DONNA (STAGEMAN) ROBERTS: IN A LEAGUE OF HER OWN!
By Wade Johnston
Donna (Stageman) Roberts was born on New Year’s Day, 1926. Like most great Montana gals, she is a kind, adventurous, tough, stubborn, genuine, and thoroughly wonderful person! She recently dipped her toes and went skinny dipping with the polar bears in the Arctic Ocean, and every year comes back from the Montana Senior Olympics with gold medals in hand. She has never been one to let the grass grow under her feet nor miss out on the next adventure, whatever it may be. Her daughter, my wife Susie, is cut from the same cloth. Note: the skinny dipping with bears is made up…the rest is true… I’ll probably catch a tiny bit of hell for that part about the naked bears....
In 1946, as a 20-year old girl living in Billings, Donna read an article in Redbook Magazine about upcoming tryouts for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). Men’s Professional Baseball had been suspended because of WWII. The AAGPBL was a professional women's baseball league that was the brainchild of Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley and existed from 1943 to 1954. In total 553 women played in the league, which consisted of eventually 10 teams located in the American Midwest. After checking with her parents, she decided to apply and mailed in her application and baseball stats to the League. Donna was one of 500 women invited to spring try-outs. She was sent a rail ticket and was soon on her way to in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
Donna, like many of the women who played in the league, recalls a trying practice schedule that started early, and ended late, only to transition into an evening packed with league meetings. As she recalls: "The whole scene was strictly business," she said. "We were there to play." The workouts were grueling with the expected skinned knees and "raspberries" on their thighs — one of her fingers still doesn't straighten all the way after getting hit with a ball.
Donna earned herself a slot as a shortstop and in the outfield, and also coached first-base on the Peoria Redwings in their inaugural season, a much-coveted $80-a-week contract, and an exhibition tour that allowed Roberts to see the sights in Florida and Texas.
"Our manager was really set on winning," Donna recalls, explaining that when during their last exhibition game while coaching first base, she had confronted the Coach about an injured player needing to be taken out of the game. Donna knew the news wasn't going to be good when the coach called her into his office just prior to the beginning of the regular season — the Redwings were letting her go, and the rosters of all the other teams were full. "Then the tears flowed," she said, who then returned to Billings within the week and played softball in Billings for many years.
The coach’s nickname with the players was “Raw Meat Rogers.” He was fired from the team mid-season after this and other incidents. Thelma "Tiby" Eisen stepped in to coach the Redwings for the remainder of the season and became the first female manager in AAGPBL history. Thelma was among the top players in the early years of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She posted a career .295 on-base percentage and utilized her stunning speed to snatch 674 stolen bases in 966 career-games. WOW!
Many years later while at a reunion Tiby Eisen and Donna met up for the first time since 1946. “She told me that once she had become the Redwings coach that she had tried to track me down to rejoin the Redwings, but she was unable to track me down,” Donna explained. "I learned a lot," Donna said of her time touring with the team, adding that the experience was irreplaceable.
She only played for a short period with the team, but it was one of the most memorable times of her life. After she moved back to Montana, she finished a two-year teacher’s degree at Eastern Montana College, married Arthur Roberts, raised a family, taught grade school for 35 years, and has lived a life full of exploration and adventure with much more to come.
The release in the 1990s of the movie "A League of Their Own," acquainted a new generation with the influence the league had on the role of women in post-WWII American society.
The dwindling number of AAGPBL players, 43 to date, meet every couple of year’s and reminisce, sign baseball cards, and sometimes catch a ball game together. These events are widely attended with fans from all over the country lined up to meet the players. In 2019, reunion attendees visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Donna’s baseball glove and bat are currently on loan to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Donna was inducted into the Montana Softball Hall of Fame in a ceremony held in Lewistown, Montana in August, 1999
“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good too!” – Yogi Berra. We love you Donna!
Author: Wade Johnston
Contributed By: Wade Johnston
Copyright: Wade Johnston