Sue Zipay was caught off guard the first time she truly realized the long-term importance of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League she played in for two years during the 1950s.
Zipay, formerly Sue Parsons during her playing days, was at the Englewood Tennis Club she has co-owned with her son since 1989 when the club phone rang.
“Hi,” the voice said. “This is Billie.”
“Yeah, OK,” Zipzay said.
“Billie Jean King.”
“I thought someone was pulling my leg,” Zipay said Thursday in Siesta Key when recalling her first conversation with the International Tennis Hall of Famer.
King, like most in the United States in 1992, had seen the movie “A League of Their Own” and was struck by this lost artifact of women’s sports history. Zipay, she figured, was about to become famous — maybe even rich.
Had the story taken place in the modern day that may have been the case. In the more than 20 years since the movie’s release, women’s sports has moved well beyond tennis and the AAGPBL, enough to warrant multiple attempts at a sports hall of fame or a museum dedicated to women’s sports. Zipay hopes the Women’s Sports Museum (WSM) she has founded in Sarasota can be the one to finally emerge as the standard.
“We went from a group of people who were thinking about doing it to now an organization that’s got 501(c) status, has set up bank accounts, has started to generate income, has followers, has started to build a strong board that is working toward the goal of getting to a point to get the groundwork laid for a museum,” said Michael Beaumier, the president and current chair of the WSM.
On Saturday, the group holds its first major fundraising event for the museum, a gala that concludes a weeklong 73rd reunion of the AAGPBL. The all-volunteer board is hoping to raise enough in the next year to purchase office space and hire some part-time employees. There’s no timetable for the construction of the physical museum, or an official location picked out, but Zipay is hoping both will happen within the next five years.
“I hope it doesn’t take 15 years,” she said with a laugh, “because we don’t have 15 years.”
Past efforts to memorialize women’s sports have seldom been smooth. The Sports Museum of America in New York was the first open a women’s sports hall of fame in 2008, but it was open for less than a year because of low attendance and a lack of funds.
Two years ago, the AAGPBL Players Association, for which Zipay is a board member, met to discuss a museum specific to the league. Some wanted it to be a traveling exhibit. Others wanted to place it somewhere in the Midwest where the league played, such as Rockford, Ill.
“It’ll never sustain itself,” Zipay remembers thinking. “A museum for all women’s sports would be able to sustain itself.”
Zipay, who lives in Englewood, lobbied for Sarasota for convenience and because of its status as a tourist destination. People wouldn’t go to Illinois just to see an AAGPBL museum, and she and her group don’t expect they will not come to Sarasota solely for a Women’s Sports Museum either. They’ll come to Sarasota for its beaches and then visit the WSM, Zipay hopes.
Her ideal plan would place the museum right on Sarasota Bay at the old site of the G.Wiz science museum and make the museum more of an interactive space than a hall of fame-style monument. She has spoken with Jason Puckett, team and group sales manager at IMG Academy, and hopes the museum could work in conjunction with IMG to play host to girls sports camps in Bradenton and Sarasota.
It’s not just you go in and see baseball gloves and say, ‘OK, I’ve seen it once, I’m never coming back.’ We want to have interactive. We want to have classrooms, so young girls can learn there’s more than one way to get into sports.
Sue Zipay, Women’s Sports Museum founder
The education aspect expands beyond girls simply thinking that only being a good athlete can lead them to a life in sport. There are successful female announcers, coaches and executives. A relationship with one executive affirmed to Zipay that she was on to something.
During the earliest stages of planning the WSM, Zipay sent an email to Janet Marie Smith’s assistant. The Dodgers vice president of planning and development helped redesign Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fenway Park in Boston and Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. She’s one of the most important female figures in baseball history.
The response surprised Zipay again. Smith personally called her. She loved the idea and put Zipay in contact with Hoyt Architects’ Chris Gallagher in Sarasota, and Gallagher now serves as the museum’s vice president.
The Women’s Sports Museum was no longer just Zipay’s optimistic imagining.
“I’ve got somebody else saying it,” Zipay said, “so I’m not crazy.”
When: Saturday, 6 p.m. (cocktails), 7 p.m. (dinner and program)
Where: Hyatt Regency Sarasota Ballroom
Tickets: $150 and up