Fifteenth in a series of pioneer profiles
Few people realize Nelson has a League of Their Own connection.
In the 1940s, city native Lillian Hickey spent two years playing for the Kenosha Comets of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, made famous to later generations by the movie starring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks.
The second oldest of Robert and Jean Hickey’s six children, Lillian showed outstanding athletic ability from an early age.
“Lil was an outgoing, vibrant person and a talented all-round athlete during her era,” says her niece Bev LaPointe. “She loved sports and excelled in whichever sport she touched.”
At 13, she started playing senior softball for the Nelson Red Sox, and was described in newspaper reports as “a brilliant batter and outfielder.” She won the city league batting title in 1941, and for years was among the top players on the Nelson rep team.
She also played basketball, bowled for a team that won the first inter-city ladies five pin tournament, and regularly swam across Kootenay Lake, winning numerous swimming and diving competitions.
During World War II, she worked in the Civic Centre manufacturing parts for Boeing’s Catalina Bombers, and then in 1942 moved to Vancouver to play ball for the Pacifics.
Over three seasons, she divided her time between third base and outfield, and was among the league’s best hitters, never batting below .382.
When an offer came to turn pro, she demurred at first while trying to convince pitcher and fellow Nelsonite Hazel Johnson to join her on the Pacifics.
Ultimately, however, she did head south to play for Kenosha, Wisconsin.
In 1946, she appeared in 21 games, went 13-for-61 at the plate, with three runs scored, three runs batted in, one walk, one stolen base, and 13 strikeouts.
The team finished seventh in the eight-team loop, with a 42-70 record.
The following year, she attended spring training in Chicago and then went on a two-week tour of Cuba. In the second week, her team’s exhibition games drew 75,000 people.
They followed it up with a whirlwind tour of the American south.
Hickey then made her way home from Ontario, working at the Banff Springs Hotel en route. In 1952, she went to Panama and spent a few years living among the locals while working on a banana plantation.
Upon returning to Nelson, she was active in the early development of the Silver King ski hill, and was elected president of the Nelson ski club in 1954.
After her death in 1965 at 43, a ski trophy in her honour was created for the most “sportsmanlike skier on the hill,” which well described her.
Although she was only eight when her aunt passed away, LaPointe says Hickey “had a tremendous impact in my life and I still think of her often.”
A standout softball player in her own right, LaPointe credits her aunt with teaching her to swim, ski, skate, and play ball.
Around the time A League of Their Own was made, someone called the family asking if they had Hickey’s old uniform. Unfortunately not, although LaPointe does have some Cuban cigars with Hickey’s name and “Kenosha Comets 1946-47” inscribed on them.
In 1998, Hickey was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame as one of 64 Canadians who played in the All-American league, including five others from BC. (Ironically, they accounted for more than 10 per cent of all players.)
“Lil’s athletic ability coupled with the opportunity to play ball carried her far beyond the limits set out by society for women of that era,” LaPointe says. “She was and will forever be my hero.”
Previous installments in this series