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Competition Still Important to Carol Spanks

By Lacy Lee Baker

Carol Spanks, 1994 inductee into the NFCA Hall of Fame, had a famed coaching career at one-time softball powerhouse Cal Poly Pomona. However, for long-time followers of the sport, Spanks will always be remembered as one of the playing greats in the game’s Golden Era of the 1950s and ‘60s.


How did you get your start in the Sport?

Fastpitch softball was really prevalent when I was a youngster in my hometown of Whittier, California. From my first year in life I was addicted to the game. My uncle showed me how to catch and throw; my parents played catch with me, and we were always on the playgrounds playing a game. It was nothing organized, except for some little recreational competitions during the summer. No uniforms...very loosely organized.


While in high school I had a physical education teacher (Carolyn Broady) who played at the highest level of ASA women’s competition at the time – Triple A ball. She asked me if I wanted to play for Buena Park’s younger team, so I did. After two years, I moved up to the Buena Park Lynx, a Triple A team.


So you played for Buena Park, but wasn't it really with the Orange Lionettes that you made a name for yourself?


I went to Orange in 1958 after two years with Buena Park, where I had played third base and pitched. After a year or so at third, I was moved to shortstop and most of my playing days were at that position, although in the ‘70s I did a fair amount of pitching as well. I played for the Lionettes through 1975 and retired after the 1976 season with the Santa Ana Lionettes.


How do you think softball has changed since your playing days?


Technology was probably the biggest factor of change in the game. Not only did the equipment change drastically, but so did methods to study skills which ultimately helped coaches do a better job teaching. Instruction was based on what was seen with the naked eye, because there was no video from which to study skills.


The passage of Title IX also was huge because it encouraged and made room for girls/women to participate and it became a more socially acceptable thing for females to do.


Drinking water during exercise was thought to be harmful so we avoided that. We would take a drink and rather than swallow the deadly liquid, we’d spit it out.


There was no circle around the pitcher’s mound. I think the Lionettes forced that rule change because we used to run a lot of first and thirds, and teams didn’t know how to defend them. We were always jockeying around on the bases, which caused some delays in the game. This was always a hot topic at the pre-national tournament manager’s meetings. Eventually the rule was changed to protect, in my opinion, the teams who were unable to defend against that strategy.


Equipment was totally different in the era when I played. Bats were wooden and many of us preferred the heavier ones. The balls were NOT lively. And, at national tournaments there could be 10 or more different brands of balls used. In the same game the umpire would have different makes of balls to be given to the pitcher. No helmets were worn. (I never saw a person hit in the head during my playing career. It wasn’t until the first year helmets were required...I was coaching then, and our player got beaned. I couldn’t believe it!) There were no uniform manufacturers, so we had a tailor make them out of satin. Everyone wore short shorts, and you just lived with the raspberries on your legs until the end of the season. We had no batting gloves or sliding pads.


What about playing strategies of the old game vs. today?


We didn’t have pitching machines and we weren’t smart enough to invent soft toss. Hitting practice took a long time since you had to use a live pitcher. We played “pepper” as part of our pre-game routine. Defense, obviously, was key to winning and finding a way to get a run or two was the big challenge. Most games were very, very low scoring with lots of extra inning games. Better pitchers came out with double digit strikeouts at the end of the contests. The short game, primarily bunting, was of high priority, as we did whatever we could to manufacture runs. A .300 or better batting average was awesome and home runs were rare. Many game sites were without fences which made for some different kinds of defensive moves as well as fielders often playing very deep. The pitching distance was 38 feet, which obviously helped the pitcher as well.


Do you think those experiences carried over to your coaching days?


Very much so. I think all coaches take from their past experiences, as did I. I played for several different coaches and kept the good things I was taught and eliminated some of the practices that weren’t appealing or successful. I am a strong advocate of the fundamentals and stressed those every year. Even if our players knew the skills, I felt it beneficial to review and practice them. There are several ways of doing things, and not one way is the ONLY way, so we felt it important to have everyone on the same page.


