Around this time last year, I wrote an article for Smithsonian about a group of Los Angeles women’s softball players who briefly switched to football in the late 1930s. They only played a few games, but their proximity to Hollywood plus the perceived novelty of women playing a historically men’s-only sport led to a flurry of national media coverage, including a photo spread in Life magazine. Now that it’s almost Super Bowl time again, I thought it would be fun to revisit that story and introduce some details that didn’t make it into the article.
As I mentioned in the Smithsonian piece, the Los Angeles women who made headlines for playing football in 1939 were primarily softball players; the football games were more of a publicity stunt meant to extend ticket sales into winter. The clearest example I found of this came from the Marshall-Clampett team, which used the football attention to promote its softball games as well. A Palm Springs newspaper article about a charity softball game the team played there that November featured a photo of the players in their football uniforms (above), with the caption, “They Are Here!”
I knew the Marshall-Clampetts, also known as the Marshall-Clampett DeSotos (the team was sponsored by a car dealership), from my research into the Orange Lionettes softball team. Not only did the two teams play against each other in the ultra-competitive women’s fastpitch league that existed in Los Angeles before World War II, but they had a shared history: The Marshall-Clampetts roster featured several former Lionettes, most notably Lois Terry, the so-called “Blonde Bomber,” who pitched for the Lionettes before being replaced by Bertha Ragan Tickey (Bertha Petinak, at the time).
The Palm Springs newspaper article focused on the Marshall-Clampetts’ football exploits, which made sense, given the photo that accompanied the story. The article described the Marshall-Clampetts as “one of the finest girl football teams ever organized” and noted that the team had won its last two football games, against the Hollywood All-Stars and the Pasadena Rinky Dinks. But softball was the game Terry and her teammates were passionate about, so it should come as no surprise that they also won the Palm Springs charity game against the all-male Builders’ Supply Lumberjacks team, 5-4.
I think in my article I said that the Marshall-Clampett women were softball players first and foremost, but really they were athletes first and foremost. Maybe some of them would have preferred football had they been given more opportunities to play it. The fact was that if you were a female athlete in the U.S. during the 1930s and 1940s who wanted to play team sports competitively, fastpitch was pretty much your only choice.