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Recognizing an unsung women’s baseball hero

Women’s baseball pioneer is Hall of Famer

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A much-loved but unsung local hero is about to be inducted into the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame.

Mary Pearl Watts (1930-2007) was affectionately known as “Mickey.” She grew up in Merrick, married Patrick Stapleton at age 22, mothered six children, fostered dozens of newborns and was a grandmother to 11 and great-grandmother to four.

But before marriage and family, there was baseball.

Girls on organized teams in the 1940s usually played softball, and girls with baseball-crazy brothers often played a little bit of everything. Watts was the catcher for her four brothers when they practiced pitching. She and her sisters unhesitatingly joined pickup neighborhood ball games.

“We were very athletic,” said Lucy “Unkie” Watts Genova, 89, Mickey’s sister. “When younger, we played football with the boys. It was helter-skelter, and we just went out and did it.”

In 1946, at age 15, while a sophomore at Wellington C. Mepham High School, Watts became the catcher for the Freeport Forest Jewelers. It was a club in the American Girls Baseball Conference, which operated in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey (see box, Page 4).

The Jewelers (often called the Jewels) competed against the Arthur Murrays, the Hollis BBCs, the Clover Girls and the Nutmegs. Watts’s name ap-peared in dozens of local sports articles, including in the Freeport Nassau Daily Review-Star.

“Mickey Watts was the big gun Saturday night in the Jewels attack as she collected half of the Freeport hits,” the paper reported. “Mickey Watts, who is batting .417 and leading the team, drove out the first home run of the season . . . Mickey Watts, diminutive catcher, then singled in two runs . . .”

The Clover Girls led the league from 1946 to 1948, while Watts played for the Jewelers. When the Clover girls became the Hostess Girls in 1949, Watts joined the team. So did Lucy, at second base.

“If we weren’t playing a game, we were practicing every night,” Genova recalled. “I had fun, but it was serious!”

Both Watts girls played through 1951. Then came marriage and family, and they left the league — but not the game.

Watts’s oldest daughter, Deborah DeFino, remembers her parents playing and coaching softball and baseball throughout her childhood.

“If dad couldn’t make it [to practice] from work [as a Nassau County policeman],” DeFino said, “my mother went and was the coach. She was a pretty tough lady — in a good way.”

Mickey and Lucy also bowled on a local team called Pop’s Girls. They continued baseball and bowling until 1979, when a car accident left Mickey in recovery for several years and ended her ball-playing days. 

So, she and Lucy — “best friends and teammates forever,” DeFino said — took up golf. They excelled, but nonetheless, baseball remained the Stapleton family’s central sports love. The interest continues today.

“Every year,” DeFino said, “we have a family pickup game, usually in Wantagh. Anybody who’s not going to get hurt out there plays,” including the little children and, until he was 85, her father, who died in 2019 at age 88.

Watts will be memorialized in the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame during a ceremony on August 15. Since its inception, the organization has searched for women that have made often unrecognized impacts on the sport.

“We have really been researching women’s roles in the game the last five or six years,” Rene LeRoux, founder and executive director of the Hall of Fame, said. “We’ve found many women that have had an impact — players, writers, announcers, in many different ways.”

DeFino said her extended family would be driving up to Troy for the ceremony “in hordes,” because of her mother’s large number of siblings and relatives. Her family’s excitement is equaled by that of LeRoux.

To choose a new inductee, LeRoux said, “our operating agenda is ‘body of work,’ which is years of service to the game or impact upon the game.” Many women players from New York’s past fit that criteria, but died in the 1980s and 1990s without survivors. With no family permission, they cannot be inducted, nor can facts be verified. These issues have impeded LeRoux’s search for a player.

Fortunately, a member of the Hall of Fame board had known Watts personally. After contacting Watts’s family, LeRoux said, “she literally was a unanimous selection, and she will be the first woman player inducted.” Mickey is part of the premiere 2020 class for the Hall of Fame, the honors for which have been delayed because of Covid-19.

For Genova, the induction ceremony for her sister will be exciting, but different from her matter-of-fact past.

“I don’t remember any big folderol at the end of the season,” she said, looking back 70 years. “They were good teams and good ball players, that’s all.”

But that’s not all for LeRoux. “At this Hall of Fame,” he said, “baseball is the forum, but it’s a much larger significance in that it’s honoring how people have lived their lives and who they have touched in their lives.”

The Hall of Fame can be contacted at nysbhof.com, emailed at jaryla@aol.com, or telephoned at (518) 877-5170.