Softball player in­spired by le­gacy

Grand­mother played for Rock­ford Peaches

The Commercial Appeal - - Sports - RHI­AN­NON POTKEY

Aubrey Leach al­ways knew where to find one of her fa­vorite movies.

Her fam­ily watched “A League of Their Own” so many times dur­ing her child­hood it be­came per­ma­nently wedged in the DVD player.

Any time Aubrey wanted to feel an in­stant con­nec­tion to her grand­mother, she sim­ply had to grab the re­mote con­trol and press play.

Wilma Ann Wil­liams-Leach was a mem­ber of the Rock­ford Peaches in the All-Amer­i­can Girls Pro­fes­sional Base­ball League.

Although Wil­liams-Leach was not fea­tured in the film, it pro­vides Aubrey with a con­stant ap­pre­ci­a­tion for her grand­mother’s pioneering spirit.

The Ten­nessee sopho­more takes pride in know­ing her grand­mother helped pave the way for the op­por­tu­ni­ties she’s re­ceived in softball – the schol­ar­ships, the na­tion­ally tele­vised games, the sold-out sta­di­ums.

“Grow­ing up, my dad would al­ways tell us how the door is open­ing for women’s sports and softball was be­com­ing more and more of a na­tion­wide thing,” Leach said. “Now to have the SEC Net­work and ev­ery­thing is just amaz­ing. To think my grand­mother was a part of that in the be­gin­ning was an in­spi­ra­tion and re­ally kept my morale up and kept me go­ing when we were younger.”

Wil­liams-Leach’s le­gacy on the di­a­mond lives on through her grand­daugh­ters.

Aubrey and her three sis­ters grew up play­ing com­pet­i­tive softball in The Wood­lands, Texas. Kelcy, 17, has com­mit­ted to play at Texas Tech, and 11-yearold twins Alan­nah and Gabrielle are ris­ing stars.

Wil­liams-Leach never had a chance to see them play. She died in 1993 at age 59 from an in­op­er­a­ble brain tu­mor.

“That is one of the things that re­ally hurts. I wish she could have seen my four daugh­ters on the softball field,” Aubrey’s fa­ther, Todd Leach, said. “Aubrey and Kelcy are so much like her with their at­ti­tude and dis­ci­pline and their drive.”

Wil­liams-Leach was the ma­tri­arch of an ath­letic fam­ily, yet ex­tremely hum­ble about her own ath­leti­cism. She didn’t tell her chil­dren much about her base­ball ca­reer.

Todd Leach was an All-Amer­i­can foot­ball player and golfer at South­west Bap­tist Univer­sity. Todd’s older sis­ter played vol­ley­ball at Ar­kan­sas State, and his older brother played foot­ball at West­ern Ken­tucky be­fore be­ing trag­i­cally killed in a car ac­ci­dent af­ter a spring prac­tice.

Todd Leach’s fa­ther, Lyn, was a fast­pitch softball pitcher, and the fam­ily trav­eled around the coun­try in a mo­tor home to watch him play in tour­na­ments.

“Grow­ing up, I thought ev­ery mom was as ath­letic and com­pet­i­tive as mine. If I wanted to play catch and my brother and sis­ter weren’t avail­able, she had no is­sue pick­ing up a glove and play­ing hard ball,” Todd Leach said. “Re­ally the only time I re­gret­ted it was when I was be­ing dis­ci­plined. She had a strong right arm.”

Wil­liams-Leach was raised in a small town in Mis­souri and was well known across the state for her ath­letic prow­ess.

At a time when girls sports strug­gled for recog­ni­tion, she was fea­tured in the St. Louis Post-Dis­patch for her high school ex­ploits. As a catcher in softball, Wil­liams-Leach helped her school win district four straight times. As an out­side hit­ter in vol­ley­ball, her teams never lost a match in four years.

“She was al­ways like the icon of our fam­ily and where it all started from an ath­letic stand­point,” Aubrey said. “She was just a baller out there, and know­ing that is kind of where I get it from is ex­cit­ing.”

Wil­liams-Leach played for the Rock­ford Peaches in the sum­mer of 1953 – 10 years af­ter the All-Amer­i­can Girls Pro­fes­sional Base­ball League’s in­cep­tion

Her older brother drove her to Chicago for the try­out when she was a 17year-old high school se­nior. Af­ter fin­ish­ing school, she left for Rock­ford the day af­ter grad­u­a­tion

Wil­liams-Leach played sec­ond base and some out­field for the Peaches, bat­ting .260. She lived with a host fam­ily that she re­mained in con­tact with through­out her life.

Her stint lasted only one sea­son be­cause the league dis­banded in 1954.

Wil­liams-Leach re­turned home to Mis­souri and en­rolled at Ar­kan­sas State. Nearly 18 years be­fore Ti­tle IX was im­ple­mented, Ar­kan­sas State did not of­fer women’s sports, so Wil­liams-Leach joined the cheer­lead­ing squad and earned a de­gree in ed­u­ca­tion.

“It ac­tu­ally worked out for me that she didn’t play sports in col­lege be­cause one of her soror­ity sis­ters was from Topeka, Kansas, and said she was go­ing to do an in­tern­ship at the Topeka Po­lice De­part­ment and they had an­other open­ing,” Todd Leach said. “My mom went up there that sum­mer and met a guy de­tec­tive named Lyn Leach. That is how my par­ents met.”

Wil­liams-Leach even­tu­ally be­came a nurse and ar­ranged her work sched­ule around her chil­dren’s ath­letic events. As they got older, her chil­dren be­gan learn­ing more and more about her past.

Todd Leach has tried to col­lect as much in­for­ma­tion as pos­si­ble to share with the rest of the fam­ily. He has a few news­pa­per clip­pings and a head­shot from her time with the Peaches.

Wil­liams-Leach was able to see “A League of Their Own” be­fore she died.

“I was older at that point, so we had some great con­ver­sa­tions and I was able to un­der­stand the ex­pe­ri­ence a lot more,” Todd Leach said. “She said the uni­forms were ex­act and they had coaches like Coach (Jimmy) Dugan there. But she kind of joked they never stopped at those juke joints to drink beer and smoke like they did in the movie.”

Aubrey Leach is awed by ev­ery­thing her grand­mother ac­com­plished de­spite the ob­sta­cles for fe­males in sports at the time.

Her grand­mother’s spirit re­mains with her ev­ery time she takes the field for UT or signs an au­to­graph for a wideeyed lit­tle girl.

“I wish she could be here now to give me point­ers and just see how the game has evolved more and more,” Aubrey said. “I wish she was around so I could pick her brain and see what she knows. I think she would be im­pressed with how much ev­ery­thing has changed.”

go­ing when we were younger.”

CALVIN MATTHEIS / KNOXVILLE NEWS SEN­TINEL

Ten­nessee’s Aubrey Leach says she wishes her grand­mother “could be here now to give me point­ers and just see how the game has evolved more and more.”

LEACH FAM­ILY

Wilma Ann Wil­liams-Leach played in the All-Amer­i­can Girls Pro­fes­sional Base­ball League. Her grand­daugh­ter, Aubrey, plays softball at Ten­nessee.

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