Women's History Month great time to reflect on softball's rich history

MARCH IS Women's History Month, and as we celebrate women's contributions to history, culture and society at a national level, what better time to honor those closer to home – the players, coaches and administrators whose efforts have elevated women's fastpitch softball to the extraordinary heights we enjoy today.

When I worked for the NFCA, we had the privilege of publishing a history of women's fastpitch softball written by former Arizona State head coach Mary Littlewood. Mary, who founded the softball program at ASU, coached fastpitch at the school, as well as other sports, from 1967 through 1989. After her college coaching days were over, she came to the NFCA with manuscript in hand, in addition to more than 200 photographs and illustrations to complement her written word. It was an amazing compilation, and all we had to do was put it together in book form and publish it, which we did in 1998. As I reminisce now on our sport's history, Mary's book, "Women's Fastpitch Softball – The Path to the Gold", serves as the backbone to many of these observations.

Softball is Invented, and Women's Fastpitch Grows in Popularity in the 1940s, 50s and 60s

It is thought that softball was invented in 1887 in Chicago, and between then and the 1930's, there was little mention of women playing the sport. At the time, most men thought sports were too strenuous for women.

But with women being granted the right to vote in 1920, and as the nation recovered from the Great Depression in the 1930's, softball's popularity began to grow. After all, it was a game that could be played by many people for little cost.

In 1933, the first national softball championships were conducted in Chicago as a feature of the Century of Progress exposition. It was supported by newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and 70,000 spectators saw the first round of play, which included both men and women. On the women's side, there were teams from Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and the event was administered by the newly formed Amateur Softball Association, which we knew as the ASA and now USASoftball.

Depending on where you lived in the United States, softball opportunities varied. In the 1930s, at least 17 states provided play, but throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s, women's fastpitch softball became very popular, with some contests drawing 2,000 to 5,000 fans. These teams played in the ASA's women's major division, and since there were no youth teams, it wasn't unusual to see a 13-year-old playing on the same team as a 40-year-old.

The Pekin-Lettes from Pekin, Illinois, claim to hold the record for season attendance.In 1964, 110,000 spectators attended their home games, and for a two-game series with a Japanese team in 1962, the Pekin-Lettes drew 20,000 people.

Fastpitch Breaks Into High School and College

Meanwhile, on the educational side, most high school or collegiate players who had an interest in team sports in the 1940's, 50's and 60's, had to be satisfied with playing in what were called "sports days" or "play days." In some of these, girls weren't even allowed to play with their schoolmates. Slips of paper were drawn to determine which girls would play together.The objective of the day was for girls from one school to meet those from other schools in a fun setting.Winning was not emphasized, and after a few hours of playing games, participants visited while sharing punch and cookies.

If a group of college girls got together and requested that a team in a particular sport be organized, some universities may have allowed that to happen, but the students in most cases had to arrange the games, coaches, and transportation.Those games were called extra-murals. It appeared, however, that the majority of faculty at colleges were against organized women's sports since it seemed unladylike, and this was the prevailing mindset until the late 1950s.

But then things started to change. Several organizations associated with the physical education teachers at the schools were formed to oversee the extra-murals. The leadership of the Division for Girls and Women's Sports, a co-sponsor of early collegiate championships, passed from older women whose ideas were from the 19th century to younger women who themselves had been denied participation opportunities.

Fast forward to 1969 when the first Women's College World Series was held in Omaha with nine teams. Illinois State Coach Melinda Fischer played on the ISU team that finished second. Mary Littlewood was coaching at ASU at the time, and first participated in the 1970 championship. She related that her entire budget was $500 combined for the three sports that she coached – volleyball, basketball and softball, and the teams had to wear the same uniforms. To go to the national championship, they had to raise money for the flight, and the 12 players and one coach stayed in the basement of a friend of one of the players. The entire team shared one bathroom, and the players slept on the floor in sleeping bags.

Discrimination in Academia Leads to Passage of Title IX

While women on the athletics side were being discriminated against, it was also happening in academia. I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Bernice "Bunny" Sandler, who is considered the "Godmother of Title IX," at a special Title IX celebration held at the University of Louisville several years ago.

Dr. Sandler, who was born in 1928 in New York City, studied psychology at Brooklyn College, receiving a B.A. in 1948, and a master's in 1950 from the City College of New York. While earning a doctorate in counseling at the University of Maryland, she worked part-time at the institution, and applied for a full-time faculty position but was denied. Since her qualifications were well-matched for the job, she asked a colleague his opinion on why she didn't get it and was told that "she came on too strong for a woman." Other women in academia were experiencing the same rejection, and it was a time when:

-- Women needed much higher grades than men to get into a college, and grad schools set a limit on the number of women admitted.

-- Some 21,000 women were denied admission to state universities in Virginia, while no men were denied.

-- The veterinary school at Cornell University admitted just two women a year.

-- Women applying for faculty jobs routinely heard, "Your qualifications are excellent, but we already have a woman in this department."

Some departments had neither women nor plans to hire any, and "nobody would hire a married woman" according to Dr. Sandler.

She began to read about legal issues and sex discrimination, and "naively thought that since sex discrimination was wrong, there must be a law against it." But the 1963 Equal Pay Act covered women and men, but exempted education. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination based on race, origin, color and religion, but not sex. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act exempted educational activities at schools. And the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not apply to women.

But, finally, Dr. Sandler found a footnote to a law on federal contracts that prohibited discrimination based on sex. In January 1970, she and a small group of women under the auspices of the Women's Equity Action League (WEAL)'s Committee for Federal Contract Compliance filed the first complaints against every college with federal contracts, about 250 of them. Dr. Sandler encouraged other academic women to compile data on the number of women in each department at their schools, and she learned that the percentages were dismal. She said, "At the time women received 22 percent of the doctorates in psychology, so you'd expect the number of women faculty to be comparable. But in Harvard University's graduate school of humanities and sciences, the last time they'd hired a woman was in 1924.

At the same time, U.S. Congresswoman Edith Green, a democrat from Oregon, was trying to make things happen in the aisles of the U.S. Congress. She had long been interested in women and education, and she had proposed an equal pay act eight years before it became law. Dr. Sandler and Representative Green teamed up, and Green, as chair of the House committee on education, introduced a bill requiring gender equity in education, on which her committee held hearings. Dr. Sandler lined up women to testify about not getting hired, receiving lower pay, and no benefits or offices. There was even one woman who was not paid because her husband worked at the same school.

When it came time for the vote on Capitol Hill, Dr. Sandler and some of her colleagues showed up at Representative Green's office to volunteer for lobbying duty. She told them to leave and not draw attention to the bill … that most Congressmen had no idea of its implications. After passage in the House, with the strong support of Rep. Patsy Mink, a Democrat from Hawaii, Title IX went to the Senate, where Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana worked it through with assurances that beauty pageants could still award scholarships "based on skill" and women would not be allowed to play football.

Title IX was passed into law June 23, 1972, and schools were supposed to be in compliance by 1978. The federal law states:

"No person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal aid."

Within a few short years of Title IX's passage, high schools went from 1 in 27 girls playing sports to 1 in 3. That led to travel ball opportunities, with the USASoftball youth program beginning in 1974. Today, over 80,000 teams, 1.3 million players, and 300,000 coaches participate in its youth division on an annual basis. And, as you know, there are many other organizations that sponsor youth softball, so participation numbers are really much higher.

At the college level, the NCAA first sponsored women's sports in 1981-82, after several years of struggle with the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, which governed women's collegiate championships from 1972 to 1981. During the 1982 season, there were 416 schools that participated: 143 in Division I, 109 in Division II and 164 in Division III. By 2020, that number had grown to 995: 296 in Division I, 288 in Division II and 411 in Division III.

Softball Popular Around the World

But many consider the growth of international softball and softball's inclusion in the Olympics as the real crowning achievement.

Even before the first official international competition was held at the 1965 World Championships in Melbourne, Australia, U.S. women's teams traveled abroad as early as 1938 on goodwill tours.Coach Littlewood explained in her book that two teams from the Fiedler Field League in Los Angeles departed San Pedro, Calif., in early September 1938 on the Japanese ship Chichibu Maru en route to Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines; that was just three years before the attack on Pearl Harbor!

The ASA Women's Major Champion Raybestos Brakettes represented the U.S. in the 1965 championship, earning the silver medal. Following the event, the Brakettes went on a goodwill tour of their own, playing games in 10 countries in 37 days.

After almost three decades of trying to get on the Olympic Program, it was announced on June 13, 1991, that softball would be included in the 1996 Olympic Games. The United States captured the first ever Gold Medal with a 3-0 win over China. From there, the U.S. would go on to win the next two Olympic Gold Medals (2000, 2004) while claiming the Olympic Silver Medal in 2008.

Unfortunately In 2006, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to remove the sports of softball and baseball from the Olympic program in 2012. That was followed by another exclusion for the 2016 Games. But, when Tokyo, Japan, was chosen as the site for the 2020 Olympics, the softball community was hopeful, since the host is instrumental in securing five additional sports for the program.It was announced August 3, 2016, that softball and baseball would be back in the 2020 Olympics.

Softball will be on another hiatus for the 2024 Games in Paris, but since Los Angeles has secured the 2028 Olympics bid, the world is very confident that softball and baseball will be included when the 2028 program is announced.

Honor Your Own Team's History

It's hard to believe that Title IX will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. It was such a monumental milestone for fastpitch in this country, which also led to the growth of softball around the world. As we honor Women's History Month, please take this time to pay tribute to your team's former players and coaches, and make sure your current players understand that they, too, are a part of this esteemed legacy.

About the Author

Lacy Lee Baker was the NFCA executive director from 1994 to 2015 and was inducted into the NFCA Hall of Fame in 2014. Previously she worked for the NCAA for seven years, including administration of the NCAA Division I, II and III Softball Championships. Prior to that, she served as editor of the "Olympic Record," the daily newspaper of the 1984 Olympic Games, and worked in sports information at San Diego State and Stanford. Although retired, she still follows the sport through her husband Jay Miller, the head softball coach at Hofstra, and their daughter Nikki Miller, the assistant coach at Illinois Wesleyan.