CATCHING UP WITH: Belles’ Sophie Kurys still going at full speed

2011-04-24T22:45:00Z 2013-12-09T23:55:33Z CATCHING UP WITH: Belles’ Sophie Kurys still going at full speedPETER JACKEL pjackel@journaltimes.com Journal Times

The voices have diminished with the passing of years, reduced to a barely audible echo six decades after baseball-starved fans were last captivated by their unique prowess.

In fact, "A League Of Their Own," the 1992 film that revived this phenomenon known as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, is itself a distant memory.

But let's not forget Sophie Kurys, the electrifying blur on the bases for the Racine Belles who used to mesmerize capacity crowds at Horlick Field. For those who witnessed her fearlessly take ownership of the base paths for the Belles during their World War II glory years, ignoring raw patches of skin on her legs to steal bases by the bunches, Kurys was a talent to behold.

"She was the greatest," said Racine resident Mike Corona, who was a bat boy for the Belles. "Every time she got on base, you might as well call it a double. If she would have been a man, she could have played second base for any major league team."

Nearly 70 years after Kurys first arrived in Racine - her first contract in 1943 called for $50 a week - she is one of the last remaining links to this women's league. It was a league that was the brainstorm of Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley to provide quality baseball as the war depleted major league rosters.

Having lived alone in Scottsdale, Ariz., since 1972, when she retired from Apex Machine Products in Racine, Kurys remains remarkably active. Less than three weeks prior to her 86th birthday, Kurys is still driving regularly - on golf courses and in her car.

"I certainly do," she said. "I just got my driver's license renewed for another five years. I'm not decrepit or anything. I can walk fine and I can drive a car fine. I don't have a cane. I don't have a wheelchair."

She certainly has memories, though. And she willingly shares them for the asking.

"The people of Racine treated us royally and we were very happy in Racine," Kurys said. "In the beginning, they came out because they were curious. And when they saw we could play a very good brand of baseball, they came out in droves."

Imagine capacity crowds at Horlick Field seeking escape from the dark shadows of war by watching women in uniform dresses who flat out could play the game. During its peak season of 1946, when the Belles drew a league record season crowd of 102,413, fans used to stand on freight cars beyond the Horlick Field walls to catch the excitement.

It was during that 1946 season when the Belles won the second of their two league championships. And for Kurys, it was the signature season of her career.

She set five league records that season with stolen base (201), runs (117), walks (93), fielding percentage for a second baseman (.973) and most runs scored in a game (five). She played in all of the Belles' 112 games that season.

Kurys played with pain as the strawberries from hard slides accumulated on her legs. But she was a student of the game who always came back for more.

"Every pitcher has a little thing that gives them away," Kurys said. "One might have his shoulder a little more open toward first base. Or maybe they move to the rubber a little closer to first. There was always a little gimmick that gives them away."

Nearly 60 years after she last played and 40 years after she left Racine - she was business partners with the late Paul Douglas, with whom she ran Apex Machine Products - Kurys occasionally reminisces in her ranch home with her dog, "Lucky," by her side.

And details remain rich in her mind after all these years. She remembers places that include the Ace Grill, the popular eating establishment between the Venetian and Rialto theaters, where the Johnson Building now stands in downtown Racine.

But most of all, she remembers the glory of a league that exists these days only in museums and in the minds of people who saw it for themselves. Ask her about the Belles' 1-0 14-inning victory over the Rockford Peaches in the sixth and deciding game of the 1946 league championship series and you will be treated to crisp details rather than hazy memories.

"I have replayed that 1946 game a thousand times," Kurys said. "We had over 6,500 fans there and they were lined against a brick wall. If a ball went over our heads into the fans, it would have been a home run.

"Rosie Gacioch (of the Peaches) was a fairly good hitter and she really nailed this ball. But (Belles outfielder) Erie Perlick just turned her back on the batter the minute she hit it and just leaped and grabbed it.

"That was the ball game right there."

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