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"CAE" 2007 Obituary


CAESAR 

CAESAR o@ca.on.york_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2007-07-23 published
She was a Toronto softball slugger who starred in a league of her own
Gifted infielder, endowed with glamour and a smattering of experience on stage, became a key player for the Chicago Chicks of the National Girls Baseball League
By Tom HAWTHORN, Special to The Globe and Mail, Page S9
Victoria -- Peggy WILSON's hitting prowess made her a terror on Toronto's softball sandlots. At age 16, the slugging infielder helped lead her team to the finals of the 1945 world softball championships and went on to play professionally in the United States.
At a time when women had few opportunities to earn pay for their athletic skills, she won a roster spot as two competing leagues battled for supremacy in the American Midwest. As it turned out, television killed attendance at minor-league sporting events and those few jobs for professional female athletes all but disappeared.
The infielder brought an athletic grace and a certain glamour to the diamond. Her flowing hair, full lips and deep-set eyes could just as easily have won her a spot on a Hollywood backlot as on a softball sandlot.
Though fortunate to be an athletic pioneer, she would suffer more than her share of heartbreak and tragedy.
Margaret Merla Eleanor WILSON was born in Toronto to a father who was an engineer and a sergeant in the Grenadier Guards. Francis Cyril (Frank) WILSON married Dorothy (Dolly) Catherine WATSON five days before Valentine's Day in 1928. Their daughter arrived 11 months later. Mr. WILSON led an apparent life of propriety for many years before suddenly abandoning the family. In seeking financial support, his wife took him to court, where, to her surprise, he was exposed as a bigamist. Their marriage licence was entered into proceedings under the tag "Exhibit A."
Dolly WILSON was the oldest of 10 children. The boys worked for the family business, Watson Movers, out of the family home at 281 Rhodes Ave., while the girls worked on stage, though the traditional theatre was not their milieu. The Watson Sisters crisscrossed the continent in the 1920s with such travelling revues as Plunkett Productions. Dolly was also an acclaimed snake dancer. By age 10, Peggy WILSON was accompanying her mother onstage as a bongo player.
The public performances perhaps made it easier for her to handle the pressure of playing softball as a young girl. Her photograph appeared in a Toronto newspaper in 1941, when the 12-year-old led her team to a championship in a league for under-18 girls. She played for Areadians of the Danforth league and Malverns of the Beaches league, often at the old Sunnyside stadium near Broadview Avenue and Queen Street. She was a star by age 14 playing against older women as a second baseman for the Staffords.
While mature on the diamond, she possessed an innocence away from it. Globe sports columnist Bobbie ROSENFELD recounted an incident when riding a bus back from a game at Malton, Ontario, when young Peggy engaged a gentleman beside her in conversation.
"Are you interested in softball?" the girl asked.
"Oh, yes, quite a bit," he replied.
"Do you go to Sunnyside often?"
"Yes, every night."
"Why? Are you connected with any team?"
"Yes, in a way," Ed BEWLEY said. "I happen to be the league president."
In the spring of 1945, she joined the Crofton Athletic Club. The powerhouse team boasted Alma WILSON (no relation) as an ace pitcher known as the Crofton Comet. The team dominated all comers in the Olympic girls' softball league, an amateur circuit based in Toronto.
In one game at Sunnyside, the Croftons embarrassed the Fuels 22-5, with Alma WILSON getting the win and Peggy WILSON banging a double and a home run.
After disposing of local challengers, the Croftons travelled to Cleveland for a world championship tournament. They downed the dogged Utah Lassies 5-2, slipped past the Gastonia (N.C.) Rex Hanovers 1-0 and then shut out a team from Stamford, Connecticut., 2-0. The victories earned a berth in the finals against a favoured New Orleans team.
The Jax Maids were led by Nina (Tiger) Korgan, a Nebraskan known as the Babe Didrikson of softball. She surrendered just two singles to the Toronto batters, as the Maids won 5-0 to claim their third world title in four years.
The Croftons' exposure in the United States caught the attention of scouts from competing leagues of women baseball players. A bird dog from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League - a circuit portrayed in the 1992 Hollywood movie A League of Their Own - came to Toronto armed with professional contracts. Instead, Peggy WILSON and the pitcher Alma WILSON ended up signing with the Chicago Chicks of the rival National Girls Baseball League.
The Chicago-based loop maintained softball's shorter base paths and underhanded pitching, even while playing with a smaller ball than a regulation softball. (The All-American league adopted baseball rules for a circuit based in mid-sized Midwestern cities.)
The novelty of pro female athletes attracted good crowds in the years following the end of the Second World War. A photo of Peggy WILSON appeared in one publication with the headline: "Snappy flysnatchers and shapely eye-catchers, gal softballers draw fans."
The infielder returned to Toronto at the end of the season, later playing for the Sherrins of the East Toronto league. After marrying a tool-and-dye man named George JOHNSTONE, the local daily newspapers began carrying accounts of a now-veteran player named Peggy JOHNSTONE.
In 1952, she moved to Bayview, New York outside Rochester, where she earned $125 a week to play for a team called Van's TNT Girls. The coach was Roy Van Graflan, a former umpire who was behind the plate when Babe Ruth made his famous "called shot" gesture in the 1932 World Series.
The coach was an expert at spotting female sporting talent. His own baseball career began as a pitcher on a team known as the Van Graflans, which featured his seven brothers and father. In the baseball off-season, the moonlighting umpire coached women's basketball teams, with his barnstorming Filaret side winning 553 games of 565 played from 1933 through 1949.
In July, 1953, the TNT Girls came to Toronto to play a televised exhibition against Mrs. JOHNSTONE's old rivals, the Gartens of the East Toronto league. On his way to the ball park, the car in which the coach was a passenger rear-ended a truck on Gerrard Street. The coach's head cracked the windshield, yet he refused to be taken to hospital. He managed just two innings at the game before calling it a night. He was driven home to Rochester and died some weeks later. He was 59.
Sadly, the unexpected death of a beloved coach in an automobile accident was but one of several tragedies to be endured by Peggy WILSON. Her aunt, Eleanor (WATSON) HENDERSON, a circus trouper, was killed with four others in a fiery collision on the Trans-Canada Highway outside Hearst, Ontario A son, aged 16, was killed by a drunk driver. She would also outlive two husbands, including one who died of a brain tumour only a few years after they married.
After hanging up her glove and cleats, she lived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, spending more than 30 years aiding the ladies auxiliary of a fraternal organization. She rarely spoke of her time on the diamond, although her obvious talent at the plate - on display during pickup games at family picnics - never failed to surprise male observers.
Margaret DOUCETTE (née WILSON, formerly JOHNSTONE and CAESAR) was born on January 10, 1929, in Toronto. She died of lung cancer on May 17 in Palm Bay, Florida She was 78. She leaves a daughter, three grandchildren and two great-granddaughters. She was predeceased by two husbands and two sons. A first marriage ended in divorce.

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