In the 1970s, there was a spontaneous outbreak of interest in softball by women in five different parts of Hampshire County. After they eventually found each other, these players melded wide differences into a unique softball organization that endures today as the Mary Vazquez Womyn’s Softball League . As this independent, player-run league with a preponderance of lesbian athletes began to mature, its organization became centered in Northampton.
In 1973, the Southwest Women’s Center at UMass in Amherst sponsored a feminist student intramural team named after abolitionist Lucy B. Stone. Marjorie Posner recalls that they stressed non-competitive sports and were very funny. Warm-ups consisted of rolling on the grass and deep breathing. In the spirit of being equal, they all stenciled the identical number on the back of their purple T-shirts, “1818,” the year of Stone’s birth.
SWWC softball team t-shirt courtesy Peg Cookson
In 1975, they became independent from the university intramural system. This allowed women who were not students to play, including staff, and also made room for looser rules. A notice was posted in Northampton’s Lesbian Gardens’ Old Maid about Saturday pickup games on the field across from SWWC.
These UMass women were interested in playing for the fun of it. They also wanted to re-invent the game to encourage older women who had never had a chance to play. They drew an odd mix of novices, “real jock” PhysEd instructors, and every level of experience in between. From the beginning, they tried to foster a non-competitive but supportive sports philosophy. Peggy Cookson, a novice, comments that being supportive sometimes got a little ridiculous, as when she refrained from taking a swing at a pitch that rolled toward her on the ground, and was complimented with a yell: “Good eye!”
Allowing everyone, no matter the skill level, a chance to play was central to the experience. That meant that teaching the game was, too. Windflower, then known as Annette Townley, was astonished to find herself pitching, something she had never done before, in her team’s very first Womyn’s League game. Rules were bent or made up on the spot to reflect this new philosophy. One rule allowed a woman to stay at bat until she got a hit.
At about the same time over in South Hadley, Jean Grossholtz’s lesbian feminist household on Jewett Lane began playing Sunday afternoon pickup games on a Mt. Holyoke College field. They were also interested in a non-competitive game that encouraged and allowed all women to play regardless of their level of skill. By placing ads in the Holyoke Transcript and Daily Hampshire Gazette, they recruited enough women to make a viable team.
In spring of 1976, “Digger” from Hatfield placed an ad in the Valley Advocate looking for women to form a new softball league. She and her friends (and many cousins) were Lassie League graduates who continued to play on a field laid out at one of their homes. The ad drew response from the South Hadley team and two others in Easthampton and Northampton, enough for a first season of play with four teams.
In addition to the Hatfield cousins’ team, two others were serious about softball and interested in a fast-pitch game rather the more usual slow-pitch promoted for women. The Easthampton team had recently played together in high school and continued on a field at Williston Academy. The College Church team from Northampton had many women who had played college varsity ball. They agreed, according to Zulma Garcia, that fast pitch rules allowed for more exciting play with base stealing and bunting.
Regardless of this fast pitch competitive league beginning, the South Hadley group with its feminist, older woman character was eager to be a “real” team with “real” uniforms. Picking purple for their T-shirt color, they tongue-in-cheek named themselves the Hot Flashes.
As word spread of the new league, three more teams joined in the second (1977) season. One was a team that played at the Hadley Young Men’s Club. The other two were the Nutcracker Suite and Common Womon, each named after recently opened Northampton lesbianfeminist ventures which will be covered in future posts. The nucleus of Common Womon had been forming at UMass as the Lucy B. Stoners. The Hatfield team had dropped out, so six teams celebrated the very first end-of-year banquet, at Common Womon Club in Northampton.
The Common Womon team illustrated the melding of sports philosophies that the new league was beginning to attempt. They wore red T-shirts which read “Every ball missed advances another womon.” Common Womon player Kathryn Girard, who came up with that saying, recalls, “I loved our first year. We lost every game by 15 runs or more. I felt right at home. We really just played to get together, no coach, many like me with no skills, and not much interest in acquiring them.”
