Friday 29 July 2022

Diamonds are a girl's best friend: The Ladies Softball League of Guelph in the 1920s

Under the title "Girl softballers play off tonight," the Evening Mercury (19 Aug 1926) sports column began with this observation:
In all the excitement of the men’s city softball finals, between the Tigers and the Stove Co., local fans have almost forgotten that there is a ladies’ city league operating in Guelph. To-night at Exhibition Park the first game of the playoffs will take place between the fast Woolworth and St. James’ teams. These two teams have been running neck and neck all season, and the St. James’ team is sitting on top of the heap with a slight margin. They will try conclusions again in a series of three games to decide which is the better team.
The Royal City, usually associated with the feats of the Maple Leafs baseball team, was home to a vibrant, young women's softball league in the 1920s and beyond.

The 1920s were something of a "golden era" in women's sport. Well-to-do women had entered various sports such as tennis and cycling by the dawn of the 20th century. However, women of all classes began to compete in all manner of sporting events following the First World War. Masculine preserves such as ice hockey and basketball were no exception.

Neither was softball. Informal competitions were translated into organized league play by 1923 in cities such as Toronto and London. Leagues were usually local or regional in extent and operated under different auspices. For example, the Toronto Ladies Major Softball League was organized by local sports clubs. Other leagues were organized by local businesses, often factories, that sought to use sporting competition as way to build corporate loyalty and morale. The Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) organized girls softball leagues in many cities, such as London, in which school, business, and church teams might play against each other. In larger cities, leagues of all types often operated simultaneously.

Records of the early history of organized girls softball in Guelph are sparse, but the Globe does mention a softball tournament held in November, 1924, in which teams from Wentworth, Halton, Waterloo, Wellington, Bruce and the City of Guelph competed in a direct elimination format. The tournament was played inside the Guelph Winter Fair building on Carden street (softball had begun as an indoor version of baseball, so this was not unprecedented) and the Guelph team emerged victorious, defeating Wentworth 7 to 6 in an exciting finish (11 November).

(Guelph Winter Fair building, ca. 1915. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2002.92.1.)

It may be that the Guelph team was the local YWCA league champion, like the one shown in the picture below.

(Y.W.C.A. Softball Team, 1924; Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1982.88.1.)

Indeed, it is tempting to infer that the trophy held by the young woman in the middle of the middle row, M. Fulton, is the prize won from exactly this event. Unfortunately, there is no way to be sure.

Another interesting feature of this picture is how many of the same young women appear in the real-photo postcard below:

The similarity in uniforms and the fact that five girls seem to appear in both photos suggests that the postcard is also a picture of the Guelph YWCA league champions, although of a subsequent year.

In particular, the five girls on the right of the postcard also appear in the 1924 photograph. To the right of the coach (who may be Hugh Stanley, coach of the 1928 GCVI girls softball team), stand girls named I. Kennard and F. Kenny in the earlier picture. These may well be Ivy Kennard and Florence Kenny. In front of them sit R. King (holding the trophy), L. Barton and M. Fulton. I am not sure who R. King is, although a "Mrs. King" is listed as a "fine first baseman" for a Guelph team in 1925 (Acton Free Press, 16 July 1925). L. Barton also remains obscure. M. Fulton may well be Minnie Fulton, who is listed as a player for St. James and Guelph teams in 1926.

The other two girls in the front row are much easier to identify. The one seated at the left end is Elma Earon and to the right of her is Helen "Curly" Bardwell. Happily, we are in possession of a photo album belonging to Elma Earon, which has many pictures of the two of them, plus another star softball player Isabel "Torchy" Grieve, ca. 1927 (Guelph Civic Museums 2017.1.35).

