It was the summer of 1946, and Thelma 'Tiby' Eisen, the daughter of a Los Angeles removals man, was at the plate. Facing her from the mound was Faye Dancer, an old friend from California whom she knew to be both a lively relief pitcher and a firebrand on and off the field.

Before receiving her first delivery, Eisen noticed her opponent was wearing a bandage on her pitching hand. She remembered why. The previous evening Dancer had dropped a match into a bottle of whisky, which had exploded, badly blistering her fingers.

But that was last night's jape - professional sport was a different matter. As Eisen told the umpire, a pitcher can alter the flight of a ball with the aid of bandage, making it curve, or dip sharply. To bellowed approval from the fans, she insisted that the dressing be removed. When her first ball came, hurtling along at something above 65mph, it was aimed directly at her head. 'I just ducked, and laughed back at her,' said Eisen.

The All American Girls Professional Baseball League might sound like a bunch of dippy cheerleaders, but they took their sport very seriously indeed. There are plenty of similar accounts, stories of fiercely fought finals and sporting rivalries, among the women scattered across the United States who played in the league during its 10-year history. For almost half a century after it finally shut down, throttled by the rise of televised sport, their experiences were largely forgotten, overshadowed by the wealthy and popular men's baseball. But Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own, which has topped the box office charts in America and is due to open here on 18 September, has rekindled interest in what seemed destined to become nothing more than a footnote in sporting history.

Faye Dancer, who once played for the Peoria Redwings and Fort Wayne Daisies and now works as a technician for an electronics firm, still has the look of a pro-ball player, even at 67. At 10am, there is a ball game on the television set in the bedroom of her west Los Angeles home. She is wearing trainers and a World Cup Final football sweatshirt, and chewing gum. 'I am the one Madonna plays in the film,' she explained. 'Her part was modelled on me. I was forever having fun, raising my skirt up for the fans, doing the splits and hand-stands when the games got quiet.'

She likes the film, but believes it has more to do with Hollywood than fact. No inebriated manager (Tom Hanks) ever burst into a team dressing room and had a marathon pee in front of them, although there was one renowned tippler on the bench, the Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx. No one ever caught the ball in a hat, as Madonna does at one point. And the real-life women ball players were far better than the likes of Geena Davis, who had to have a stand-in for her catches. 'We were really good at ball, and we played hard,' said Dancer.

She vividly remembers the year she was asked to play as a professional. She was 17, the daughter of a water meter inspector. She had already built up a reputation as a Los Angeles amateur softball player and had no hesitation in boarding the train for a three-day journey across the country to Chicago for spring training with the AAGPBL. After all, dollars 75 a week was not to be sniffed at.

The league had been set up a year earlier by Philip Wrigley, the millionaire chewing gum magnate and owner of the Chicago Cubs. Wrigley had been warned by the Office of War Information that major league baseball clubs would be forced to shut because players were wanted for the war effort. He saw an all-girls' league as a means of filling the gap left by stars such as Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, a way of keeping bums on seats until the men came home and uplifting the spirits of a war- jaded public. If Rosie-the-Riveter could be hired in the factories, she could take to the bases as well. So out went Wrigley's scouts, scouring the land for female talent.

The first season opened with teams in four Mid-West cities - Rockford, Racine, South Bend and Kenosha - playing a game that bore more resemblance to softball than baseball, although more and more hardball rules were gradually introduced. The teams grew in number to 10, their names reflecting the arcane sexual politics of the era: the Grand Rapids Chicks, Battle Creek Belles, Rockford Peaches, Kalamazoo Lassies. In 1945, Wrigley sold off his interest to Art Meyerhoff, his advertising man.

For away games, the women clattered across the long Mid- West roads in stuffy small- windowed buses, knitting, reading or, if the team's spirits were up to it, singing the league song. 'Batter up] Hear that call] The time has come for one and all to play ball . . .' They were accompanied everywhere by a chaperone, a schoolmistress type who supervised them, although not always successfully - the women recall various, generally innocent, late- night escapades. She also determined whether or not they could accept a date and personally screened all prospective suitors.

