“Sis, you love baseball like a poet,” my late brother teased me one evening, “don’t even try to get what a foul ball is!”
He was spot on. I couldn’t tell you what a foul ball is if my life depended on it. Yet, baseball is one of the things I miss most during the pandemic. What is spring without opening day? Is anything more isolating than not being able to cheer on your home team (go Nats!)?
Our country had baseball even during World War II. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt believed baseball was essential for the nation’s morale during the war. “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” FDR said.
Thankfully, in our COVID-19 era, “A Secret Love,” a new documentary streaming on Netflix, provides hope for we who are baseball deprived. The touching doc is a fab love story involving queer history, aging and baseball. Watching it would make even Attila the Hun choke up.
“A Secret Love” is the tale of a lesbian couple who were together for 72 years — Terry Donahue, a player in the 1940s with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and Pat Henschel. Because of homophobia, they were in the closet for decades. They presented themselves as “good friends” or “cousins” to everyone (including their families) except a few queer friends. The couple, native Canadians who lived for many years in Chicago, didn’t come out until they were in their 80s.
The league was created so women could play baseball while many of the male baseball players were away during World War II. Donahue played catcher for the Peoria Redwings for four seasons. After she and Herschel met in Canada, they moved to Chicago. Donahue and other players in the league were the inspiration for the movie “A League of Their Own.”
“A Secret Love,” directed by Chris Bolan, Donahue’s great-nephew, isn’t about baseball statistics or record-setting home runs. But it makes you feel the grit of the game – of baseball and of keeping your sexuality hidden from the grip of homophobia. During one game, Donahue recalls, her eyebrow got cut. She refused to stop playing and have stitches put in it. Donahue put a Band-Aid on it and kept going.
The movie “A League of Their Own” presents as hetero. Yet, I couldn’t help wondering if some of the characters in the film were queer. Donahue and Herschel make it clear that there were lesbians in the league. The league officials, they say, wanted the players to be perceived as traditionally feminine and hetero. They had to wear skirts and go to charm school. “They wanted us to look like ladies and play ball like men,” Donahue says.
Even with marriage equality, it’s still not easy to be queer – especially, for people of color and folks who are trans. In more than half of the states in the United States according to the Human Rights Campaign, you can be fired from your job if you’re LGBTQ. The Trump administration is far from being an ally to the queer community.
Yet, it’s hard to imagine how much discrimination and prejudice LGBTQ people encountered until recently. In “A Secret Love,” Donahue and Herschel (and their queer friends who are interviewed) make the homophobia they experienced in the 1940s, 50s and 60s up close and personal. You could be arrested if you wore open-fly pants, Herschel says. If you were arrested during a gay bar raid, your name could be put in the newspaper and you’d lose your job.
Despite the homophobia and the struggles of getting older (Donahue had Parkinson’s disease), the couple endured. They ran a design firm, formed a chosen family with their queer friends and got married late in their lives. In sickness and in health, for better and for worse, they were a league of their own.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.