They played for a one-legged coach. They practiced at 4 a.m. on the men’s court. They had to push the team bus before they could ride in it. Yet these young women had heart and the hard times of the Depression driving them. In 1932, they made their mark in basketball history, not that you’d know.
Lydia Reeder’s “Dust Bowl Girls” revives the story of the upstart team from Oklahoma Presbyterian University. Doll was the sure-handed, selfish star. Lucille was the self-flagellating center. Their teammates bore classic Oklahoma names like Toka Lee, La Homa, Vera and Lera and Buena.
Billed as “ ‘The Boys in the Boat’ meets ‘A League of Their Own,’ ” this is another against-the-odds story. We should toss in “The Worst Hard Time,” too, because the Dust Bowl plays its part.
In Oklahoma in the early 1930s, farmers and townspeople were hanging on for dear life. Somehow, a minister’s son named Sam Babb persuaded hard-pressed parents to let their daughters leave home and join his team at OPU, a small school on the Texas border.
The times were not hospitable to women’s sports. A national campaign was trying to save girls from competition that might make them unfit for motherhood. Advocates tried to get women’s events dropped from the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Basketball was deemed especially unseemly, even though the women’s game was hobbled to a half-court affair, with the three defensive players on one side and three playing offense on the other. A player could hold the ball for only 3 seconds. A dribble was ONE bounce. Add the smirking disdain of sportswriters and you might wonder why anyone would endure such indignity.
But for young women who picked cotton and loaded hay, the OPU Cardinals promised a rare shot at an education and a life afterward. They would not let go.
With Babb scraping up money and scheduling games on the fly, they traversed Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. They racked up wins until they earned a shot at the AAU championship game against Dallas’ Golden Cyclones and the dreaded Babe Didrikson. What a game it was.
Reeder, Babb’s great-niece, re-creates the drama with the help of surviving players, scrapbooks of clippings and photos of the players in their homemade uniforms. It’s a faithful telling, though maybe too protective of Coach Babb, who was disliked for some vague reason. Still, like other good sports histories, this one allows us to sit in the stands and watch a forgotten era when times were tough, odds were long, and underdogs rose to the occasion.
Maureen McCarthy is a team leader at the Star Tribune, a former Oklahoman and a onetime forward on a six-girl team.
Dust Bowl Girls
By: Lydia Reeder.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 286 pages, $26.95.