The Untold History of Softball and the Women Who Made the Game
This is a photo of Freda Savona (right) and her younger sister Olympia (left), who helped lead the New Orleans Jax Maids to several national titles in the 1940s. As discussed in Fastpitch, Freda and Olympia were recruited from Ohio to play for the Jax team and quickly became celebrities in New Orleans. They spent the war years winning national fastpitch trophies and playing against U.S. servicemen in the South Pacific and other far-flung locales. By the time the above photo was taken, in 1948, the Savona sisters were nearing the end of their athletic careers, and the Jax Maids had left the Amateur Softball Association after being stripped of their 1947 national title for dubious reasons. The Jax spent the ’48 and ’49 seasons playing in the rival National Softball Congress, along with the Phoenix A-1 Queens, another brewery-owned team. The team disbanded not long afterward, and the Savona sisters moved up to Chicago to play in the small professional women’s softball league that had formed there.
Neither Savona sister ever married, and they faded from public view after the 1950s, eventually moving back to Ohio. I had trouble even finding obituaries for them, but they died within a few years of each other and are apparently buried together in their Ohio hometown beneath a shared headstone. I would love to learn more about what their later years were like. Certainly, their teens and twenties were filled with travel, excitement, and historically unprecedented opportunities to play sports at a high level.
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.
Here’s a fun photo that I wasn’t unable to include in the book, just in time for flu shot season. It shows Bertha (fourth from front), fellow California-transplant, Millie Dixon (first in line), and other Brakettes teammates getting vaccinated by the Raybestos physician before their 1965 world tour, which included a stop in Melbourne, Australia, for the international softball tournament.
Here are some photos of Japan’s Takashimaya department store, which sent its Osaka women’s softball team (all the players worked at the store) on a tour of the US in 1962 and helped spearhead the effort to create an international women’s softball tournament, the first of which was held in Australia in 1965. The store still exists today, with locations in multiple Japanese cities, but the company doesn’t appear to be involved with softball anymore, at least not at the highest level, which in Japan means the professional Japan Softball League.
I was in Portland, Oregon last week. I was primarily there to give a reading at Powell’s bookstore, but I couldn’t pass up a chance to visit Normandale Park, built in 1948, the first year Portland hosted the national softball tournament. At the time, newspapers described the field as the “most modern” softball stadium in the country. Today, the park’s softball field (pictured above) is named after Erv Lind, sponsor of the Florists team, which won two national titles and reached the finals several other times. I also visited the Oregon Historical Society while I was in Portland. The museum happened to have a baseball exhibit that featured a few photos of former Florists players. The one of pitcher Jackie Rice above, which the historical society reprinted in baseball card form, now lives on my refrigerator door.
This photo is from the San Diego Sandpipers’ one and only season in the professional women’s softball league started by Billie Jean King in 1976. It features, from left to right, former Orange Lionettes third baseman Sue Sims; pitcher Nancy Welborn, who played for the Eugene Chainsaws and the Lionettes; and catcher Nancy Ito, probably the most famous Japanese American player in softball history.
I didn’t get to talk about Ito in the book as much as I would have liked. By all accounts, she was a phenomenal athlete whose life revolved around sports. She grew up in Colorado during the 1930s and ’40s, the youngest of eight children, all of whom were athletic. She started out playing softball on Japanese American community teams, and by age 14, she was recruited to play on one of the top company-sponsored teams in Denver. By the time she was out of high school, she had competed in national tournaments for both softball and basketball. Ito also played in Chicago’s National Girls Baseball League in the early 1950s. Later, she worked for the Federal Aviation Administration as a computer specialist. She moved to Southern California in the 1960s in order to play for the Lionettes and stayed with the team for 15 years. She was in her early forties when she agreed to play for the Sandpipers. Then the next summer she coached the pro version of the Lionettes in Santa Ana for part of the season. She was inducted into the National Softball Hall of Fame in 1982. Sadly, five years later she passed away from cancer at the age of 54.
On Saturday, I had the pleasure of visiting the new(ish) Brakettes field in Stratford for the first time during the team’s reunion weekend. Many former players were there, including Annette Verespy (r) and Millie Elias (l) from the 1947 team, pictured above. I’ll never be able to express how thankful I am to have found out about this team, which helped develop so many incredible athletes and had a huge impact on women’s sports. It’s one of the best stories I’ve ever come across. I loved learning about the Brakettes, and writing about them was an honor.
Here’s another one of my favorite team names: the McCulloch Chain Saws from Eugene, Oregon. They had different sponsors over the years, but their name stemmed from the logging industry, as many Pacific Northwest teams’ did. They made it to the national softball tournament a couple of times in the mid-1960s. Then they lost their star pitcher, Nancy Welborn (the tall player in the middle of the back row), to the Orange, California Lionettes team. Welborn went on to win two national titles with the Lionettes and also played in Billie Jean King’s professional softball league in the mid-1970s.
This is a photo of pitcher Bertha Tickey and her two granddaughters on the night of her last regular season game with the Brakettes in 1968. More than 4,000 fans turned out for the “Bertha Tickey Night” ceremony that preceded the game, which, fittingly, was against her former team, the Orange Lionettes (the Brakettes won, 3-1).
Here are two photos of pitcher Billie Harris with two of the Phoenix teams she played for: the Ramblers, whom she played with in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Sun City Saints, who took over where the Ramblers left off after that team folded in 1966. Harris was a phenomenal athlete and one of the first African Americans to achieve fame in fastpitch. Harris is in the far left of the back row in the Ramblers photo (top), with star catcher Dot Wilkinson standing in front of her. The Sun City Saints photo (Harris is third from the right, bottom row) is from the early ’70s, as is perhaps evidenced by the mustard yellow uniforms.