Entering The World Of The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League

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An image from Anika Orrock's "The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League," which came out on Tuesday. (Courtesy of Chronicle Books)
An image from Anika Orrock's "The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League," which came out on Tuesday. (Courtesy of Chronicle Books)

Artist Anika Orrock’s new book begins like this:

"This book is dedicated to the women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and to all women and girls everywhere throughout time who perpetuate the gift of possibility by having the grit and tenacity to stay true to themselves."

This the story of that book and how it came to be.

'I Couldn't Ever Write Fast Enough'

Anika Orrock can’t remember a time when she didn’t draw.

"I always had these stories in my head," she says. "It was like I couldn't ever write fast enough to get down what I saw in my head — everything was always visual — so I would always draw out the story before I would write it."

Anika’s very first drawing was of her grandfather.

Anika Orrock. (Raynier J. Jacildo)
Anika Orrock. (Raynier J. Jacildo)

"He was sort of self-described as 'an egg on two toothpicks,' " she says with a laugh. "Easy for a kid to draw, I guess."

"So, tell me: who was your grandfather?" I ask.

"Who was Ray Orrock? You know, I don't even know if you could ever nail that down," Anika says. "But he started out as a cartoonist."

Ray Orrock earned money in high school and college selling his cartoons to publications like the Napa Sunday Journal and The Catholic Voice.

He kept drawing — hand-illustrating birthday cards for the family — even after becoming a full-time writer. For 35 years he wrote a daily column that appeared in East Bay syndicated newspapers.

Anika was an only child, and she always had a special connection with her grandfather. He and the rest of the family called her "Nik."

"You know, my aunt was just talking to me the other day about this, where she said from the get-go, there was such a different bond between my grandfather and I that she said, 'Honest to God, if you weren't born at different times, I would think you were the same person,' " Anika says.

They loved “Cheers” and the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” but, most importantly for this story, they loved baseball.

"As far as baseball goes, I think I loved it before I even understood it," Anika says.

"As far as baseball goes, I think I loved it before I even understood it."

Anika Orrock

Growing up, Anika spent weekends — or sometimes whole summers — with her grandparents. They’d watch the San Francisco Giants on TV or listen on the radio.

"It was just always on. And I just loved the sound of it," she says.

Signing Up For Class

During her first semester at San Jose State University, Anika learned her grandfather had cancer.

Less than a year later, in March 2008, Ray Orrock died.

Anika says, before that, she hadn’t had the guts to sign up for an illustration class at San Jose State. But, after her grandfather’s death, she felt a new sense of clarity — about what mattered and what didn’t. She knew drawing brought her joy, so she signed up for a class.

Anika went on to work in the animation industry. And she started a side project drawing scenes from MLB games.

In her third season, Anika wanted to put together a collection of her baseball art for a convention.

"So I had, I don't even know how many, a few hundred at least, of these drawings," she says. "And I was going through ‘em, and I think it was, like, about two-thirds of the way through the pile before this weird thing dawned on me, where I just thought, there were so many different things going on at these games — every game was different, every game ended up different, there were different plays — but, oddly, a lot of these look the same, and why do they look the same?"

Anika realized that was because the majority of her illustrations were of men.

"And then it kind of dawned on me how odd that was as a woman," she says, "and that opened up a whole different awareness of like, 'Gosh, all of my mentors, my idols, my favorite cartoonists, you know — not all, but most have been men."

"So what did you start to do next?" I ask.

"Well, I just got kinda like 'screw this' — just a little bit defiant, like, 'OK, I'm a woman. I love baseball this much. There has to be great stories of women in baseball,' " she says. "The first thing that came to mind was the movie 'A League of Their Own.' "

'So Who's Going To Write It?'

Anika started doing more research on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and the women who played from Racine to Rockford to South Bend to Fort Wayne from 1943 to 1954.

"It was exhilarating," Anika says. "It was like, 'Oh, wow. New things to draw, new things to explore, new stories.' And the more I read and the more fascinating they were, the more I found myself starting to identify with them. Not necessarily because they were anything I had experienced firsthand, but just the sheer fact that these stories are coming from women. And I'm a woman, and they were doing things with the men and the boys in arenas where mostly men were — from the time they were kids — kind of just like me."

Anika was hooked. She put together a proposal for a book that would feature stories and illustrations of former players, and she sent the proposal off to a publisher.

Soon Anika was having coffee with an editor.

"They wanted it to be more of a history, more comprehensive, more stories. And I thought, 'Great, this'll be awesome,' " Anika says. "And I even asked her, I said, 'Well, so, who's going to write it?' She said, 'Well, you are.' "

"And I even asked her, I said, 'Well, so, who's going to write it?' She said, 'Well, you are.' "

Anika Orrock

Anika hadn’t planned on that.

"And [I] almost fell into a panic attack," she says. "Like, how do you even know I can write a book? I mean ... I’ve never written a book."

Pulling this off was going to take a lot of research.

Anika learned there was an annual reunion for the league’s former players.

She used the money from her book advance to travel to Cincinnati.

"And I just thought, 'Someone's gonna bust me for this.' Someone's going to be like, 'Wait a minute. Did you just find us on the internet? How did you know?' I had no idea what I was doing. And, so, just to be safe, I printed a bunch of prints of the art that I had done, inspired by the league, and packaged them up nice — just kind of as like a peace offering, I guess. I've always been one of those people that brought banana bread to, like, an awkward social gathering just to sort of break the — I don't know. But that was what I did."