Of these, there was no shortage. The women were pursued by male groupies, 'Locker Room Leonards' and 'Clubhouse Clydes', who would hang around their hotels after games, baying for a favour at their windows. Very occasionally, these devotees would be rewarded and a bra would come sailing down from the heavens.

Wrigley insisted that before the start of each season, the women went to charm school. Photographs show a row of fresh-faced, keen-eyed young women being instructed in the art of sitting. Their tutor is a precise figure in a big floral hat and a pin-stripe skirt and jacket, her posterior parked very neatly on a chair. The girls have their legs crossed, right over left, with their knees carefully hidden by their skirt hems. Their toes, more comfortable in heavy spikes than high heels, are dutifully pointing downwards.

'The players are typical American girls,' reported the 1947 Dells Major League Baseball book, 'School teachers, physical education teachers, and students, high school and college students, clerks, models, librarians, secretaries and office or factory workers . . . they meet the highest standards of feminine appearance, deportment and behaviour.' What Wrigley wanted was not a brood of rough-necks but a group of accomplished sporting ladies. He wanted women who did not so much sweat as glow, whose eyebrows were two distinct entities and not a single caterpillar beetling above the eyes. It was sometimes an uphill struggle. Some of the league's recruits were farm girls, more familiar with cows than cosmetics. Several ex-players still remember one young woman who, when she arrived for the first year's trials, climbed barefoot off the train, her shoes in her hand.

The league's rules of conduct were strict, and anyone who broke them risked being fired instantly and sent home. They forbade drinking, smoking and - for reasons not wholly clear - wearing slacks, shorts or jeans in public. Shoulder-length hair was mandatory, as was make-up, both on and off the field.

'They wanted women who could play ball, and who would look like ladies and act like ladies,' said Eisen, 70, a former Fort Wayne Daisy. 'You can't sell rough 'n tough people any place.' Looking like ladies also meant looking good. For all his fear of the moral-corroding perils of slacks, Wrigley was well aware of the crowd-pulling potential of a group of young women cavorting around a field in skirts.

But it was a while before the women's league won a following. Initially, they pulled in only a small number of sceptical and sometimes scoffing fans ('The ground's a little light today because there's a tractor show in town,' an announcer explains in A League of Their Own). A club in Milwaukee, a place not renowned for its high-brow tastes, resorted to hiring a symphony orchestra, complete with tuxedos and bow ties, to perform during Sunday fixtures. Although this particular sales stunt did not work, support gradually built up.

By 1948, the annual attendance reached one million. The women grew used to playing to packed grounds, but they were small-town stadiums, which bore little resemblance to today's major league arenas with their huge television screens and fast-food outlets.

The women may have been slower than their male counterparts, but they played no less aggressively. They got used to their thighs being dappled with 'strawberries' - the red sores caused by sliding along the ground. Their skirts would ride up, and the shorts beneath weren't thick enough to protect them from chafing their legs on the ground as they skidded into base. 'Our coach used to say that you'd never find a major league male player sliding as we did. They would never do it without pads on,' Eisen said.

Nor were they averse to the occasional professional foul. There were trippings, spikings and nose- to-nose screaming matches with officials. 'We told the umpire off plenty of times. You bet. They are just as blind as anybody else. And the fans loved it, particularly seeing a woman up there kicking dirt at the umpire.'

Faye Dancer left the league in 1950 because of injury; Thelma Eisen left in 1952, partly because she felt physically battered after nine years of pro-ball and partly because she wanted to get a full- time job. She eventually ended up working for a telephone company. The league closed down in 1954 because of televised men's baseball and the end of petrol rationing, which allowed fans in the small Mid-West towns (where the women's league was based) to travel further afield.

Most of the ex-pros who have spoken publicly seem to agree that A League of Their Own does accurately capture at least the flavour of their past. Dottie Collins, known on the terraces as the Strikeout Queen, was one of a group of AAGPBL veterans who helped tutor Madonna while she was preparing for the film. She was impressed, but not by the star's sporting prowess.

'She's a lovely lady, but she'd never be a baseball player. She worked harder than all the actresses, and she came out good. But she's just not co-ordinated. Some people are athletes, some aren't'

The Daisies, Belles and Chicks were most certainly athletes. Now, with a film of their own, they feel the world has recognised that.

(Photograph omitted)