Review of Dust Bowl Girls

Reeder, Lydia. Dust Bowl Girls: The Inspiring Story of the Team that Barnstormed Its Way to Basketball Glory. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2017. Pp. 304. Notes. $26.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Cat Ariail

At first glance, 1932 appears to have been a banner year for Babe Didrikson.  The so-called “Wonder Girl” romped to five titles at the National AAU Women’s Track and Field Championship before claiming a pair of golds and a single silver during the track and field competition at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Yet, is it possible Didrikson’s track and field dominance derived from lingering disappointment? For, on the basketball court, the world’s best female athlete had been unable to assert her will.  The Oklahoma Presbyterian College (OPC) Cardinals, led by the indomitable Doll Harris, thrice bested Didrikson and her Dallas Employers Casualty Insurance Golden Cyclones during the 1932 season, including a thrilling 35-32 showdown to win the National AAU Women’s Basketball Championship.  Harris, a barely five-foot tall part Irish and part Cherokee spitfire from Cement, Oklahoma, was named captain of the 1932 AAU All-American team, taking the honor that would have been assumed to belong to Didrikson.

Dust Bowl Girls

Algonquin Books, 2017.

Lydia Reeder, a Denver-based copywriter and editor, tells the fascinating story of Harris and her OPC teammates in Dust Bowl Girls: The Inspiring Story of the Team that Barnstormed Its Way to Basketball Glory. The story of the Cardinals is part of Reeder’s family history; her great uncle, Sam Babb, coached the champion squad.  But her personal connection to the material does not detrimentally color her work.  Rather than a simple, celebratory narrative of Babb, Reeder offers a contextualized and historicized account of rural, working-class women’s college basketball during the height of the Great Depression.  She transforms the story of the OPC Cardinals into one of more than narrative recovery, using the compelling experiences of Harris and the other Cardinals to add texture to the historical understanding of women’s basketball and working-class women’s sport during the early 1930s.

Reeder pens an engaging story due to cleverly combining meticulous research with a flair for creativity. Along with collecting clippings and archival material from various university and local libraries in the region of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana where OPC barnstormed in 1932, Reeder relied on former Cardinal Virginia Hamilton Childers to guide her research. Hamilton Childers helped Reeder contact the family members of other former Cardinals, who provided her with scrapbooks, letters, and other ephemera, including the unpublished autobiography of Lucille Thurman, starting center for the 1932 champion Cardinals.  Reeder uses this information not only to reconstruct games and events, but also to imagine how the young female athletes experienced them.

Her approach is evident in her use of Lucille Thurman’s autobiography.  Reeder chronicles Thurman’s struggle with her anxiety throughout the narrative, capturing how the five-foot ten-inch sixteen-year-old from Cookietown, Oklahoma managed her nerves as she established herself as OPC’s starting center.  For example, Reeder envisions that, even after sinking the game sealing shot at the national championship and earning All-American honors, Thurman dwelled on her inability to secure the game’s opening tip.

Reeder also captures the degree to which playing basketball provided heretofore unimaginable experiences for these young female athletes.  During the 1931-32 Christmas holiday, OPC barnstormed across Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, an exciting but potentially unnerving opportunity for young farm girls from Oklahoma who had never spent Christmas away from their families.  For instance, Reeder imagines Lera and Vera Dunford, six-foot tall red-head twins who would play for the famous All-American World Champion Redheads after their time at OPC, excitedly sending their family a Christmas telegram. She also envisions a homesick La Homa Lassiter having an emotional breakdown upon returning to her dorm room following their three-week (and undefeated) Christmas break barnstorm, distraught that she had missed spending the holidays with her family.

Reeder’s peek into the mind of Doll Harris proves most perceptive, as she uses Harris’s possible thoughts to consider how these young women wrestled with expectations of gender and sexuality.  For instance, the Harris who boldly ran the streets downtown of Durant when she first arrived at OPC becomes concerned about her femininity, telling herself, “Think pretty, look pretty, be pretty,” (pp. 157). Reeder imagines that, as the Cardinals prepared to take on the Golden Cyclones, Harris compared herself to Didrikson, taking pride in her “petite features” that contrasted with Didrikson’s “angular nose and chin,” (pp. 167). She also envisions Harris struggling with her sexuality, intimating her attractions to teammate Toka Lee Fields and Coach Babb.

