Baseball history has been so thoroughly explored that it seems impossible there could be room for another book. Comparatively neglected is softball’s past—which, it turns out, is completely fascinating and a compelling lens on twentieth-century women’s history.
The sport—often stereotyped as baseball, but for girls—is the subject of Fastpitch: The Untold History of Softball and the Women Who Made the Game. The book traces the history of the sport from its earliest days, as well as how it became so dominated by women. Typically technically “amateur,” teams were fiercely competitive, deadly serious, and a popular attraction in many regions across the country from the ‘30s through the ‘60s. Often sponsored by local businesses—who might go so far as to recruit players with solid secretarial jobs—teams had wonderful names like the Raybestos Brakettes, the Orange Lionettes, the Portland Florists, the Peoria Dieselettes.
And it was as close as many women could get to playing professional sports.
Author Erica Westly got inspired when she found herself sucked into watching the college women’s softball tournament one year and began wondering about the sport’s history. Obviously, it was different from baseball: it had underhand pitching, a smaller field, seven innings instead of nine. “I knew that what i was seeing was competitive, but I just kind of assumed because it was a women’s sport, that it had this sexist history, that it was designed as this not as competitive version of baseball for girls to play,” she explained.
She went digging and found a completely different story, “this robust history of men and women playing it, and then it really became a women’s sport through happenstance rather than design.” What’s more, she began reading about players like Bertha Ragan Tickey, “who had such long careers and really were able to have a full life based on playing softball at a competitive level.”
“It really surprised me,” Westly explained. “And I thought it was kind of a shame that these women were forgotten by history and weren’t better known, and I thought that their stories deserved to be out there.”
We chatted a bit about the book where Westly makes that happen. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about the origins of softball. Because I have to confess that I never played and when I was a kid, it was basically explained to me as baseball lite, and I assumed it had a shorter history. But your book makes very clear that there’s a long history of softball in general, and women’s softball in particular, so I’m curious to get a little background about the origins of the sport.
I knew from my own experiences and talking to people that it’s not widely known, the history of softball, and I think a lot of people, including myself, often think like you said that it’s this watered-down version of baseball that was developed for women. When I started researching the history of the sport just because I was curious about it, I was immediately surprised to learn how old the sport was. It was first developed in the 1880s, which actually makes it a little older than basketball and volleyball, and was developed by men, and really was kind of an impromptu version of indoor baseball. It really was this factory worker’s gritty game that developed in industrial American sort of as a response to urbanization that prevented baseball, since you need so much space and, ideally, a nice grass field to play baseball. Softball was a sport that you could play on pretty much any surface in a much smaller space. And it grew from there.
From the beginning women were welcomed to play. Not originally in the large numbers that developed later in the 20th century, but I think because it was a community sport and an amateur sport, it was more accessible to women than baseball and other professional sports.
So it’s got this amateur local vibe where it feels okay for women to do it. But by the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, women’s softball becomes in many places a kind of a popular mass attraction. it wasn’t just a niche thing or a novelty—it was just something people thought of as being one of their options for a fun afternoon’s entertainment. Tell me about how that developed.
It’s kind of hard to imagine now, because we don’t have that same community feel in towns. But a lot of it is pre-television, they didn’t necessarily have that much entertainment at home and would go out to the local park, and it became a phenomenon where towns that were too small to have even a minor league baseball team had these parks, and because they were smaller than a baseball field, that made it cheaper for them to add lights. So it was part of the attraction in a lot of places—just having the field lights. That was really a novelty. And you know, I think it was fun to support people’s family members and neighbors and coworkers. That was how it became more acceptable for women to get involved, because the people in the stands knew them personally so they weren’t viewed with the same judgement that maybe women coming from outside would be.
It was “our girls.”
Before that, they had these barnstorming women’s baseball teams that were probably genuine athletes, but they were primarily seen as entertainment. And because they were more outsiders and there more as a novelty, they were judged more harshly by local newspapers. But in covering the women’s softball teams, that were were sponsored by local businesses, it was a kind of family feel for these women’s teams.
One of the women you follow is Bertha Ragan Tickey, and you open the book with this image of Bertha and the height of the Brakettes from Stratford, Connecticut, who were sponsored by the company Raybestos. Clearly the company was a major part of the town’s economy, and it seems like that team was really a culmination of this type of experience, how they built it up into a major local attraction.
Exactly. There’s a town pride element to it, too. Starting in the ‘50s and then going into the ‘60s where more people have televisions at home, not that they didn’t follow the professional teams from the nearest city, but people didn’t have the same need for the small town teams as much. But in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, it really meant something to have these softball teams from your town winning at the state and national level. That was really a big deal. It made front page on the newspapers and they really wanted those teams to be as competitive as possible.
When I read about Raybestos and these companies who were essentially hiring people to play on these softball teams—it’s obviously very different from how we see company softball teams today, which are mostly slow pitch and just for fun. These were on par with a professional sports team, but they were also working at the company full time, the women at least more on the secretarial side. I thought that was fascinating, and it was a cool, unique working opportunity for women to be able to get a steady job and also an opportunity to play sports at a high level, all in one.
That was what was really interesting to me—you talk about local teams and how it had this sort of amateur vibe so it was okay for women to participate, but the women who were playing were athletes. They were serious and dedicated and likely would have been professional athletes if they’d had the opportunity, right?
Right. It was local but it was especially big in the places that managed to have really strong teams. So you’d have these hot spots where most of the women are still from that area. Bertha’s an example of someone who was so good that she was brought in to help the team. This was a way for the Connecticut team to be at that level. A lot of the teams at that time were from the West Coast, and there was that practice of maybe bringing in one really experienced player to help bring your team up to that level.
It became a funnel especially for women in local communities, because they had so few other opportunities. If you were a competitive female athlete, you got funneled into fast-pitch softball because you didn’t have sports opportunities at school for the most part. A lot of them also played basketball, but basketball in a lot of places played by different rules than the men and didn’t have the same playing opportunities. Whereas softball really was basically the same rules as the men’s game, so it was a unique opportunity. Obviously now you have a lot more opportunities with soccer and a whole bunch of other sports girls can play, but around that time it was getting all of the athletic women pulled together into this one sport.
Your book suggests the popularity of women’s softball was actually an inspiration for the All-American League, which inspired A League of Their Own. There actually is this long history of women’s softball behind that idea. It wasn’t just like, “What if we did baseball, but with girls!” People knew that people would go see softball played by women because it was popular.
Philip Wrigley, who spearheaded the league that’s depicted in A League of Their Own, actually had a background with some of these really competitive Los Angeles women’s softball teams, and he had even helped sponsor one of the teams. He was very familiar with the popularity of women’s softball at least in California, but also in Chicago too, and those teams also continued to exist while that World War Two league was happening. The women did have different options, at least in most parts of the country. They could stay with their local teams or there was also this other option that appeared during the war, where they could go to these different Midwestern teams that were part of that professional league.
What was the peak of popularity for women’s softball? It seems like the ‘50s were kind of a golden age, which conflicts with my mental image of what women were “allowed” to do in the ‘50s.
The ‘50s and then going into the ‘60s was when it really peaked. Around the same time you have men starting to leave the sport, which then makes it more marginalized, and it affects the sport’s evolution going forward. You have both of those things happening, where in the ‘50s after the war you have these forces that are encouraging this idea that women are supposed to stay home and not work and be subservient, supportive roles rather than seeking out any sort of career or attention for themselves.
But at the same time, I think the history of women’s softball is also the history of working class women who—they needed to work. Some of them were married, some of them were supporting their families. There were women who often didn’t get married in part because they were needed to help support their parents and siblings. So for those women, many of whom maybe grew up playing sports with brothers or things like that—obviously fewer women went to college in general, but they weren’t necessarily from the Betty Friedan side where you have these college educated women who are being housewives. These were more the women who always grew up knowing they would probably need to do some sort of work to support their family.
But those attitudes did shape newspaper coverage, and as the real standout athletes would look for other opportunities, they were hit this media narrative, right? For instance, Bertha went on a couple of game shows and would bump into media narratives that were difficult, right?
