Powderpuff and the Evolution of Women’s Sports
Thu, 03/04/2021 - 3:26pm admin
In several previous articles, I focused on men’s sports, mostly football and basketball, but a few recent events, including a federal executive order, shifted my thoughts to the progress that has been made in women’s sports.
The Willow Springs school song has the words “. . . playing basketball . . .”, but in the 1950s and 1960s, it only applied to boys. Opportunities for girls to participate on sports teams did not exist. Cheerleading, marching band, and physical education classes provided the only athletic outlets.
Catherine (Beavers) Weekly (WSHS, 1960), who moved to Willow as a freshman, says she played on basketball teams in junior high in Arkansas and missed not being able to play in high school.
And Willow Springs had girls who could have excelled. When I spoke to former basketball coach Joe Scott a few weeks ago, he independently recalled—from 50 years before—that his player Billy Shanks had an older sister in PE classes that had remarkable athletic ability. I told him that was Trudy Shanks (WSHS, 1963), and that Coach Buddy Bennett once said she could have made the boys’ track team.
Classmate Sandy (Merrill) Grogan, athletic as well, (in the eighth grade, she could prance on her tiptoes like a ballerina) said, “Trudy Shanks could probably outrun any boy in school but as there was no track team for us, we'll never know. In PE we would run, and I was thrilled if I could tie her. Not having girls’ sports was a big disappointment to me, and I still get a little bitter taste about it.”
The situation changed in the 1970s, and from the sports pages of the Howell County News, I have noticed, with the success of the Willow Springs Lady Bears in basketball, softball, and volleyball, that the progress continues. As of this writing, the Lady Bears basketball team is charging toward winning the SCA conference and is ranked 21st in the state for Class 4 schools. Go Lady Bears!
My wife played competitive team basketball from junior high through college, at St. Louis University. She likes to point out that they used the same size ball as the men. In 1984, the size of the basketball became an inch smaller for women, which makes it interesting to consider, that basketball for women prior to the 1970s was a game today’s Lady Bears would hardly recognize.
The first time I realized that the rules for women’s basketball, even in the 1960s, were different from the men’s game was during my freshman year in 1961. Physical education teacher Wilma Stringer organized a women’s basketball team to play an exhibition game in the old gym. I am not certain, but I think it was the same night the Class of 1962 arranged a game between the local town team and the Harlem Stars, a professional Harlem Globetrotter-type team.
Two things come to mind about that night. Coach Buddy Bennett trying to guard a Harlem Stars player, who bounced the ball to himself through Buddy’s legs and went in for an uncontested layup. I think Buddy laughed harder than the spectators. And the weird rules for women’s basketball.
Under the old rules, women teams had six players instead of five, three guards, who only defended and didn’t shoot, and 3 shooting forwards. The floor was divided into two halves, offensive and defensive. The forwards (shooters) of one team would be located on the side of the court where the other team’s guards were stationed. All shots from the floor counted two points. Until the early 1950s, unlimited dribbling was not allowed. After a player got the ball, it could only be bounced twice.
As the saying goes, what’s old is new again. Old-fashioned women’s basketball has returned to popularity as “Granny Basketball.” [I’m not being insensitive; it is a trademarked term.] It started in Iowa in 2005, but has made its way to Missouri. It’s billed as competitive exercise for women over the age of 50 and a method of preserving six-on-six basketball.
The typical granny uniforms are loose-fitting blouses, with sailor neckerchiefs, and bloomers with stockings. I suggested to my wife that she might be interested in joining a team. She questioned what planet I came from.
In the sixties, girls might not have been able to compete in team basketball, volleyball, or track at WSHS, but in 1963, the junior and senior girls played each other in football—powderpuff football. Proceeds from the sale of tickets helped fund the senior class trip.
Powderpuff football is a variation of touch football played by women. Rather than tackling a runner with the ball, the opponent grabs a strip of cloth (“flag”) hanging from a runner’s pants pocket or belt. Or as Sandy Grogan, one of the stars of the game, recently told me, “Even though I was a cheerleader, I didn’t know much about football mechanics. So, you guys would tell us what to do, but I think all of us knew to just try to get that ball and tackle (flag) anyone who had it.”
I have searched and failed to find a photograph of the game, but I do have eyewitness accounts, most indicating the scrimmage failed to match the image of the name. That is, it wasn’t very “powder puffery.” In fact, it involved trickery, scuffles, and injuries.
Barbara (Sherrill) Pigg (WSHS, 1964) recalls, “Football players were coaching both teams and I remember we injured two players during practice, and Coach [Case] wouldn’t let the team help us anymore. I think Dan Zimmerman ended up on crutches for a while.”
Peggy (Henry) Bradford (WSHS, 1965) says, “As for the powderpuff football game, I couldn’t forget that one. Someone that shall remain nameless hit me on the nose and the resulting nosebleed ended the game for me. Not much powderpuff about that game, as I remember someone later being carried off on a stretcher. That was quite a night.”
As to the trickery, Barbara says, “Judy R. also played and tied a rock to her flag, and with tight jeans or maybe jean shorts, it didn’t pull out easily. I think Sandy pulled it out and the small rock hit her in the face.” According to Barbara, the two girls ended up in a shirt-grabbing tussle. Sandy confirmed she was in the scrap.
With all the rule changes, transitions, and progress—from PE only to 5-player women’s basketball—one thing I know for sure: after my wife’s reaction I will not suggest that any of the powderpuff players take up Granny Basketball.