Nonfiction Fun: The Dustbowl Girls

It is Nonfiction November (hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, Lory at Emerald City Book Review, Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness, Julz at Julz Reads, Sarah at Sarah’s Book Shelves), and there are lots of reviews and recommendations of great-sounding nonfiction floating around. I want to read them all, and in return, maybe I can entice you to read Lydia Reeder’s Dust Bowl Girls. What a fun book this was, especially if you like nonfiction that is sports-related.

Did you know that less than 100 years ago, there was a concerted effort to exclude women from competitive sports? It was thought that strenuous exercise was bad for a woman’s health and the competitive spirit exhibited during sports events was deemed unladylike. Fast running and sweating in public were considered highly inappropriate for young ladies. There was even an attempt, spearheaded by First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, to exclude women from the Olympic Games in 1932, because of those reasons. Thankfully, a good number of people—and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU)—were neither convinced nor impressed by those efforts and continued to facilitate sports competitions for women. In the early 1930s, they were even allowed to swap their bloomers for shorts!

This particular book focuses on the girls’ basketball team of a small Oklahoma school, the Oklahoma Presbyterian College (OPC) in Durant, Oklahoma (population 7,500). Having a successful basketball team was part of the school’s fundraising efforts, and so its basketball coach, Sam Babb, spent quite a bit of time driving across the country looking for promising high school athletes to build his college team. For many young women who lived in rural areas during the Great Depression, going to college was out of the question, and so it was no surprise that those who were offered a basketball scholarship by Sam Babb quickly accepted. Most of the young women were required to help on the farm and to work as much as their brothers, so none of them thought twice about working hard and working up a sweat to make the basketball team a success.

In 1932/1933, Coach Babb took his team, the OPC Cardinals, on a 2-week-long barnstorming tour to raise money for the school. Doll Harris, La Homa Lassiter, Lucille Thurman, Coral Workley, Vera and Lera Dunford, Bo-Peep Park, and several other teammates drove around the southwestern United States in a rickety old bus to play a sport they loved and to show that it in no way interfered with their femininity. The OPC Cardinals happened to win every single one of the games on this tour, which led them to be invited to play the Golden Cyclones, a team whose star was Babe Didrikson, one of the best female athletes of the times (more info about her here—she’s worth knowing about). The Golden Cyclones had won the AAU Championship in 1932 and were planning to repeat the result in 1933. Doll Harris and the Cardinals had a different idea. The Cardinals and the Golden Cyclones did meet in the final game of the 1933 AAU Championship, but I won’t tell you which team won. You’ll have to pick up the book to find out; it’s a quick and entertaining read.

The author, Lydia Reeder, is the great-niece of Coach Babb and spent years interviewing the women who were part of the OPC Cardinals and their family members. It is easy to tell that Reeder cares about the people in the book, because their stories are told in a personable and relatable manner. I don’t usually enjoy when a nonfiction account states stuff like “she smiled as she looked out the window and thought about her parents,” as there is no way of really knowing whether she really did smile and think of her parents at that particular moment, but in this book, it didn’t bother me much. Mostly, I just had fun getting to know these remarkable ladies and cheering for them during their basketball games.

 

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19 comments

  1. I’m a bit of a sports fanatic — whether doing or watching — so I’m grateful to these pioneers of sports. Sounds like these ladies made important inroads with their playing & games. I have a biography of Babe Didrikson on my shelf dying to be read. A hero in her day.

    • What’s the name of the biography? I think I’d like to read it. She was not the focus of this book, but from everything that was said about her, it sounds like she was a whiz at self-marketing. 🙂 When I looked her up, I was so impressed by all the different sports she excelled in. She deserves to be wider known, I think.

      • Hi TJ: the biography of Babe Didrikson I have is called: “Wonder Girl: The Magnificent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias” by Don Van Natta Jr. which came out in 2011. I picked it up at a library sale. I hope to read it in 2018. It looks good!

  2. What fun! Basketball was the only team sport I was ever any good at. It’s been decades since I last played it, but I still miss it. Just added this to my list!
    Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder has some info in it about trying to keep women from playing sports, etc. Did you read that one? I can’t remember.

    • Haha, I never liked basketball all that much, because my sister was better than I was. 😉 I have not read Girl Runner, but now that you’ve mentioned the book, I remember seeing it on your blog. I remember the book cover and that you liked it. Maybe something to read over the holidays, as inspiration to get off the couch…

  3. Lovely review, TJ. This sounds like a very personable and engaging book, not in the least bit staid or dry. Hurrah for the OPC Cardinals – I’d love to see a film of their story.

    • It was a fun read, Jacqui. I would love to see a movie as well, because the rules for women’s basketball were different from what they are. Less running, no dribbling, but a lot more passing. I had a hard time picturing what a game might have looked like back then.

    • I know! And at the same time, no one had a problem with women doing backbreaking labor at the family farms. I had to laugh when it said that one player was really good at making baskets because throwing the ball into the basket during a game was just like throwing peaches into baskets during harvest time at the family farm, which she had done for years before going to college.

  4. Ah, I’m all for the idea that women shouldn’t do strenuous exercise – why do I always seem to live at the wrong time! 😉 Sounds like fun – these quirky subjects often turn out to be the most interesting reads. I even enjoyed one about American football once…!

    • I didn’t even mention all the special rules that were made for women’s basketball so that they wouldn’t have to exert themselves so much during the games. Of course those competitions also included beauty contests, to prove to people that one could both play a competitive sport and look pretty at the same time… (That football book, was it the one about a new strategy for playing the game? I still want to read that one.)

    • They were quite a group of ladies! When the First Lady spearheaded a rule that made it illegal for players to have nicknames, several of them promptly changed their names. (Bo-Peep did not…) To us, it might seem odd to change your name to Doll or Babe, but it made them more memorable to sports writers and a nationwide audience. True dedication to the sport… 🙂

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