Obituary: Tomboy Nancy (Mudge) Cato was in a league of her own

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 28, 2012 - 7:27 PM

Nancy Mudge Cato

Kim Cato Purmort knew that her mother was a sports fanatic. But it wasn't until a Hollywood movie maker began calling that she discovered her mother had played second base in the legendary All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Nancy (Mudge) Cato, who died July 24 in her Elk River home at age 82, didn't like to draw attention to herself, her daughter said.

When actresses Geena Davis and Madonna took to the field in the 1992 movie "A League of Their Own," Cato pulled out the yellowed newspaper articles, her old glove, and some copies of reel-to-reel movie clips of her league-playing days for her daughter and grandchildren to see.

Cato joined the league in 1949 and spent the next six seasons playing for the Fort Wayne Daisies, the Springfield Sallies, Chicago Colleens, Kalamazoo Lassies, Battle Creek Belles and the Muskegon Belles. The baseball stats and the old articles gave Purmort a glimpse into the past that explained why her mother knew a thing or two about playing baseball.

It was a skill she picked up as a child in Bridgeport, N.Y., a town of about 250 people during the Depression. Outside the two-room schoolhouse, the boys gathered on the "grassy" yard worn to dirt for an impromptu game of baseball or "scrub" football, recalled Cato's brother, Baden Powell Mudge Jr. of Rome, N.Y. Sides were chosen, and his sister was always the first one picked, he said. "She could throw, run and hit," he said. "She could outrun all the boys."

When winter came, Cato skated alongside the boys on the iced-over pond in the farmer's field. "She could skate, oh boy," Mudge said. And in a game of marbles, "there were only one or two boys who could shoot better than her, and they didn't always win."

"She could have darn well been my brother," said Mudge, who recalled a Christmas morning when they awoke to find a baby carriage and doll for Cato. But his sister was more interested in her brother's football.

"She was a tomboy," Mudge said. His mother was a bit disappointed that Christmas when her only daughter wasn't thrilled with her new doll, Mudge said. Years later, that same tomboy from Bridgeport grew up to be a mom who was perplexed by an only daughter who wasn't as interested in sports as she was.

"My mother was always so competitive," said Purmort, of Elk River. "I did just about every sport but I didn't have the drive. It totally made her crazy."

Her mother, a physical education teacher at the University of Minnesota for nearly two decades, played in local softball leagues, built part of her house, used a chainsaw until she was 70, plowed her asparagus fields until she was 78 and "could still kick my butt in tennis at 79," Purmort said. "I'm not kidding, and I'm not that bad."

"She was very feisty. A no-nonsense woman," Purmort said. Whether she was in the stands cheering for professional players, college athletes or her own grandchildren, Cato exuded excitement for the game. "She would yell at my kids, 'Get aggressive. Get scrappy,'" Purmort said.

Cato was a woman who was addicted to chocolate, orange pop and fast little sports cars. And while she could be strict and "very authoritarian," she also could be "mushy and gushy," her daughter said.

"She had a big heart," and devoted more than 15 of her later years to prison ministry, her daughter said.

At home, her mother, an "exceptional cook" constantly had people over for dinner.

"She used to say, 'You never know when you will be entertaining angels," Purmort said.

Cato also is survived by four grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.

Visitation will be at 10 a.m. Monday at Gateway Church in Elk River, where a memorial service will be held at 11 a.m.

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788

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