There may not be crying in baseball, but evidently there are secrets.
Tom Hanks uttered the iconic phrase “There’s no crying in baseball” in the Hollywood film A League of Their Own.
It was the story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) that sprang up in the 1940s when the men went to war.
Saskatchewan’s Terry Donahue was one of more than 600 women who played in the AAGPBL, which was based mainly in the American Midwest. Donahue played for the Peoria Redwings.
Her skills on the diamond earned her place on the team, but it was her secret relationship with her partner of 71 years, Pat Henschel, that inspired the documentary A Secret Love, which debuted Wednesday on Netflix.
Donahue’s great-nephew Chris Bolan directed the documentary. He said he only learned about the couple’s true relationship in 2009.
“They had been asked point blank a number of times by my family, ‘Are you gay? Are you lesbians?’ And they said, ‘No, we’re just good friends, it’s cheaper to live in Chicago and split the rent,” Bolan said, on the eve of the Netflix Premiere.
“We visited them [in 2009] and we were having lunch and they said, ‘We will tell you. We’re gay.’ And we said, ‘That’s fine we love you, thank you for telling us.'”
Bolan said that acceptance opened up the floodgates.
“They started sharing this decades long love story dating back to the ’40s,” Bolan said.
“It was in that moment, seeing how giddy they were and how happy they were this burden being lifted from their shoulders, I knew I had to do something with this, that I had to make a movie.”
Watch CBC Saskatchewan’s Sam Maciag interview Bolan:
Donahue was born in 1925 and grew up on a farm near Melaval, Sask., 200 kilometres southwest of Regina. She played for the Moose Jaw Royals softball team in the 1940s and attracted the attention of American scouts who were searching for talent for the first-ever professional women’s baseball league.
The AAGPBL was looking to capture the hearts of Americans starving for baseball, which was all but shut down at the onset of the Second World War.
The league was determined to keep a squeaky clean image. It enrolled the women in charm school and put them in skirts on the field. The mere hint of impropriety would not be tolerated, said Bolan.
“They called it a lipstick league. All those girls were tremendous athletes, and at that point in the ’40s being gay was taboo. It was dangerous, lives were ruined,” Bolan said.
In the documentary, Donahue says she never had any inkling that she was gay until she met Henschel, the daughter of a dairy farmer from Cabri, Sask., during a trip home to Canada. The two knew they had to keep their relationship a secret from family and from the AAGPBL.
Claire Carter is an associate professor of gender studies at the University of Regina who has written a book on queer athletes and sports communities. She said that, historically, social and legal persecution forced gay athletes to hide their sexual orientation and pressured straight female athletes to prove their heterosexual orientation and femininity.
“[Being gay] was still perceived as either a form of mental illness or, certainly, just deviant and wrong,” Carter said.
“There was a perception that sport masculinized women and could make women gay. So, there was fear around that, and policing and regulations around how women appeared.”
She said some of those stereotypes and stigmas persist today.
Sharing their secret
Donahue and Henschel chose to live in Chicago for more than five decades, away from the pressures and questions of family back home. In the film, Donahue said it would be “easier to live freely,” but they still feared being discovered and deported.
When the women reached their 80s and their health began to fail, they decided to divulge their true relationship.
The documentary traces the women’s forbidden romance, but also explores the universal theme of aging and finding care for elderly loved ones.
Documentary producer Brendan Mason said the film is also extraordinary because of how much footage the women had from their life together.
“If you think about women owning a camera in the 1940s and 1950s, that was highly unusual because of the times. So to be able to have that material, and help us tell the story. We can see their past on-screen. It’s a very, very rare thing for a film like this,” Mason said.
The couple decided to move home to Canada, settling in an assisted-living home in Edmonton.
Donahue, who had Parkinson’s disease, died last year at the age of 93. Henschel still lives at the care home.
“She was the love of my life,” Henschel says in A Secret Love.
Both Mason and Bolan hope viewers take away a simple message, expressed by Terry Donahue in the film:
“Love is love.”