Sarah Jane “Salty” Ferguson’s love of sports took her from the small town of Orangeville to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, to meeting actress and filmmaker Penny Marshall.
Ferguson played in the league’s final two years, 1953 and ’54. In 1992, she was among 61 former players who were invited to Cooperstown, New York, for 10 days of filming of “A League of Their Own.” It was there Ferguson met director Penny Marshall, who died Monday night due to complications from diabetes. She was 75.
“I was so saddened when I saw about Penny Marshall,” Ferguson, 83, said. “Oh my, she was a great person. She really was.”
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League might have been completely forgotten without Marshall’s interest in it, leading to the hit movie that starred Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna, Lori Petty and Rosie O'Donnell.
“Without her, we’d probably still be the best-kept secret in the world,” Ferguson said.
In the final scene of the movie, the former players, Ferguson among them, played on Doubleday Field to the sounds of Madonna’s song “This Used to be My Playground.”
“We had to laugh at her,” Ferguson said of Marshall, who arrived at Cooperstown in a helicopter. The group of former baseball players stood waiting to greet her, and one of them asked when Marshall was going to act in movies rather than direct them. “She said, ‘I’m never going to be in one because then I’d have to brush my hair.’”
Marshall first became famous playing Laverne on the sitcom “Laverne & Shirley,” a show Ferguson didn’t get to view very often.
“I don’t remember ‘Laverne & Shirley’ very much,” she said. “I was always out playing ball.”
Marshall's early success in a field where few women rose so high made her an inspiration to other aspiring female filmmakers. Ava DuVernay, whose "A Wrinkle in Time" was the first $100 million-budgeted film directed by a woman of color, said Tuesday: "Thank you, Penny Marshall. For the trails you blazed. The laughs you gave. The hearts you warmed."
A few years ago, a friend sent Ferguson an article in which Marshall was interviewed.
“Someone asked her, ‘Penny, what do you feel is your greatest accomplishment to date,’” Ferguson recalled. “And Penny said, ‘Making the movie about the girls who played professional baseball during the War.’”
Ferguson paused. “I thought that was pretty nice of her to say that.”
A different era
Ferguson grew up playing every sport she could, including football, basketball, soccer and ice hockey, in Orangeville in the 1930s and 40s.
“Some of the ladies in Orangeville were probably upset that my folks allowed me to play with the boys,” she said.
At Bloomsburg High School, the only team she was allowed to join was varsity basketball her freshman year. When that fell through, possibly from a lack of other teams to play, Bloomsburg High girls had no organized sports teams. “I’d have loved to play field hockey and the games they play today,” she said.
By the time she graduated from high school in 1953, she had earned a spot on one of the AAGPBL teams managed by Philip K. Wrigley, who was in charge both of the Wrigley Company and the Chicago Cubs Major League Baseball club. The all-girls’ league was started as a result of the scarcity of male players during World War II. In fact, Ferguson’s father accepted her high school diploma on her behalf because she had left a few weeks beforehand to train with the Rockford Peaches, in Rockford, Illinois.
“Wrigley said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with girls playing sports as long as they look good doing it,’” said Ferguson, explaining the reason for the AAGPBL team uniforms’ skirts. “It didn’t bother me. I wanted to play ball. I didn’t care what I had to wear.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.