“Dust Bowl Girls: The Inspiring Story of the Team That Barnstormed Its Way to Basketball Glory,” by Lydia Reeder (Algonquin, 286 pages, $26.95)
In the depths of the Great Depression, as the Dust Bowl was swallowing farms on the Great Plains, the town of Durant, Okla., was swept up by sports – women’s basketball, to be specific.
The Cardinals of Oklahoma Presbyterian College had what sportswriters refer to as “a magical season,” putting up a spotless record, beating powerhouse teams from Texas, uniting the town and winning the 1932 Amateur Athletic Union championship over a Texas team led by noted athlete Babe Didrikson.
Lydia Reeder’s “Dust Bowl Girls: The Inspiring Story of the Team That Barnstormed Its Way to Basketball Glory,” tells the story of the Cardinals: the players, the games, the touring – as well as the historical context and the controversy at the time over women’s athletics. Sam Babb, the Cardinals’ coach, was Reeder’s great-uncle, so she’s well-positioned to tell the story.
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The seed for the book was planted when Reeder’s grandmother – Babb’s sister – gave her a folder stuffed with information about the team and remarked that “you might want to tell their story.” But Reeder, who will visit Wichita on Thursday to talk about “Dust Bowl Girls,” also interviewed several team members and combed through old newspaper articles (including stories in The Eagle) and archives to fill in details.
“I was amazed at the history involved in the story,” Reeder said in a recent interview. But what really convinced her to write the book, she said, was meeting the players themselves. Six were still living in 2002, when Reeder interviewed them.
“They’d kept their scrapbooks,” she said. “Family members knew everything that had happened, and it was an incredible time in their lives.”
Reeder said the players were excited about the idea of a book but also “a little blase” because they’d been interviewed before about their days on the team. They knew their story was interesting, Reeder said, and they acted like “Oh, we were expecting you.”
The players’ scrapbooks, souvenirs and diaries provided a wealth of detail, and their own words helped Reeder tell a vivid, compelling story about the team. The book reads like a novel sometimes, because the author was able to re-create dialogue, narrate scenes and delve into the personalities of the players. Doll, Lucille, sisters Lera and Vera, Coral, La Homa and the others aren’t just statistics and black-and-white photographs; they come alive as real people.
But the team’s route to success wasn’t easy. Women’s basketball – and women’s sports in general – had been gaining in popularity in the early 20th century, but many people didn’t think women should be so competitive or physical and wanted to exclude women from “masculine” sports and traveling for games. Reeder spends a chapter discussing the Amateur Athletic Union (which allowed women to compete in basketball and other sports) versus the Committee on Women’s Athletics (which discouraged it), particularly interesting in light of Title IX and the huge participation of girls and women in sports today.
What stands out in the book, though, is the fact that the women on the Cardinals’ team loved basketball and wanted to compete. They were also well aware that the game was no more physically demanding than the farm work most of them had already been doing for several years. The Cardinals were excellent, highly skilled players with a dedicated coach who believed in them and became strong contenders in the AAU, traveling throughout Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Arkansas and Louisiana to compete.
The teams in the AAU had to fund themselves, and most teams weren’t college teams but sponsored by businesses. Regardless, Reeder said, “they had to put on a good show in order to attract people” to the games. That meant the AAU tournament also included a free-throw contest – and a beauty pageant. As alien as that might seem today, Reeder said that at the time, the players knew “that’s how it is – they knew they needed to make money to play.”
Reeder said her agent had originally envisioned a young-adult novel for the story, but it didn’t work as fiction. She said she knew “it had to be a true story,” because it was such a good story on its own. Although the story started with a family connection, Reeder said, the players were so interesting that “I became more enchanted by them than I was by my uncle.”
Lisa McLendon teaches journalism at the University of Kansas. Reach her at email@example.com.
Lydia Reeder reading, book signing
Who: Lydia Reeder, author of “Dust Bowl Girls”
What: Reading and book signing
When: 6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Watermark Books, 4701 E. Douglas
How much: Free
More info: 316-682-1181.