Of course, strategies were incorporated into our practices with the hopes that by the time we began our competitive season we were ready for anything. And team play was crucial to me. I had experienced, as a player, the benefits and thrills of accomplishing something when the team was pulling in the same direction. To me, every player on the roster, no matter her ability, was vital to the success of the program and they needed to know that they were that important.


In Mary Littlewood’s book, “The Path To the Gold,” it also talks about the Miss Softball Pageants that were held with the ASA championships. One newspaper excerpt in the book says, “Followers of the sport say there may be no Miss Universe among the 300 players but that there are many girls on the club rosters, such as the youthful Carol Spanks of Buena Park, who are attractive enough to be worthy competitors in most beauty contests.”


Let's not go there!


Prior to 1960, there was a “Miss Softball” contest during every World (now National) Tournament. Each team had to designate one of its players to represent it. I’m not sure if anyone enjoyed it. I certainly found it embarrassing, but peer pressure was great.


Anyway, in the late ‘50s there was much ado about the winner, who happened to be from a Navy team participating in the tournament. She appeared in full Navy dress, which was quite striking and different from the rest of us in our ball uniforms. She may have been the most gorgeous thing on the field...sure don’t remember... but teams objected afterwards about their perception of fairness and it was dropped from the program the following year. Thankfully.


So, that brings me to the question of "Where are you now"?


I retired from coaching in 2000, and now I live in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in a very nice house on five acres about 10 minutes out of the city. There’s lots of deer, coyote, and other wildlife. It’s a very serene environment which I love.We have a dog named Koda, who’ll be three in August, who is a total joy. She travels everywhere with us and is exercised religiously twice a day, if not more.


Golf is the predominant thing in my life this time of year. I love playing in tournaments, but it’s harder and harder to keep my handicap in single digits (currently she has a nine handicap). I have been a provincial team representative to the Canadian Senior Women’s national championships several times. It’s great.


I also bowled in a couple of leagues. The game is 5 Pin, as opposed to 10 pin, but just as challenging. I play Majongg a couple of days as well and work out at a fitness center three times a week. I love movies, reading, and doing things with friends. Plus, I love to travel...by van.


So, it seems that you are still very much the competitor.


I love to compete. I think that’s why I took up golf (and other sports) after I retired from the game. Even if I am not a “successful” competitor in terms of winning an event, I love the challenges. It seems to help me focus more when it just isn't an outing with friends. 


I’ve never played a game I didn’t enjoy. And I hope to be able to compete for the rest of my life in one thing or another. If I had to choose between playing and coaching, there’d be no contest. I loved coaching but...


The last time I played fastpitch was in the 35-and-older division that they had at the ASA championships about 15 years ago. A lot of the old gang played – Mickey Davis, Shirley Topley, Carol Hutchins, Gloria Beckford, Margo Jonker. It was fun, but we had to wear helmets, and many of us weren’t used to wearing them. After being thrown out at first, Mickey Davis just continued to wear hers at her left field position and had to be told to take it off.


Since living in Canada, I also tried curling and really enjoyed it. I have bad knees and couldn’t get in the hack to release the rock, but a person could use a stick so not to have to get into the squat position. The first year we were taking lessons, and a friend and I went into a mixed senior bonspiel (tournament). In the middle of the game I slipped on the ice and broke my hip. The next year I curled in three leagues and made it through without incident, so gave it up. I didn't want to get passionate about a game where I could get further injured because of compromised knees. 


Do you make it back to the United States often?


Yes, I still have family and friends in the States, and this year, spent five months in Phoenix during the winter. The winter is very long here and can get very severe, so it was nice not having to deal with it. (Thank you Linda, for use of your house while you were in Amsterdam.)


When long-time NFCA members reminisce about some of the old NFCA conventions, they still consider the story about you falling into the Riverwalk at the San Antonio convention as one of the all-time greats. How did that happen?


There was a group of us walking along, with two in the front and three in the back, and I turned around, walking backwards, to say something to the group in the back. Well, the walk curved, and I kept walking backwards right into the water. I fell into the decorative part of the walk, so it was only about a three-foot drop. I did stay under the water as long as I could since I could hear everyone laughing, and the next day, I could barely walk since my knee was pretty much banged up. For the rest of the convention, I should have shown up with water wings!