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Risinger, Earlene "Beans"

By Joyce M. Smith

Helen Earlene RisingerHelen Earlene Risinger was born into the choking miasma of the Oklahoma dust bowl at Hess (population twenty-seven) Oklahoma, on March 20, 1927, to Lizzie and Homer "Soupy" Risinger, sharecroppers who were trying desperately to raise their family of four children off the meager land. The Risingers had much in common with other members of the Risinger family and neighbors in the area: they were all poor -- dirt poor, as the saying went in Oklahoma. Liz's garden, when it survived the relentless drought and wind, and Soupy's skill hunting jack rabbits put food on the family table. When Soupy's pay from the gas station didn't stretch far enough and the garden failed to prosper, or when game was scarce, there were pinto beans, always pinto beans, to fill empty stomachs.

Even the poor needed respite from their toil and worry, and for Soupy Risinger it took the form of a first baseman's mitt and the sandlot team he played for in Hess. Weekly games against the "boys" from Altus, a town just a little larger than Hess some sixteen miles away, and other nearby villages brought needed relaxation to the Risinger clan. Soupy soon taught his baby daughter to play catch, and by the time she was six, Earlene was a regular on Sunday afternoons down at the cow pasture playing ball with her dad, her uncles, and her cousins. As the years went by, Earlene grew and strengthened in the Oklahoma sun; she also became an integral part of those weekly games. When the lots were cast and positions chosen, Earlene found herself on the mound. She planned to be a pitcher just like her hero, Allie Reynolds.

Prospects were limited for young people in Hess, but family was important, and a girl could always get work in the cotton fields. After her graduation from high school and with no money in sight to finance a college education, "Beans" -- a nickname she earned because of her love for the food staple in her life -- opted for family and took the only job open to her locally. Always a reader, she stopped daily at the local grocery store, after her day's work in the fields, where the sympathetic grocer let her read the Oklahoma City newspaper without charge. In the spring of 1947 she read an article in the sports section about two women's professional baseball teams that were playing a spring exhibition series in Oklahoma City. "Tryouts" the paper said. Young women interested in playing professional baseball would be given tryouts. She sent a postcard to the sportswriter whose by-line appeared in the article. He forwarded her card to Chicago, and she was invited by the All-American Girls Baseball League Management Corporation to go to Oklahoma City. Encouraged by the men -- her father, uncles, and brothers -- with whom she had been playing baseball and perfecting her pitches for years, the reluctant Beans went to Oklahoma City to show her stuff.

At 6 foot 1 inch, armed with a wicked, lively fastball, a "nickel" curve, and an overhand motion that completely fooled the opposition, she was a manager's dream for the future. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League offered her a contract for the summer of 1947, and assigned her to the Rockford Peaches. She went to the bank in Altus where she applied for and was granted a loan for the train fare east, but it was a long ride from Hess, Oklahoma, to Rockford, Illinois. As the miles raced by, the country girl, who had spent a lifetime picking cotton side-by-side with her family and playing baseball in a pasture with people who loved her, panicked. When she debarked at Chicago's Union Station to change trains for Rockford, she traded her ticket for Rockford for the next train west. She "hightailed" it back to Oklahoma and the people who had been her sustenance. For Beans, it was back to the cotton fields to pay off the loan.

Fortunately, the AAGPBL did not give up on Risinger. She was scouted again in 1948, this time by Shirley Jameson, one of the first four players to be signed in 1942 by Phil Wrigley. The pitching style had changed for the new season and was now completely overhand. Pitchers of Beans' caliber were sorely needed. Bolstered by the backing, once more, of the Risinger clan and encouraged by the experienced Jameson who realized the lanky Oklahoman's potential as a pitcher, Beans decided to try again. This time she boarded the train for Springfield, Illinois, where she reported to the ill-fated Springfield Sallies, a team that folded at the end of the season because of poor fan attendance and a lack of local support. Some players remained in Sallies uniforms in 1949 to form a touring team -- a team that later in the year would become a vehicle for player development. Others were sent to teams across the league. Beans went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, home of the Grand Rapids Chicks. From 1949 through 1954 she played in a Grand Rapids uniform on a team that became her surrogate family and a town that she came to call home.

During her career with Grand Rapids, Beans compiled a respectable 2.51 ERA. A lanky right-hander's fastball, propelled by a high kick and lots of arm kept the opposition's batters "loose" at the plate. Her opponents and her teammates knew that while she could be extremely effective, Beans could also be more than just a little wild. Manager John Rawlings, unnerved by the high hard ones that Beans was delivering in one game, stalked to the mound and twisted the bill of his cap to the side in a demonstration of frustration, growled, "If you can't get the (...expletive...) ball over the plate, bounce the (...expletive, expletive...) thing in!"

Beans' most exciting experience came in the final game of the 1953 championship series against the Kalamazoo Lassies. In the ninth inning with the Chicks up by a run, Beans managed to get two outs, but also loaded the bases. The next batter to face Risinger was Doris "Sammye" Sams, six-time all star, player of the year in 1947 and 1949, and the 1952 home run champion. In her previous at bat, Sams had hit a home run. Woody English was on the verge of yanking Beans, but believing that "you have to go with what you know," he instead sent infielder Alma "Gabby" Ziegler to the mound. Pulling off her glove, the 5' 3" Ziegler looked up at the tall Okie. "Okay, Beansie, can you get her out?" she asked. Blowing on her hand to keep her fingers warm against the fast-chilling night, the pitcher replied, "I don't know." Snapping the brim of her cap in place, the diminutive Ziegler ordered, "Well do it!" With that the field captain put on her glove, pounded the pocket, and strode back to second base. Beans stuck Sams out on a high hard one, and the Grand Rapids Chicks reigned as the 1953 AAGPBL champions. The trophy is now at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

While she played in the AAGPBL Beans made many friends. Most of those have become enduring relationships that have lasted her lifetime. Those friends and her baseball experiences taught her that the circumstances of an individual's birth -- whether they involve dire poverty or wealth and privilege -- are of no matter. How a person reacts to those circumstances and what she chooses to do with her life are the defining factors in determining an individual's worth.

Beans chose not to return to Oklahoma after the league disbanded in 1954. She had used winter months to begin taking college classes that eventually led to her certification as an X-Ray technician. She took a position with the practice of two orthopedic surgeons: first, in an X-Ray capacity and later, as a special assistant to the doctors. Her laid back manner and the "Okie" drawl, which she never managed to lose, allowed patients to relax with her and give her information that they might have been reluctant or too nervous to give to the doctors. For almost forty years Beans worked professionally and on a volunteer basis with the Shriners to alleviate human suffering.

It has been much longer than forty years since she played her last game, but Beans has not lost the self-confidence she learned wearing the skirt of a Grand Rapids Chick, nor has she forgotten the message that it sent to her, one that she would share with other young people who are striving to become: "Shoot for the moon, and if you fail or fall, you will still be among the stars."

Earlene Risinger was inducted into the Johnson County, Oklahoma, Athletic Hall of Fame in 1973. She is retired and continues to live in Grand Rapids, where she keeps busy helping to prepare for estate sales.

Acknowledgment: Biographical data supplied by Earlene Risinger, 7/99; prepared by Joyce M. Smith and submitted to the AAGPBL web site 7/99.

Contributed by: Joyce M. Smith
Submitted on: 07/25/1999

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