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Still in a league of their own: Tribute honors the first ladies of baseball

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    Katie Horstman, 79, took the mound once again Monday in Albuquerque, some six decades after barnstorming across the U.S. as a star in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. (FoxNews.com)

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    Only about 120 women who played in the legendary league are still alive, but all have fond memories of their diamond days. (FoxNews.com)

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    Katie Horstman and Anna Meyer were stars in the all-women's baseball league.

Katie Horstman stood on the pitcher's mound at Albuquerque's Isotope Stadium Monday and was transported back to 1951, when as a star in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, she barnstormed through the country wowing crowds and inspiring young girls with a brand of baseball that would later be immortalized in the film "A League of their Own.”

One of about only 120 women players remaining from the league that ran from 1943-1954, Horstman, 79, and 25 other veterans, all in their late 70s to 90s, were on hand as part of their annual reunion at the Dodger’s Triple A affiliate in Albuquerque.

“Oh, I was thrown out of my church because I was told girls playing baseball was a sin.”

- Anna “Pee Wee” Meyer, 86

Like many of her teammates, Horstman has stayed active over the years and shares the common bond of an unflappable passion for the game that brought many of them scorn for not being “lady like,” or not being as good as the male players who had gone off to fight World War II.

Anna “Pee Wee” Meyer, 86, who was a 15-year-old shortstop when she began playing for the Kenosha Comets in 1944, was wearing a T-shirt that said, “There's no crying in baseball,” the iconic line uttered by Tom Hanks, as crusty manager Jimmy Dugan, in the 1992 film.

Meyer experienced her own unique brand of chastisement for playing baseball in the 1940s.

“Oh, I was thrown out of my church because I was told girls playing baseball was a sin,” said the still-spunky Meyer with a shrug and a grin. Her career in the league continued through 1950.

While Meyer was faced with religious conflict, Toni Ann Palermo of Chicago traded her short skirt uniform of the Springfield Sallies and Chicago Colleens for a nun's habit. After her career ended in 1950, Palermo joined the School Sisters of St. Francis, which she has been a part of for 60 years.

Palermo received an undergraduate degree, three master's degrees, and a doctorate. But her fondest memory remains playing a game in Yankee Stadium in 1949 and borrowing fellow shortstop and future Hall of Famer Phil “The Scooter” Rizzuto's glove.

"Felt like a star, like I could catch anything,” she said.

The stars rose for the women in 1943, when the league was established to fill the void of major and minor league players who were called or volunteered for service. While thousands of women went to work in factories driving rivets into planes and tanks, the women of the AAGPBL took to the field to entertain and help take people's minds off places like Anzio, Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Normandy, if only for a little while.

The season drew a respectable 176,612 spectators and the women on the five Midwestern teams were paid $45-$85 per week. The league eventually folded and the women turned to careers, families and playing recreational baseball. Their exploits fell into obscurity until 1992, when Palermo was the first inductee into the Women's National Baseball Hall of Fame and the release of the Penny Marshall-directed movie, which starred Madonna, Geena Davis and Rosie O'Donnell.

Doris “Cookie” Cook, 83, was the real life player O'Donnell's character was modeled after.

“I was a little concerned at first how they would portray us, but they did pretty good,” Cook said.

Lena Lavato, 19, of Albuquerque, stood on the railing to the field waiting to have one of the women sign the baseball she was holding. The former high school softball and volleyball player was in awe of the unique opportunity.

“I think they're really inspiring in what they did,” Lavato said. “A lot of girls play sports now because of them.”

With the grit and determination they played with 70 years ago, the women battled 93-degree desert heat after being introduced on the field before the Isotope game to sign autographs on the stadium concourse to fans ranging eight decades.

“I have to hurry up, I'm holding up the line,” Palermo said, as she would take time to speak with fans. “It's like this everywhere we go.”

One former Catholic school student, now in her 60s, reminded Palermo to sign her name “Sister Toni Ann Palermo” on the logo autograph card that was distributed.

As Horstman took the mound for her ceremonial pitch, the spectators who gathered for the pre-game ceremony were reminded of the sacrifices and contribution the women made before most of them were even born.

This was lost on Horstman, who was all business. From the stretch, she lifted her arm to shoulder level like she had taught thousands of students in her physical education classes over the past half-century, stepped and released. The ball flew wide of the catcher.

Determined, she wanted another try.