Lydia Reeder Provides Portrait Of Success With ‘Dust Bowl Girls’
Lydia Reeder’s new book, Dust Bowl Girls, tells the story of how her great-uncle, Sam Babb, coached the 1932 Oklahoma Presbyterian College Cardinals to a championship season. The story of Babb, his team and their determination is inspirational and part of the book’s growing success. Here, Reeder recalls how a simple folder her grandmother gave her provided the basis of the story she tells in this new work.
Jedd Beaudoin: Where did Dust Bowl Girls start for you?
Lydia Reeder: In the late 1970s, my grandmother, who was a big part of my life growing up, campaigned to have her brother Sam inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. His coaching achievements had never been acknowledged, and the OPC Cardinals’ great successes had been lost. Nobody knew about it. She just wanted to make sure that he was remembered for his coaching successes and for how he helped women gain a college education.
She went out and gathered all this information. She called up newspapers and got newspaper articles. She called up players. They wrote letters. She gathered photographs of the team. It was all about Sam, who happened to be her favorite brother.
Sure enough, she got him inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame. Afterwards, she took all the information that she had gathered and stuck it into a folder that she filed away. Years later, I was interested in writing and she took out that folder, it wasn’t long before she died. I think she wanted to put it into safe hands. She said, "Here, you might want to write about this someday." Once I started looking at it, which took me a couple of years, there was a story there. It just grew from that.
When we look back to the era in which Sam is going around and recruiting these young women, this is a time when women were perhaps not expected to be going off to college.
He would always visit the parents of the girls he was recruiting and he would talk to them and give them his lecture about how he wanted them to come to school and how he would treat them as his own daughters. They were dumbfounded, the parents, because they couldn’t believe that a school would actually offer financial aid for a young woman to go to college and play basketball.
When he drove up, they thought a rich man had come to call. They didn’t know what was going to happen.
I’m also wondering if you can tell us a little bit about where basketball was culturally.
The times were very desperate. Some of the girls and their families didn’t have enough to eat. But, back then, in small towns, attending the Friday night basketball game was as important as attending Sunday church. Everyone went and everyone played. For girls, especially rural girls, they all worked in the fields. They all carried their load. So, no one thought it was strange for girls to be playing basketball.
But this was in the rural areas, especially of the Midwest. But, let’s just say that they didn’t like women playing basketball or any kind of competitive sports. At the time, Mrs. Herbert Hoover was appointed by the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy from President Warren Harding’s cabinet to be in charge of what was called the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation.
Basically, their motto was "A sport for every girl and every girl for a sport." They were against specialization and competition. They thought that girls should just play for fun. So, by wielding this federally mandated power, they basically systemically eliminated competitive athletics for women. They especially hated basketball. It was very interesting. They would write about the horrors of young girls breaking their backs, literally, while they were playing basketball. I don’t know if there was any truth to these stories that they told, but as far as public relations went, it worked very well for them.
So what does that do to college athletics for young women?
Colleges, especially prestigious colleges across the country, started eliminating their basketball teams. The only places that organized sports for women back then was the Amateur Athletic Union. That’s where the Cardinals ended up playing under. They were called the industrial leagues, and the industrial leagues had men’s and women’s basketball teams as a public relations item. People would come and watch and then do business with the businesses that sponsored these sports teams.
But it was kind of a class issue then too because it was the lower and middle classes who went to these games. So, somebody like Mrs. Herbert Hoover and the women who worked for her in the Women’s Division did not want young women playing basketball in front of drunken men. That was not really the case, but that’s what they thought of.
So this book allows us to recapture a period of history that some have forgotten. But has this also been a way for you to reconnect with personal history?
Absolutely. It’s kind of putting myself in Sam’s place and in the Cardinals’ place. It was kind of an exciting time, even though there was a depression going on, they found a way to make do. I find that so inspirational. It was very inspirational for me to dig back. And to see my grandmother who, like I said, was a big influence on my life, was very similar to Sam. Things that you would never think of. It just kind of brings it all to life and then you say, "Oh, that sounds familiar. I’m a little that way too."
Lydia Reeder appears at Watermark Books for an author talk and book signing on Thursday.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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