(Elma Earon)
(Helen Bardwell)
(Helen Bardwell and "Torchy" Grieve)

These three girls were senior students at the Guelph Collegiate an Vocational Institute together in 1926 and are described in the following terms in the school yearbook (Acta Nostra 1926, p. 33):

HELEN BARDWELL, "Curlie," 5 ft. 3 in., 117 lbs., 17 years—Captain of the Basketball team, and plays check; plays first-base on the Softball team; she does both well and is an all round sport.
ISABELLE GRIEVE, "Torchy," 5 ft. 3 1/2 in., 110 lbs., 17 years—Captain and pitcher of the Softball team. A glance at the "Review of Softball games" will show her an able pitcher. Forward on the Basketball team, and you should see her free shots! Sr. Field Day Champion.
ELMA EARON, "Blondy," 5 ft. 7 1/2 in. 120 lbs., 18 years—Captain of the Basketball team last year. She doesn't know how to miss the basket, and is half of the team. Plays short-stop on the Softball team, and is the star hitter.
The yearbook also provides the following photo the school team for 1926:
Altogether, the appearance of Elma and Helen in the postcard image suggests that it was taken in 1925 or 1926, when they were top players in the Guelph softball leagues.

Another interesting point about the postcard picture is that the girls all wear sashes that say "Guelph". Perhaps this means that they had won the title of city champions in the YWCA league. Records of competition for this period are spotty, so it is not clear who was competing and which team won the championships.

In any event, remaining records for the 1926 season suggest how league play unfolded in that era.

The Mercury (20 August 1926) states that the city championship that year had come down to a contest between the St. James's Church team and the Woolworth's team. The St. James's Church team was organized by the local Anglican Young People's Association (or AYPA) while the Woolworth's team was sponsored by the local store belonging to the famous department store chain.

(St. James Anglican Church, Guelph. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1986.18.116.)

(It is not clear what other teams were in the league that year, and membership in such organizations often varied from year to year. In any case, the 1927 league included the AYPA, Woolworth's, and teams from Northern Rubber and Guelph Carpet Mills. In any event, the AYPA and Woolworth's teams were the top contenders in both years.)

(Military parade, 1938, St. George's Square [F.W. Woolworth Co. store in the background]. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 1978.32.10.)

In the first game of the 1926 series, the St. James's team defeated the Woolworth's side handily. The Mercury sports column provides an account of the play in the usual sportswriter's idiom:

It was quite evident from the opening innings that Miss Joy Pfaff, the star pitcher for the F.W.’s [Woolworth's] team, could not get her benders working, undoubtedly due to the cold, and the Saints lost no time in securing a safe lead, knowing that anything may happen in a softball game, and they added to their total in every innings but the fifth, in which frame they went down in order, the last two striking out. On the other hand, the heaver for the church ladies seemed to have better luck with her slants, and although she only struck out three, she had them waving at almost everything, she only allowed the usually heavy-slugging “fifteen-centers” seven hits, all singles, while she and her assistants hammered out fourteen, two of which were homers, one by “Pep” Hill, and the other by Helen herself.
Unfortunately, the Mercury did not report on the remaining games of the series, but the St. James's team was described as the "league leaders" in the first game of the 1927 season (Mercury, 22 June), so we may infer that they carried off the 1926 city title.

Play in women's softball was essentially the same as in the men's game. (The main adaptation was that the diamond in the women's game was a little smaller.) Unlike in earlier eras, when women athletes were required to compete in bulky dresses, girls in the 1920s could wear shorts and stockings, which allowed them to play a physical game.

As a result, injuries were common. Collisions and rough slides during base running produced bruises, abrasions and even broken limbs. Also, since only the catcher and first base player could use mitts, other players suffered contusions and broken fingers in both hands from fielding high-speed balls.

Injuries were reported in women's play in Guelph. During the Woolworth's vs. St. James 1926 game described above, the paper relates how the St. James's second base player "Pep" Hill was shaken up:

Every player on both teams turned in a good game, but the performance of “Pep” Hill, who cavorts around second for the Saints, was by far the outstanding feature. When coming home in the fourth innings, Miss Hill tried to evade the catcher who had the ball, and in so doing overbalanced herself sufficiently that when the receiver touched her with the ball she lost her balance completely, and received a terrible jolt when she hit the ground. It was several minutes before she could be brought around again, but showing the gameness for which she is known, she went right back into the game, and made even a better “fist” of it from then on, if that were possible.
Another example came during another play-off tilt between the Woolworth's and St. James teams in 1927, when they played to a 5–5 draw. During that game, Woolworth's Pearl Richardson was injured during an aggressive slide into base (Mercury, 22 July):
The game was marred by an accident to Woolworth’s good left fielder, who had the misfortune to break her ankle whilst sliding into the third station. The player was removed to the hospital and the injured member set. The sympathy of the whole softball community goes out to the injured player.
Interestingly, the two teams arranged to play an exhibition game as a benefit for the injured Miss Richardson. The reason for this arrangement is described as follows (Mercury, 23 July):
The members of the team feel that Miss Richardson should not be called upon to defray her own expenses since she was injured in playing in a league match, and it is for this reason that the benefit game is being played.
As was often the case, employers such as Woolworth's do not seem to have offered sick days or other health benefits to employees who lost work due to injuries, even those sustained while playing on the company softball team. The benefit game was evidently intended to raise money to help Miss Richardson make up for the salary she would lose during her recuperation.

The 1927 season seems to have been a very good one for the St. James's team. As usual, their main rivals were the Woolworth's nine and the inevitable playoff contest was closely fought. After winning one game each, the two teams battled to a 5–5 in game three (as noted above), necessitating a sudden-death final.

This proved to be an exciting game where the St. James's team had to come from behind in the late innings to carry off the honours (29 July 1927):

The battle was productive of some smart baseball, and was a nip and tuck struggle all the way. Woolworths led up to the eighth inning, but St. James’, by good batting and good base running, tied the score in their half of the eighth by notching five runs. Woolworths replied with one run in the last half of the same inning, and were leading by 12 to 11 at the start of the ninth frame. St. James’, however, were not to be denied, and cinched the game by scoring three runs in the ninth, whilst their opponents were held scoreless.
Happily, there is a picture of the winning, 1927 edition of the AYPA squad in Harold Cole's 1972 booklet, "Guelph sports hall of fame" (Wellington County Museum A1997.126.07).
The caption identifies the players, some of whom are now familiar:
In front: Elsie Hume, catcher.
First row seated (L. to R.): Torchy Grieve, Pitcher; Dorothy Richardson 2B; Dorothy Harris, Pitcher; Helen Bardwell, 1B; Maizie Barr, 3B; N. Wilson, OF.
Second row (L. to R.): M. Fulton, Catcher; Mildred Peer, OF; Dave Burnett, Mgr; Garson Davis, Dave McClosky, Coach; Helen McGibbon, OF & Pitcher; Adeline Leader, OF.
The uniforms are much splashier than earlier versions. The jersies identify the team sponsor, the AYPA, the shorts are more abbreviated than before, and the stockings are banded.

Cole notes that the St. James's team 1927 was undefeated in Western Ontario competition, which is, presumably, whey they were included in his booklet. The Mercury provides a zealous account of a game between the St. James's team and opponents from the Goodrich team from Kitchener (30 July):

St. James’ girl softballers handed Kitchener Goodrich ladies a 20-7 drubbing in Lyon Park last evening in an exhibition fixture. Outclassing the Twin City aggregation in every department of the game, they had no trouble at any stage of the proceedings.
The Saints were at the peak of their season’s form against the out-of-towners and played airtight ball behind Helen McGibbon, who was on the slab for the locals. Her battery-mate, Minnie Fulton, turned in her usual perfect performance, and every member of the team was right on her toes throughout. All the locals fattened their batting averages to a considerable extent at the expense of the Goodrich visitors, while Misses Wilson and McGibbon counted the two circuit blows of the tussle.
It would be lovely to know about more the teams' triumphs in regional play but the requiste issues of the Mercury are missing from the archives.

Ladies softball was firmly establiished in the Royal City. Local teams continued to compete and hone their skills each summer and fall. Regional play also carried on, when Guelph was represented in the 1930s by teams with names like the Supremes and the Leafettes.

Leagues in Toronto, London, and St. Catherines have been well researched. The history of ladies softball in Guelph awaits our efforts. So, if you have futher information on this matter, let us known in the comments!

Works consulted include: