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'A League of Their Own' inspired baseball pioneer Croteau

There were moments when Julie Croteau’s baseball path was a lonely one even as she turned in a career historic enough that Cooperstown wanted her glove. Little League with mostly boys. Suing her high school to take the field on the varsity team (she lost). Notoriety as one of the first female NCAA baseball players.

It wasn’t until the smooth-fielding infielder made the roster as an extra in the Penny Marshall-directed movie “ A League of Their Own ” that she realized she wasn’t so alone. There may be no crying in baseball, but there certainly are trailblazers.

Croteau was introduced to the world of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was featured in the 1992 film starring Geena Davis, Madonna and Tom Hanks. The film was voted No. 10 in The Associated Press Top 25 favorite sports movies poll.

“To see their part of history come alive in this movie, it truly was a gift,” said the 49-year-old Croteau, who’s now the director of communications for wellness programs at Stanford University. “To know that I wasn’t alone. Because I felt like I was alone.”

Croteau was 20 when she showed up on the movie set that Marshall made sure was full of actors and extras who actually resembled ball players. No worries with Croteau, who was already carving out her place in hardball history.

Growing up in rural Virginia, Croteau wanted more than anything to be a left-handed shortstop in the majors. Coaches pointed out that left-handers don’t play shortstop in the majors. So she moved to first base — and kept the same dream.

Croteau made national news in the late 1980s when she sued her high school in Manassas, Virginia, to allow her to play. The court ultimately ruled she had received a fair tryout. “I remember when we lost our lawsuit, I came out and they were celebrating like they’d won the World Series,” Croteau said. “That experience really will break a person.”

Or in this case, empower them. Croteau earned a spot on the baseball team at St. Mary’s College of Maryland as a walk-on. She made her debut for the Division III school on March 17, 1989, and drew plenty of headlines. Sports Illustrated wrote a blurb about her under the header, “ Diamond Pioneer."

“It was a great redemption story,” Croteau said. Next chapter: The movies. She was a member of the Rockford Peaches in a “A League of Their Own.” The Peaches were one of the teams in the AAGPBL, a league created by Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley that started play in 1943. It gave more than 500 women a chance at a baseball career over its 12-year run.

Croteau's main role in the film was to be a stand-in at first base for actor Anne Ramsay during fielding scenes. Both were left handed. The resemblance stopped there, with Croteau donning a black wig to match Ramsay's look.

Croteau did have one speaking part in the film. After the tryout scene inside Wrigley Field, the roster list was posted on a cork board. She ran over, saw her name and exclaimed, “Yeah!” before scampering away.

“I didn’t think they were going to keep that in,” she joked. Her Peaches teammates included Davis, Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell. Their manager was Hanks, who played Jimmy Dugan. In between scenes, Croteau played hacky sack with the other extras. But the real treat was listening to stories from some of the women who played in the AAGPBL and were brought in as advisers.

As for the movie's most famous line uttered by Hanks' character — “There’s no crying in baseball!” — Croteau had no idea it would become so legendary. In fact, she remembers thinking, ”but there’s tons of crying in baseball."

She's not surprised about the timelessness of a movie that's raked in a cumulative worldwide gross of more than $132 million, according to IMDb. “It's an underdog story, because it represents women in culture and also women in sports,” said Croteau, who years later worked with Davis before the actor threw the first pitch at a Baltimore Orioles game (a perfect strike). “It taps into our humanity.”

Croteau's career was just heating up after filming. She went on to play for the Colorado Silver Bullets in 1994, with the women’s professional baseball team facing men's amateur and semi-pro squads. Her manager was Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro.

More history: She and pitcher Lee Anne Ketcham are largely recognized as the first women to play with a winter league team sanctioned by Major League Baseball. They were teammates on the Maui Stingrays in the Hawaiian Winter League. Their roster also included current Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell.

Along the way, Croteau gave up her glove — to Cooperstown. Her first-base mitt, along with a photo, are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame to commemorate her accomplishments. She also served an assistant baseball coach at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

So many baseball memories. But this remains high on the list: An invitation to an AAGPBL reunion, where she met even more of the pioneering women who played in the league that inspired “A League of Their Own.”

“Being around them,” Croteau said, “just made me realize how lucky I am.”

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