Growing up on a dairy farm near Randolph, Minnesota, Janet Johnston Thielbar loved baseball. She and her brothers would do their chores in the morning, eat lunch and then go play baseball. She would go to bed with the transistor radio under her pillow and fall asleep to the sound of Herb Carneal describing the play of Harmon Killebrew and the Twins.
Janet also was the starting shortstop on her high school baseball team. Yes, the baseball team; the school didn't have a softball team. She first tried out when she was a junior in 1975. Title IX had been passed three years earlier, and Little League had begun to allow girls to play the year before. "The Bad News Bears" hadn't been released yet.
As Janet says, "It wasn't cool for girls to play baseball." But she had the support of her family and her coach, Dennis Murray, who put it to her simply: "If your glove is good enough, if your arm is good enough, you're going to play."
"My dad was close to 60 years old then," she says. "He just looked at me and said, 'Do you really want to do this?' I said, 'Yeah, you know how much I love baseball, Dad.' 'Then go ahead and do it.' A lot of older fathers wouldn't have said that, but he encouraged me."
Little wonder, then, that she passed that same sort of encouragement about baseball along to her son years later. Caleb Thielbar is a relief pitcher with the Minnesota Twins, the team Janet has always loved.
During much of her junior season in high school, Janet sat on the bench, but she started at short as a senior. Not unexpectedly, she caught a lot of grief. She was not in A League of Her Own, but in A League Alone. Even some of her teammates gave her a bad time. Janet recalls that one player in particular liked to run his mouth. The Randolph assistant coach shut him up by telling him, "She's going to have enough trouble from guys on other teams. She doesn't have to hear her own teammates put her down."
Janet isn't bitter at all about her critics, saying she had many quiet supporters and that the criticism is all water under the bridge.
It didn't hurt that she was good enough that her skills countered some of the detractors. One play, in particular, sticks out in her memory. Randolph was in an early-season game against another school, and when Janet took the field, the opposing players started laughing and pointing at her.
"I got a sharp grounder hit to me," she recalls. "It wasn't a big deal, but I scooped it up and threw it to first base and it kind of shut them up, real fast. They didn't say much the rest of the game. Plus, they walked me four times."
Because she had a small strike zone (she is just over 5-foot-3) and perhaps because pitchers were nervous throwing to her, Janet walked a lot -- perhaps her first 10 or 11 plate appearances, she says. She walked so much that during one bus ride, the assistant coach -- the one who had defended her against the foul-mouthed teammate -- informed her she had the highest on-base percentage on the team.
"He and the head coach were very, very encouraging," she says. "That really helped a lot, because there were a lot of outside voices."
That assistant coach, as it happens, was just a few years older than Janet, and his name was Calvin Thielbar. They reconnected several years after she graduated, and started dating. Then they got married. And then Janet and Calvin brought Caleb into the world.
"She can still throw," Caleb says. "I've played catch with her, and she doesn't have any trouble throwing with me."