Anika didn’t know anybody when she showed up at the hotel in downtown Cincinnati.

"Nobody gave me a weird side-eye or anything, but it wasn't like showing up to a convention or anything. I was showing up to a very intimate, familiar gathering," she says.

"It was like just crashing someone's family reunion or something," I say.

"Totally. Exactly. I was definitely the fake cousin," she says with a laugh.

But, finally, one of the real family members started talking to Anika — and Anika says she was able to warm up. She started collecting interviews with former players.

The Rockford Peaches were featured in the 1992 movie, "A League of Their Own." (Courtesy Midway Village Museum, Rockford, IL)
The Rockford Peaches were featured in the 1992 movie "A League of Their Own." (Courtesy Midway Village Museum, Rockford, IL)

And, after the reunion, Anika continued reaching out by phone.

"A few of the women I called, and I would introduce myself, say what I was doing. And [they'd say,] 'Uh, all right. Yeah. I'll tell you about it. What do you wanna know?' You know, there were a few of them that just were like, 'Let's get this over with,' " Anika says. "It was so hard because I so badly just wanted to be like, 'You know what? If you don't feel like talking, it's OK. Don't worry about it.'

"But I really had to just do my best to get them to just talk a little bit. And there was this thing that would happen with all of them, every single one of them — almost, with the exception of one who hung up on me, but I think it's just because she couldn't hear me — but all of them would get to this point and they would start telling a story.

"And I could just almost feel everything start gaining momentum and the pistons going on the other end of the phone. And, inevitably, they would get going to the point where they would just go forever."

An Assist From ... Debby Boone?

When Anika went back for the reunion the next year, she says she knew she was still "the new guy" — she tried to stay on the periphery.

"But they have this thing every year — I just think it’s so great that they have this reunion every year of these trailblazers, and they get together, and in the middle of it all is a lip sync contest," Anika says. "I won't go into the story of how it happened, but I kind of got roped into doing it sort of —well, not even 'sort of' — very reluctantly."

Anika didn’t have much time to prepare, but she had a vague memory of her aunt doing a pantomime performance at one of her grandfather’s birthday parties.

"And the only thing I could really remember was the song: Debby Boone's 'You Light Up My Life,' " Anika says. "I didn't even think of how appropriate it might be, like, as sort of a gratitude song. I really just went with it because I remembered it, and I didn't have time to do anything else."

Anika brought some props — including a flashlight and a box of Life cereal — for some cheesy, but intricate, choreography.

"And I had at the last minute grabbed, like, a battery operated pack of LED lights and wrapped them around an old life magazine cover that had a woman from the All American Girls Baseball League on the cover. And I held it up, and it lit up, and the room just exploded," Anika says. "And I looked down, and there's all these women standing up out of their seats. One woman's holding up her cane — she has a baseball bat cane. It’s amazing."

Anika Orrock won the contest.

"My first feeling was guilt, like, 'Oh, God. I shouldn’t be winning this,' " she says.

But soon she was ushered to the hotel bar.

"And I, honest to God, witnessed these 80-year-old women, some of them, taking shots of Crown Royal," she says. "It was a party 'til 2:30 in the morning.

"But what happened was, then, for the rest of the reunion, people were coming up to me — you know, these women are dragging their family like, 'This is the girl I was telling you about that did that lip sync.' 'Oh! Oh, my God. I heard all about that.'

"And, I don't know, people who were not quite warming up to me before that were coming up to me and talking to me about it. It was the weirdest thing. It had nothing to do with my art. It had nothing to do with baseball. Had nothing to do with the insane amounts of research I'd been doing on these women that made the inside of my art studio look like the set of 'Homeland' with, like, yarn, string — I mean, it was absurd. Had nothing to do with any of that. It was just this performance of 'You Light Up My Life' that just, like, I don't know — it just made me feel like, 'OK, you can, you can hang around.' "

Anika was able to finish all the research she needed for her book.

An excerpt from "The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League" by Anika Orrock. (Courtesy of Chronicle Books)
An excerpt from "The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League" by Anika Orrock. (Courtesy of Chronicle Books)

"What was it like when you finally got your hands on a copy of the book?" I ask.

"The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League" by Anika Orrock
"The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League" by Anika Orrock

"Oh, my God. Unreal," Anika says. "I didn't know that I could be a researcher or a historian or an archivist or I didn't know I could illustrate 160 pages. I didn't know I could write a book. These were not things that I envisioned myself being capable of. And I did it.""

"What do you think your grandfather's reaction would be to this book?" I ask.

Anika pauses.

"Sorry, I haven't really taken a second to even consider that," she says, choking up a bit. "Oh, I wish you could hear his voice, like I can hear it in my head, because he'd probably say something like, 'Ah, geez, Nik. This is just fantastic.' I can hear him saying that.

"But he said that about everything. I decorated their Christmas tree every year, and it was always the best tree ever. It was better than last year's. Every year was better than the last year — like, it's the same tree!

"But I would just hope that he would enjoy reading it, and I think he would."

Anika Orrock's book "The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League" went on sale on Tuesday.

This segment aired on March 14, 2020.


Martin Kessler Producer, Only A Game
Martin Kessler is a producer at Only A Game.



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