With Amazon’s ‘A League of Their Own’ reboot looming, meet the Snohomish woman who played in the AAGPBL

When Jeneane Lesko was drafted as a pitcher by the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League’s Grand Rapids Chicks before the 1953 season, she had never played in a single baseball game. 

Now 87 and a resident of Snohomish, Lesko (who played under her maiden name, DesCombes) was a fixture at the baseball field while growing up in rural Lakeview, Ohio. She would watch the boys play and practice with them whenever she could. 

So when the local baseball coach saw a newspaper ad for AAGPBL tryouts, he encouraged her to go. Lesko’s response: “What would I play?” Even though the league had been around for a number of years at that point, she didn’t know it existed. 

Because Lesko is left-handed, the coach suggested she become a pitcher. She knew nothing about pitching when he started working with her, but after an intense three-month tutorial where he helped her perfect a fastball, curveball and change-up, Lesko borrowed her sister’s car and drove out of Ohio for the first time in her life — heading to Battle Creek, Michigan, for AAGPBL tryouts.

As popularized by the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own,” the AAGPBL began in 1943, as a way to keep professional baseball going in World War II when many of the male players were at war. The movie, which starred Geena Davis, Tom Hanks and Madonna, is now widely acknowledged as a classic, and produced one of the most iconic movie lines of all time when coach Jimmy Dugan yells, “There’s no crying in baseball” to a player. 

It inspired an entire generation of girls to play sports, sprung the AAGPBL into the spotlight and sparked the nation’s interest in the stories of women like Lesko. Now, as the movie celebrates its 30th anniversary, anticipation is building for the Amazon Prime Video series “A League of Their Own,” which will debut on Aug. 12.

Lesko was one of the many AAGPBL alums who were asked to consult on the 1992 movie, but had to decline the opportunity because she was a working mom busy raising three young sons at the time. She says she wasn’t aware of the film’s significance and upon its release says if she would’ve known, she would’ve “crawled to be there.” After all, the movie is what brought her back to baseball and to her first AAGPBL reunion. 

The day she agrees to meet a reporter, she brings along a binder filled with AAGPBL playing cards, including her rookie card and collection of photos. Ones of her team, but also of reunions and a postcard of her traveling team that she sent her mother. Just before sitting for a portrait, she puts on an AAGPBL hat, takes a quick moment to fix her hair and flashes a smile as she turns and strides to meet the photographer. She looks almost as spry as when she took the mound for the Grand Rapids Chicks in 1953.

Lesko only played in the AAGPBL for two seasons when the league was winding down, but like the women before her whose stories have been memorialized by the movie and will be retold again in the upcoming Amazon series, those two seasons stand out as some of the most memorable years of her life. 

Lesko showed up late to AAGPBL tryouts in the middle of a doubleheader, and got called in to pitch when the game was tied.

“I got us out of a tough spot and came up to bat and bunted in the winning run. I saved the game,” she says. “That was my crowning jewel that gave me the confidence that I was really a part of the team and had something to contribute.”

She was 18, had just graduated from high school and was now a professional baseball player.

The first time she stepped out onto the field as a Chick, they were way behind in the game. She had never pitched in a pro game before and didn’t realize they were using a 10-inch ball when she was used to throwing a 9-inch ball. As a result, “I was really wild,” she recalls. She walked 12 people. As the walks mounted, she kept looking at coach Woody English, a former Chicago Cub and all-star player.

“I was pleading with him, [saying] ‘Take me out! What are you trying to do, humiliate me?’ That treatment doesn’t motivate me, I just had to learn, and I learned the hard way. I certainly didn’t think much of him after that,” Lesko says.

The following year, the AAGPBL switched to a 9-inch ball and Lesko’s control improved rapidly. With practice and help from the other girls, she became a starter, ending the season fifth in the league for strikeouts with a 10-9 record. However, she only got on base seven times out of 39 at bats, and had a .179 batting average.

“I was a terrible hitter,” she says with a laugh. “I never had anyone show me how to hit, but they accepted it because pitchers weren’t necessarily good hitters.”

Fans of the 1992 movie might remember the scenes detailing the makeup and “look” required of players and the charm school they attended. Truth didn’t stray too far from the fiction of the movie; lipstick was always required and long hair was preferred on players.

Lesko says she was shocked by the skirts the girls were playing in when she arrived at tryouts, but after seeing a “big, long-legged girl who was 6-foot-2 in that little skirt, I figured if she can do it, I can.” She also didn’t know the difference between a beauty parlor and a barber shop, and after getting her hair shorn off at the latter she avoided her coach until it grew out past her cap, lest she would’ve been subject to a fine.

While no fraternization between the teams was allowed, Lesko remembers great camaraderie among her teammates. 

The AAGPBL disbanded after the 1954 season and Lesko joined an all-star traveling team, traversing the U.S. with coach Bill Allington for two years. They wore uniforms from the Fort Wayne Daisies and traveled over 10,000 miles to games each year.

Lesko graduated from Ohio Northern University in 1957 and spent the next decade teaching physical education on U.S. Air Force bases in Puerto Rico, France and the Philippines. She learned to play golf in Puerto Rico, and upon her return to the U.S. in 1967, she met women’s golf legend Marilynn Smith, one of the 13 founders of the LPGA, and joined the tour as a player. This meant that Lesko not only played professional baseball, but also professional golf, which makes her one of the rare women of her generation who played two sports professionally. 

She didn’t last long on the tour, marrying fellow golfer Thomas Lesko and settling in Los Angeles. They had three sons; Greg, Matt and Mike, and eventually moved to Bellevue in 1974. Lesko became a real estate agent, and still runs the real estate school RealEstateHours.com with her middle son.

Around the time she turned down the chance to consult on the movie, she got an invitation in the mail for a players reunion in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She hadn’t thought about baseball in years, but went to the reunion and reconnected with 60 former players. That reignited the old spark in her.

Lesko ended up starting a women’s baseball team in Washington for a few years in the ’90s, stealing softball players and turning them onto baseball.

“I got it up to four teams,” she says proudly.

She threw out the first pitch from the mound at the Yankees’ 100th anniversary game in 2003 (“And it was a strike,” she says) and in 2005 and 2006, she served as an honorary coach for the Aussie Hearts at the Women’s World Series. In the years since, she’s often traveled to Australia to coach and speak to young women baseball players about her experience in the AAGPBL.

Now, at 87, she says she’s “a pitcher who can’t pitch anymore.” But Lesko still works out daily, doing squats to maintain her balance. 

She served on the AAGPBL board for many years, acted as the public relations director and, until recently, was in charge of maintaining the website. She still attends AAGPBL reunions, though these days, those events only attract about 10 players, Lesko says. The rest have either passed away or are too infirm to travel. 

However, with the upcoming Amazon series premiere, there’s sure to be a spotlight on the AAGPBL again. The next reunion is set for this upcoming August in South Bend, Indiana. Lesko will be there. She’s still got a few rookie cards to sign.

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