training camp to Havana, Cuba. Audrey did not go to Cuba for Spring Training. School was still in session during that years’ spring training.
“Audrey would have never missed school for any reason,” writes Forest Wagner, her nephew and God-son.
That season she batted .305 of average and again led the circuit in home runs , doubles, total bases and slugging. She also topped all hitters in RBI and hits and ended second in triples.
Audrey lost the batting crown by a single point to Dorothy Kamenshek. She was however named to the All-Star Team, while Kenosha did not classified for the playoffs this time.
Her hitting stayed about the same in 1948, which was good enough to win the batting title win a .312 average and by leading all-hitters with 130 hits, all career-highs. Besides this, she led all outfielders with a perfect 1.000 fielding average and posted career-numbers in games played, runs, RBI, on-base percentage, walks and triples.
In addition, Audrey tied for fourth in homers and tied for eight in RBI, while hitting a hefty .446 of slugging. She was named Player of the Year and again made the All-Star Team.
The other two All-Star outfielders were Racine’s Edythe Perlick, who averaged .243 with two home runs and 51 RBI, and Grand Rapids’ Wisniewski, who hit .289 with seven homers and 66 RBI. Meanwhile, the Comets advanced to the playoffs but were beaten by Rockford in the first round.
In 1949, Audrey slipped to .233 with 28 runs and 40 RBI in 97 games, but she hit three homers to tie Thelma Eisen and Inez Voyce for the league lead, giving her three home run titles. For the second consecutive year the Comets gained a playoff berth and were defeated in the start, this time by the expansion Muskegon Lassies .
Audrey moved to the Parichy Bloomer Girls of the National Girls Baseball League in 1950, because she was offered the same salary and no extensive travelling. The games were played in the Chicago area, so she could be home every night closer to school and her studies.
She helped her team to clinch the Championship Title in 1950 and made the All-Star Team in each of her four seasons in the NGBL. Her most productive season came in 1952, when she led the circuit in doubles, triples, home runs and total bases, ending second in the batting crown race with a .364 average.
“I think I have her old baseball card somewhere — she autographed it for me,” Crescent City resident Kay Vail says.
While playing baseball, Audrey attended Elmhurst College where she received her bachelor’s degree in pre-medicine. She then went on to the University of Illinois where she earned her Doctor of Medicine degree and did a major portion of her residency at Cook County Hospital.
Later Audrey would work as a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist in Crescent City, California . There she earned her private pilot license and served on the Crescent City Council.
“Lois and Audrey lived across the street from me for years when I was young,” writes Jennifer Bechtold Merrill, formerly of Crescent City, now living in Arcata, ” They were amazing women and I have lots of fond memories of spending time with them.”
Of course, jus’ living next door isn’t the only way Audrey effected the lives of her neighbors.
Tami Klein Lallo adds, “Dr. Wagner delivered my daughter.”
This is seconded by, Michele Bigler who writes, “Dr. Wagner delivered my daughter in 1983.” She continues, “I had to have a C-section and the last thing I remember before going under was Doc conducting classical music with her scalpel.”
It wasn’t jus’ Audrey who was effecting the community, so was her life partner, Lois Halls, a register nurse and community college instructor who initiated the nursing program for the College of the Redwoods, Del Norte Campus.
“Lois was my nursing instructor in the early 80’s,” says Donna Van Matre Parker, who continues to live in Crescent City, “Ours was her last class, we graduated just before her accident.
Donna concludes, “She was such a wonderful person and great instructor and is greatly missed.”
Audrey and Lois died in a small plane accident near Rock Springs, Wyoming, August 31, 1984. Prior to the fatal crash, the couple suffered the tragic loss of Halls’ teenaged daughter, Tina in a traffic collision just north of the town of Crescent City, August 5, 1983.
“Lois Halls was my mother-in-law,” Kay writes, “I remember and loved them both.”
She adds, “Lois had 4 children — Albert, Peter, Matthew, and Christina. Tina was killed in the accident, Peter, whose my ex-husband, still lives here, Matt is in Seattle, and Albert is in Iowa.”
As for Audrey, she didn’t have children. She did however have a brother, by the name of George living in the Chicago area.
Audrey is part of the AAGPBL permanent display at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum at Cooperstown, New York which opened in 1988. She was inducted posthumously in the Elmhurst’s Bluejay Backer Hall of Fame in 2003 and in the Fenton High School Alumni Wall of Fame in 2005.