By Valerie J. Nelson Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES – As the chaperon of Michigan’s Muskegon Lassies in the 1940s, Helen Hannah Campbell made sure the professional baseball players wore lipstick and properly modest uniform skirts in the “girls league” founded to keep ballparks filled while men were away at war.
The daughter of a major league catcher who played on the New York Yankees with Babe Ruth, Campbell was familiar with the demands and rules of the game. But she credited her experience in the Marine Corps Reserve with preparing her to oversee the conduct, care – and personal lives – of her young charges.
“When one fella asked me out, I said you have to talk to the chaperon first,” Shirley Burkovich, a utility player who joined the Lassies at 16, told the Los Angeles Times. “He came out after talking to Helen and was kind of laughing and said, ‘I didn’t want to marry you. I just wanted to take you to the movies.’ Helen must have given him the third degree.”
Campbell, who retired from the Marine Corps Reserve after 32 years, died March 24 of natural causes at a care facility in Lake Forest, Calif., said Kim Brown, her legal guardian. She was 97.
“If it hadn’t been for the chaperons, the league would not have existed. They took care of us and were a real asset,” Burkovich said. “But Helen was a disciplinarian. She put the clamps on you if you didn’t follow the rules.”
Established in 1943 by Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was expanding when Campbell got the call to join the newly formed Lassies in 1947. She was soon having “a blast” at spring training in Cuba.
Her father had introduced her to the president of the league, who was impressed by Campbell’s positive personality and hired her. Players called her “Happie,” according to the All-American Girls Professional League Players Association, founded to preserve the league’s history.
She signed on for a year with the league that inspired the 1992 film “A League of Their Own” and stayed for five, following the Lassies to Kalamazoo, Mich., when the team moved during the 1950 season. “As chaperons, we became surrogate mothers. I arranged their housing, uniforms, got their paychecks and arranged buses,” Campbell said in a 2004 interview. “But they really accepted me more like a buddy. If they wanted to go out and get a burger and a beer, I’d go with them.”
Called to active military duty during the Korean War, Campbell left the league in 1951 and it folded three years later. She was present for the league’s first reunion, in 1982 in Chicago, and for the 1988 unveiling of an exhibit honoring women in the sport at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
The players, and their chaperons, were featured on baseball cards. The back of Campbell’s said, “She served as counselor, surrogate parent, disciplinarian, friend and trainer.”
“Even though the job of chaperon was 24/7,” she said more than once, “I loved every minute of it.”
She was born Helen Lorraine Hannah on Sept. 25, 1915, in Salt Lake City, where her father, James Harrison “Truck” Hannah, played minor league baseball for the Pacific Coast League.
An only child, she was raised by her mother, also named Helen, while her father traveled for baseball. He played with the Yankees from 1918 to 1920.
Her family wintered on a ranch in Pico Rivera, Calif., and moved there full time after her father joined the Pacific Coast League’s Los Angeles Angels in 1926. He later managed the team.
At Whittier High School, she was classmates with a future president and later in life served as a docent at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda. She proudly said she was “the only docent who went to high school with Richard Nixon,” according to the library.
While attending what is now Woodbury University in Burbank, she completed a four-year degree in two years, graduating in 1934, the school confirmed.
In 1943, Campbell joined the Marine Corps Reserves and saw active duty in the U.S. during Word War II. Her first duty station, El Toro, was also her last. She started out as an aviation supply quartermaster and retired in 1975 as a master gunnery sergeant.
After helping to form the Women Marines Association in 1960, she served as the organization’s president from 1962 to 1966. She also campaigned to establish the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, dedicated in 1997 at Arlington National Cemetery, where Campbell will be buried.
Twice married, she referred to herself as a widow. She had no children but regarded Brown’s family as her own, Brown said.
Campbell devoted years to the Fountain Valley (Calif.) Police Department’s Retired Senior Volunteer Program, donning a uniform into her early 90s to give out parking tickets and monitor the homes of people on vacation. Remaining active was one key to living a long life, Campbell once said. At 75, she went parasailing for the first time and at 78 sailed over Africa’s Serengeti plains in a hot-air balloon.