With these narrative liberties, Reeder captures how ideologies operated at the individual level. Throughout her work, Reeder inserts discussions of larger social debates about the appropriateness, or lack thereof, of women’s basketball.  She details the developments familiar to historians of women’s sport, summarizing the battles between female physical educators opposed to competition, led by First Lady Lou Henry Hoover and the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Association, and the primarily male controlled AAU, which supported competition.

Reeder rightly notes that, “Most of the OPC Cardinals didn’t know that the Women’s Division existed,” but she also recognizes that the ideological assumptions about gender and sexuality that drove these national debates filtered down to young female athletes who, even if unaware of the machinations of Hoover and her associates, implicitly understood that their love for competitive basketball made them different (pp. 92). For example, she imagines Lassiter, considered the team’s most beautiful player, asking Babb, who also taught psychology, “Can you promise me that playing with the Cardinals won’t destroy my ability to be a lady?” (pp. 78). “Yes, I can make you that promise. Basketball encourages all ladylike abilities, especially critical thinking and good judgement. You came here a lady, and I want you to leave here a better lady,” the coach replied in Reeder’s retelling (pp. 92).

Babb’s response introduces some of the other interesting insights Reeder sprinkles throughout her narrative.  She emphasizes the ways in which her great uncle applied his psychological background in coaching the Cardinals. Babb considered basketball a “laboratory for life,” (pp. 74). He resisted the specialization that the six-versus-six rules (which featured three offensive forwards and three defensive guards) encouraged, instead insisting upon the importance of anticipation. Babb ran practices where players switched positions every ten minutes, placing them in unfamiliar on-court circumstances in order to help refine their physical and mental skill sets.

The coach cultivated a permissive and progressive, yet pragmatic and paternalistic, women’s basketball culture, expertly managing social expectations and athletic opportunities.  His balancing act made he and OPC rather exceptional, as most colleges privileged physical education and shunned competition, while employer- or civic-sponsored teams favored competition.  OPC diverged from this paradigm, making their story more significant. By including information on the founding of the town of Durant, the region’s Choctaw legacy, the development of OPC as a religious and service-oriented all-girls institution, and the cultural attitudes of the rural, Depression-era west, Reeder provides the context necessary for understanding how the team seemingly could defy social conventions to achieve athletic success.

six-team-photo_gs_gray_2mb_139564235.jpg

A 1932-33 OPC team photo of Doll Harris, La Home Lassiter, Irene Williams, Vera Dunford, Lucille Thurman, and Coral Worley.

Reeder’s narrative features an array of other entertaining nuggets. Along with Thurman, Harris, the Dunford twins, Fields, and Lassiter, she introduces the reader to the rest of the Cardinals, such as Bo-Peep Park, who served as bus driver, as well as mechanic, during their barnstorm.  She likewise conveys the excitement and intensity of the Cardinals’ three battles with the Golden Cyclones, including their second match-up that temporarily devolved into a game of “hack-a-Doll” and “hack-a-Babe,” although the two stars proved able to sink their free throws, foiling the strategies of Babb and Cyclones coach Melvin McCombs. The book also contains a collection of compelling photographs, featuring posed shots of the Cardinals in their stylishly-cut silk uniforms, a peek into the material culture of the period.

Overall, the story of the OPC Cardinals is one of an inspiring underdog. However, Reeder successfully makes it more than that, telling an engaging story while providing analytical contributions to women’s sport history. OPC’s history is unique but illustrative. In an undergraduate course, Reeder’s book would be an excellent companion to academic analyses of women’s basketball and physical education from the pre-war era, such as Susan Cahn’s Coming on Strong, Rita Liberti’s “We Were Ladies, We Just Played Like Boys,” Pamela Grundy’s “From Amazons to Glamazons,” and Martha Verbrugge’s Active Bodies.

Cat Ariail is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of the University of Miami. She researches gender, race, and nationalism in mid-twentieth track and field. You can contact her at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.

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