The league was so diverse in terms of the sport that, in the beginning, the rules of play had to be negotiated before the start of many games. Much of the League’s history is in how a creative integration of these differing needs was gradually achieved, resulting in its unique character.
Zulma Garcia was a grad student at UMass in 1976, when she started playing third base with the College Church team. Their home field was lined-in on the grass lawn in the Northampton Church’s back yard on Pomeroy Terrace. Zulma believes they had the best pitcher and catcher in the league at that time. Their pitcher “was intimidating, and though she tried to let up on her pitches (for novice batters) she only knew one way to play.” The teams into what Zulma called “support” softball rotated women through positions so they could learn. The College Church women all had set positions.
Zulma remembers the Easthampton team of post-high school women having to learn to tone it down, be less serious, in order to play in the League. There was a wide range of ages in the beginning. Zulma points out that the Hot Flashes battery was over a hundred years old (combined ages of pitcher and catcher), and they played against teams of women barely in their twenties.
The College Church team in their dark blue shirts represented other differences as well. Most were members of the Church. The team started games with a prayer that no one would get hurt and everyone would have a good time. They were teased a bit for this but generally respected, forming particularly close bonds with the Common Womon team. Zulma recalls showing up at a Common Womon player’s house for an intrateam barbecue, knocking on the door, and asking, “Is this where the prayer meeting is?” That got a laugh. She doesn’t recall the lesbian composition of other teams ever being discussed, though it was obvious. The College Church players did however occasionally joke about being “the token straight team.”
Common Womon proved to be such a popular team that in order to give every player a turn on the field, the team spawned new ones. The first was Bonnie Keene, formed in 1978, which was named after a feminist theatre production. In 1979 Womynrising was formed, named for the leftover conference T-shirts that had become available.
By the end of the decade, the Wendell Mosquitoes had come and gone, as had the Hadley, Easthampton, Bonnie, and Nutcracker teams. In spite of the losses, in some undocumented fashion, by 1981 twelve teams were playing, eight of them new. They also badly needed a structure to support this league. Many recall it as having, in the beginning, no rules, no money, no umps, and no fields! The story of developing that structure in the next decade and how the league was named is still to come.
STILL LOOKING FOR:
__Photos of those 70s teams and their t-shirts to include here__anyone?
__Griffin, Pat. “”Diamonds, Dykes, and Double Plays.” In Sportsdykes: Stories from On and Off the Field. Susan Fox Rogers Editor. St. Martin’s Press. 1994. Funny fictional spoof on traditional jock meets Valley Womyn’s Softball by a Common Womon team player.
__[Johnson, Lacey.] In league with us [sound recording]: the story of the Mary Vazquez Women’s Softball League, Northampton, MA / Elle Jay Productions. A video history of the League combining interviews, stills and homemovie clips, on DVD is available from Forbes Library in Northampton.
__Researchers can find a growing collection of materials on the Mary Vazquez Womyns’ Softball League within the Valley Women’s History Collaborative Collection at the UMass/Amherst DuBois Library Special Collections and University Archives. http://scua.library.umass.edu/ead/mums531.html.
__Girard, Kathryn. Email to KM. Aug.25, 2003.
__Grossholtz, Jean. “Softball: A Celebration of Strength and Sisterhood.” Valley Women’s Voice. May 1983.
__Van Arsdale, Sarah. ”Shaking In Their Sneakers: Feminist Softball in the Valley.” Valley Women’s Voice. Aug 1981.
__Tracy, Susan. Interview with KM. June 19, 22, 2000.
__Stewart, Eileen. Interview with KM. Aug. 27, 2003.
__Vazquez, Mary. “The Mary Vazquez Softball League: 1976-2003.” Unpublished paper. 2003.
_________________Interviews with KM Jun 17, 2000, Nov. 2003.
__Garcia, Zulma. Interview by KM. Oct. 22, 2003.
__Posner, Marjorie. Email to KM. Sep. 4, 2003.