Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.
It took a man named Don “Pappy” Joe to create the Women’s College World Series. I wish I was being facetious. The second-biggest women’s college sporting event in the country was created in 1969 because Joe, the coach of the long-since defunct John F. Kennedy College Patriettes, was convinced he had developed the best women’s softball team in the country and wanted to prove it.
51 years later, teams of enormously talented softball players are in the midst of competing in a nationally televised tournament that will attract millions of viewers. It’s a tournament that will nevertheless be little discussed and less appreciated. Yet the tournament does represent a kind of true, if compromised, growth that can be hard to pinpoint for women in any realm, much less sports.
Joe’s desire to flaunt his team’s prowess makes even more sense given when they were competing. In the sixties, softball was booming for both men and women in amateur and semi-pro contexts; college softball was nearly moot, given that Title IX hadn’t yet passed.
Joe’s players, who were nationally esteemed for their skill, made it a point to emphasize that they hadn’t received scholarships — that being one of the regulations of the Division for Girls and Women’s Sports, then women’s college sports’ governing body, which co-sponsored the first tournament. The nine schools that participated in that first edition of the Women’s College World Series had next to no budget. They fundraised to attend and slept on floors when they got there. Joe’s initial inquiry had resulted in a contest, but that contest mostly took place in a roughly converted baseball field in Fremont, Nebraska, about 45 minutes outside Omaha. That contest received no national coverage, and its champions, John F. Kennedy, few accolades; only many decades later have major outlets tried to explain their dominance.
There’s an argument to be made that Title IX made it easier to funnel girls into softball and away from baseball, which in turn made it easier to ignore softball altogether — because of course Title IX didn’t immediately make women’s sports any more respected, only more resented. There’s also an argument to be made that the growth of women’s college athletics offered a cop-out for any person with power who might have previously considered developing a women’s professional league. That the influence of these institutions, especially as athletic department budgets swelled, made growing women’s sports outside the paternalistic atmosphere of college sports harder — why, after all, would women need anything else?
Watching the Women’s College World Series today, it’s hard to imagine building a professional league that surpasses it in vibrancy or intensity. But that’s only because it has grown so dramatically in the past half century, a rare glimpse of tangible change that’s all the more impressive when you consider that United States softball’s biggest event was built from the ground up.
“I feel like the world series is one of the greatest things that could happen to women’s softball,” a Patriette outfielder named Karen Peitz said before those first games began on May 17, 1969. “If we play the way we know how and put everything into this series, we can take anyone we come up against.” It’s as important a reminder for those fighting for women’s sports today as it was for those first competitors then.