How the 'Dust Bowl Girls' hooped their way through 'golden age' of women's basketball
Two decades ago, Lydia Reeder's grandmother handed her a yellowed manila folder about a forgotten chapter of women's basketball history. The package contained articles and letters about Reeder's great-uncle, Sam Babb, who went from being a successful administrator in the Oklahoma school system to the first full-time coach of the Oklahoma Presbyterian College (OPC) Cardinals, an AAU women's basketball team formed in the Dust Bowl region of the United States during the Great Depression.
Not long after the stock market crash of 1929, Babb began recruiting for OPC's first women's basketball team. In 1930 he recruited Doll Harris, a star forward from Cement, Oklahoma, who would later be named the best female basketball player of 1933 by The Associated Press.
Thereafter, the team just seemed to come together.
Babb's rigorous training, like requiring the women to complete 100 free throws a day, molded the daughters of sharecroppers into an unstoppable force. From March 1931 to March 1934 the team won 89 consecutive games, clenching two national championships along the way. During that time the squad participated in a barnstorm basketball tour through the South and won 15 games in 21 days.
Since 2002, Reeder has been fervently researching the formation and subsequent dominance of the OPC Cardinals. The book "Dust Bowl Girls," published earlier this year, is the result of her efforts.
Reeder, a former magazine editor at Whole Life Times and Delicious Magazine, also gives insight to the world of serious female athletes in the 1920s and '30s, including the social, political and economic barriers they faced.
The author spoke with espnW about the milestones the OPC Cardinals set, the importance of Title IX, and the small-town heroines who went one to become national champions.
espnW: This project started when your grandmother handed you a folder and said "you might want to tell this story someday." Having research was only part of the job. How were you able to fill in the gaps?
Lydia Reeder: I started over a decade ago when a good number of the players were still living. The first player I happened upon was forward Virginia Hamilton Childers, a Chickasaw lady, who was still living in Durant, Oklahoma [she died in 2006]. She was the team historian and the first person I ever got to interview, and it was like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. She kept enormous scrapbooks for every year that she played for the Cardinals, and she'd even written newspaper articles herself and had the contact numbers for every player and their family members.
I couldn't help but fall in love with all of these women, whom all still had vivid memories of playing for the Cardinals. That time in their lives was just something so special that they remembered it forever. I got engulfed in it.
espnW: You mention Hamilton Childers' scrapbooks -- what was in them? What other mementos did the members keep?
LR: Her scrapbooks were 2 to 3 inches thick. Back then people carefully cut out newspaper articles, and she kept the ticket stubs and all kinds of little pieces of information like that. I had scrapbooks from her and Doll Harris, another forward, who had passed away six months before I started on my research.
Lucille Thurman, a center, had started a book about her basketball career, too. She was a prolific writer and kept a diary, a couple of sentences every day. She'd written 10 pages about Sam Babb to my grandmother, trying to get my great-uncle inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame.
I met the Dunford twins -- Lera, a forward, and Vera, a guard -- and they had even kept their uniforms. I think they had actually stolen them. These two ladies were quite the jokesters but they brought those out for me to see and [they] kept all their awards.
espnW: What do you think readers can glean from learning about this period in women's sports?
LR: As I started writing the book, the players became bigger and more heroic. I then realized that we need to mythologize women's sports history like we do for men. These women were on the court with Babe Didrikson Zaharias, one of the best players of all time. [Didrikson Zaharias was a star forward who also won two track and field gold medals at the 1932 Olympics and went on to win 10 majors and 41 LPGA titles.] One of the historians I spoke with said it was a golden age of women's basketball.
espnW: You've got this gigantic swath of basketball history at your fingertips -- from barnstorming basketball to its current iteration. What has been the biggest change in the sport?
LR: For starters, they only played half-court [back then] and were only allowed one below-the-knee dribble. The most shocking thing to me was that there was no coaching from the sidelines during the game. At halftime you could get advice but that was pretty much it. They had to figure it out themselves on the court. I didn't understand, and I could never find a good reason why. I do know that Sam Babb was on the AAU rules committee and they were always trying to find a way to get standards like that changed. They wanted to make the game more liberal and more exciting.
espnW: There were also six players on the court for each team, correct?
LR: That's why the scores were so low for the women's games -- [it went from six to five], there was an extra guard on the court. That didn't really change until the early 1970s.
espnW: The book describes a particular taxing winter practice: The women were up at 3 a.m. and they find themselves pushing a bus -- it often refused to crank and didn't have any heat -- to go to a barn with a basketball court. With such struggle to endure, why did they stay on with the team?
LR: They actually had everything to lose. Some people were near starvation [during that period]. When the military started recruiting for World War II in Oklahoma, many of the men who showed up were rejected because they were at starvation level. We can't even imagine it now, but the one perk of playing was that they were offered a great public education [in exchange for their athletic efforts] and that's what saved so many people.
espnW: Funding the OPC women's basketball program was an obstacle as well. Ticket sales and other fundraisers fueled the team.
LR: Oh yeah -- they were totally self-funded. Title IX was established [in 1972] and kind of changed the trajectory.
espnW: You mentioned that Title IX changed everything for women's sports. What happens if it's scaled back?
LR: This is my opinion, but defeating the Title IX amendments is like defeating Roe v. Wade -- it was a major breakthrough for women and it is about women's bodies. It's about the desire for women to become expert athletes if they're so inclined.
One of my friends is an older lady, and she's in love with Title IX because back in the '60s, when she was head of the women's physical education department at a college, she happened to ask the man who was head of the men's PE department about his budget. She realized that his budget for tape that you wrap around men's ankles was her entire budget.
Title IX changed everything for her.
espnW: Do you see any parallels between the dominance of the OPC Cardinals and the current University of Connecticut team?
LR: Maybe there's a parallel, but it seems to me that nobody comes close to beating UConn. Yes, it's true that the Cardinals did dominate, but they also had close games all the time. They just managed to somehow come out on top. I think it was a lot harder for the original Cardinals team to win 89 [consecutive] games.
OPC closed in 1966 and the team moved to Oklahoma City University and they lost one game -- the national championship in Tulsa -- and OCU dropped them after that. Just because they lost one game, the team was disbanded.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Latria Graham is a writer, editor and cultural critic currently living in South Carolina. Follow her @LGRaconteur