Yeah. There’s that difference of how you’re treated locally by the people who know you, but then the national media coverage—a lot of these are male sportswriters who come from different backgrounds than these women did and also didn’t know them. Especially male baseball writers coming from New York or Chicago, they weren’t necessarily as familiar with the women’s softball teams and so for them it was more of a novelty, as was the idea of women competing in sports. So you see a lot of really sexist coverage in the newspapers and on TV, too. There’s some cringeworthy moments in the You Bet Your Life appearance where she’s talking to Groucho Marx. Sexist comments galore.
You still see a lot of that today, quite frankly, where female athletes are still treated at novelties a lot and you have people from news organizations asking the women questions they’d never ask men.
Tell me a little bit about the slowpitch/fastpitch distinction and a bit about the history of the two styles in softball.
The sport started with makeshift balls—the story is that originally, in the 1880s, they played with a boxing glove. Then people would make their own and it was called mush ball in some places, pumpkin ball in some places. Obviously with a ball that’s larger like that, you’re not really doing the fast pitching that took over starting in the ‘30s when the ball got smaller. That’s when you start seeing the 12-inch ball that the players still use today.
That was, starting then, really the dominant form of softball in this country. Slowpitch existed, but it was primarily seen as a game for children and maybe senior citizens. Slowpitch is more lobbed pitching. Fastpitch, in terms of its complexity and difficulty to hit, is more like baseball. Both underhand pitching, but fastpitch is the complex, baseball-ish version of that, where you have curve balls and, you know, there’s spin on the ball. Slowpitch is basically just about delivering the ball so that the batter can hit it.
Then starting later in the 1950s and increasing through the ‘60s and the ‘70s, you have men starting to switch from fastpitch to slowpitch as the recreational form of softball. That’s when you start seeing more of the company teams becoming more like the slowpitch softball teams that we know now. Fastpitch is even more difficult to hit, experts say, than baseball, just because it’s even more dominant. Back in the most competitive days, you would see a lot of scores where it’s just one to zero, and sometimes just a few hits. You have a lot of strikeouts, just because there’s a lot that the pitchers can do with the underhand delivery and they’re also closer to the batter so their reaction time is less. So recreationally, as a hitter, if you’re just wanting to play for fun, it’s not necessarily that fun to go up against a fastpitch pitcher who is striking everyone out.
And you start seeing the companies not sponsoring these competitive teams as much for various reasons, largely because it wasn’t ever profitable as an amateur sport. Once that starts disappearing, men at the community level are playing more slowpitch softball, where it’s just about hitting home runs and having a good time. The fastpitch scene really became more dominant by the women because they were still excluded from baseball. For them, fastpitch was really the only option if they wanted to play that type of sport competitively.
So what ends up killing off women’s softball as a mass attraction? Is it just TV?
It was a combination of things. The loss of the top sponsors—Raybestos stayed strong through the ‘70s, but a lot of the other teams, they didn’t have the strong sponsorship. As the men’s teams started to fold, women’s softball became more marginalized. They still existed, but obviously it’s a lot more difficult when you don’t have those sponsors. So it ends up fading away in the 1970s, which was a shame, because you still had top athletes involved with the sport.
Billie Jean King helped start this professional women’s softball league in the ‘70s, but I think it was just too late by that point. Already people didn’t remember that their towns used to have these teams and people in the general public weren’t as familiar with fastpitch at that point. Really it was hard for that women’s pro league to succeed, because it was already marginalized by that point.
Really Title IX saved fastpitch softball, because the colleges needed more women’s sports to comply and softball gave them this ready-made solution. It already existed; a lot of the women who played on the teams became coaches. That’s when it really became the official female counterpart to baseball.
It was interesting how there’s a direct line from these local company-sponsored “amateur” teams to the college fast-pitch programs. That knowledge just moved directly into those college programs, right?
Yeah, a lot of the top players you see coaching for these different southern California schools. Originally those areas had the best teams, and you still kind of see those lines today, and a lot of it is the long history those geographical regions have with women’s softball. But even those places, the players don’t necessarily know about that history. They don’t necessarily know that their coach was a star on the Raybestos team or one of the southern California teams, but the geography kept those players in those areas and nurtured the next generation.
Author photo by Josh Romero. Additional photos courtesy the Brakettes Softball Photo Archive; Billie Harris; the Joan Chandler-Women’s Sports Foundation, AP Images.