A season of their own

Opinion: Columns

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Rich Kordesh

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It was two years before Title IX began to level the playing field between men's and women's athletics. Unaware of the momentous, national policy changes that would unfold, my sisters, Mary and Annie, ages 12 and 10, along with their friends, Marge and Peggy, just wanted to play summer baseball. 

They'd learned the game over the years in pickup contests with the boys: in our Berwyn alley, on a makeshift field designed by Peggy's dad in her yard, and in the "stone place," an unpaved parking lot on a property on 16th Street, next to the original Salerno's pizza parlor.

I had developed my early game in those spots, too. Playing baseball in these tight spaces forced you to refine your approach. While batting in the yard, you had to hit lefty in order to avoid knocking the ball into the neighbor's bushes. You played outfield beyond the backyard fence, taking position in front of a neighbor's tall shrubs. If you were hitting in an alley game, you honed your swing to go up the middle — there were no left or right fields. The bases you touched were designated telephone poles or fence posts on opposite sides of the compressed, concrete diamond. There was no sliding.

In addition to these informal competitions, we boys had our well organized, formal Little League at St. Mary of Celle. We played on a nicely groomed field: it was 210 feet to straightaway center, and 192 down the lines. There was a large scoreboard beyond the centerfield fence. Behind home plate was a "press box," furnished with mic and speaker, from which a dad would announce the game. We had uniforms, a paid umpire, team sponsors, an opening day parade, and an annual banquet at which, on alternating years, a Cubs or White Sox player would give a talk. At the banquet, every boy received a trophy.

But for the girls on our block, if you wanted to play ball, it would be in the alley, the stone place, the street or a backyard, and that was it. And you were on your own. Yet my sisters and their friends wanted what the boys had. So in the summer of 1970, the four of them decided to create their own softball league.

They began recruiting through the phone book. At Peggy's house, they made hundreds of cold calls to girls in the parish. They made a priority of first reaching out to girls in larger families, hoping they'd hit it big and lure a couple of recruits in one contact. Peggy's dad, who had set up the backyard diamond, encouraged them to forge ahead. But the four of them worked the phones on their own. As Marge tells me, "We never expected anyone to help."

After about two weeks of reaching out, they had 40 girls ready to show up. Thirty-nine of them were Catholic girls from St. Mary's. The other one, our neighbor Laurie, attended Timothy Christian School in Elmhurst.

The place where they chose to meet made a statement. The 40 girls got together, picked managers and teams, and then played on four nights over four weeks in the parking lot directly opposite the boys' field, just beyond its outfield fences. Intentionally, they did all this while the boys' games were "live."

In seeking a space for their fledgling effort, the girls hadn't actually asked anyone if they could use that field, even though it was a parish property. As Mary recalls, "We didn't think they would let us have it. It was the boys' field."

The organizers were aware that they were stepping onto turf in the neighborhood and parish seen as the boys' domain. Annie recalls that our Mom, a warm, devoted, and traditional woman, had cautioned them over the years: "Don't beat the boys at things."

This wariness about treading on male territory carried over into their games. A couple of the girls could hit with power. But they held back their swings enough to make sure they didn't smack the ball — a 16-inch softball — into the Little League field. They feared that would get them in trouble. Maybe they wouldn't get their ball back.

No one harassed the girls during their four-week season. After all the work it had taken to get organized, four weeks used up the time they had left in the summer. A few people complained about them taking parking spaces normally used by Little League spectators. Few individuals, if any, watched the girls' games. Peggy's dad "umped." 

Four teams played weekly during that summer of 1970. The best team was declared champion. In full view of the Little League, the girls had made their statement.

During the 1970s, girls' softball took hold around the country, including in Berwyn, Cicero and Oak Park. Women's athletics expanded dramatically. In their early 20s, the four friends played on a softball team sponsored by Roberts Inn in Forest Park. Coached by Peggy's dad, the team's name on their uniforms read, "Roberts Outs."

Thirty years after her aunts had played their one-month season in the parking lot at 14th and Wesley, my daughter Kathy joined with a few friends at OPRF to establish its first girls' lacrosse team. In doing so, they stood on the shoulders of the girls before them who had already broken ground in baseball, basketball, ice hockey, field hockey, soccer and other athletic endeavors.

Rich Kordesh grew up in Berwyn, raised his family in Oak Park and now lives in Chicago, but the grandkids are here, so he plans to move back.

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