Book Review: ‘Dust Bowl Girls’ by Lydia Reeder is a classic of sports literature
Published: December 28th, 2016
In ‘Dust Bowl Girls,’ Lydia Reeder tells the heroic true story of Sam Babb (whose leg was severed as result of a brutal attack by his father during boyhood days) and the women he coached. Babb diverted from early plans to enter Christian ministry to become a life-long advocate of competitive women’s basketball.
Wearing a wooden prosthetic, he became one of the great coaches from the first half-century of organized women’s leagues in America. Sam’s sister was Lydia May Babb Thomas – Reeder’s grandmother.
Initially, Babb is the book’s star, but the focus soon shifts to the young women he gathered in Durant to begin challenging studies (classical education fused with passionate Christianity and practical support for women and their dreams).
For decades Oklahoma Presbyterian College was home to world-class education and, for a few seasons, the best women’s college basketball program in America. And, for two years running, the national champions.
In what can surely be considered loving detail, Reeder tells the stories of women many of us would recognize off-court – “ordinary” girls, Oklahomans who did amazing things.
There’s Doll Harris, the tiny (5’) scorer from Cement who had a crush on the coach, until he got himself a steady girl.
We learn of the bond between the Dunford girls (Vera and Lera), and the feisty maturity of the lanky Lucille Thurman of Cookietown (a six-footer who regularly won jump balls against taller competitors). We rejoice in the tales of Toka Lee Fields, Ernestine Lampson, and La Homa Lassiter, role players who gave their all in a cause where they were never the names on everyone’s lips.
We meet Juanita Park from the country east of Durant, Hazel Vickers of Cooperton (“Vick” to one and all) and Coral Worley of Cache.
As the OPC Cardinals, they brought home to southeast Oklahoma the first national basketball title won by any college team in the Amateur Athletic Union. (Most leading squads then were essentially semi-pro, sponsored by manufacturers).
The young women came from poor farming families. They were from Irish, German and other European stock – with the blood of Cherokee or Choctaw, Seminole or other native tribes in their veins.
Stories you won’t forget include the weak ankles that plagued Lucille. She began to stay after her teammates left practice. Her private ritual included standing on her tiptoes, touching the warm floor while extending her right palm against the cold wall of the gym. Then, she would circle the entire facility again and again, building strength.
Doll’s competitive nature and reserve with teammates is detailed, including her sometimes sharp criticisms of their performance – but so is her uncanny ability to lift up her teammates at key moments during their remarkable season.
These and other tales weave together in Reeder’s narrative, becoming indelible in the reader’s imagination. The “girls” as they called themselves make an impressive ensemble. We learn about late-night “cheats” with sweet candies Babb forbade during training, the challenge of varied childhoods, Babb’s insistence on holiday practice sessions (which he ultimately backed away from), the memorable “barnstorm” across three states during winter break, Christmas at Galveston Beach, and the unifying joy when Lucille was designated all-American.
Near the end, Reeder brings us into the moment at a soda fountain in Durant. Three telephones handled 1,000 calls in a two-hour period, as game updates and then news of the Cardinals’ national title spread. Then came that unforgettable victory parade, where Durant’s population doubled or tripled for a day as visitors thronged the streets to hail the victors.
Among many impressive things about this work is the devotion, care and old-school research and journalistic standards Reeder applied in her labor. She read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of newspaper and magazine stories to understand the dynamics of the games in which the traveling Lady Cardinals competed. She studied notes and minutes of meetings from competing factions arguing vociferously over the emergence of women’s sports.
Some respectable folks thought women should concentrate on wholesome activity, not on competition. But girls growing up in the Roaring Twenties and in the Great Depression lived alongside brothers who knew full-well their sisters could dribble the ball, fight under the backboard, pass with efficiency and think with passion and wisdom.
Reeder interviewed surviving players, read Doll’s journal and scrapbook, and charitably detailed tensions and human foibles among these women. Only rarely does she gig the collective wisdom (today some might call it a brand of political correctness) in the pre-World War II nation. Many considered women delicate creatures who needed to walk and occasionally run, of course, but who had no business flinging elbows and fighting for position in the feminine version of the game invented in 1891.
Speaking of that feminine version, Babb’s squads played under the now seemingly quaint six-player rules. Teams put three competitors on each end, one trio playing defense, the other offense. (As a brother who witnessed four sisters play a modified version of the old rules, I attest – it was a hell of a game.)
A curious aspect of the system enforced strictly in the 1930s was that coaches … could not coach during games. Before, at half-time, and after games – but not during the match.
This makes all the more impressive the stories of pre-dawn practices, two-hour long sessions of dribbling, running, and passing. Coach Babb had rare wisdom. When the energy and stamina of the young ladies began to fade, he had stars on offense assume defensive roles, and vice versa.
Details are in Reeder’s book, but here is one spoiler. Playing in the national title game against a squad that included a young Babe Didrikson (still considered the finest American female athlete for most of the Twentieth Century), OPC gained a 19-16 lead at half time.
Babb complimented them on their performance, then spoke almost mystically. The master of little details became the muse of mystery and excellence. His words to his lady titans:
“Just remember, play the game, not the team. Now close your eyes. Picture your best moves. Whatever they are, they aren’t your best moves anymore. They’re common, everyday moves. Picture what you have to do to win.”
His words of wisdom resonate still, including these observations in a radio interview:
“Basketball is passing, flow and creativity. Wait and see how the play unfolds, and then react without expectations. In other words, let the plays develop while meeting your opponents head-on. It takes a lot of heart, and that’s how we’ll win.”
Before the Mighty Macs (Immaculata College in Pennsylvania) before the Sooners of Coach Sherri Coale, and before Pat Summit set the basketball standard for modern women’s coaches at the University of Tennessee, there was a one-legged Oklahoman named Sam Babb.
He garnered the practical means to offer higher education to farm girls who wanted to keep playing basketball, and turned them into a powerful athletic force. All this happened from the humble base of a religious college in Durant, Oklahoma.
It took awhile, but eventually sportswriters, historians and many other recognized fully what Babb’s remarkable tenure in Durant had achieved. In 1978, as a result of Lydia’s campaign for recognition of her brother, Sam was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame.
It was after that event that Lydia handed her namesake granddaughter a thick folder full of newspaper clippings and notes about the OPC Cardinals, telling her she might want to tell the story in detail one day.
In 2003, the entire team was inducted into the Hall – as the institution’s first-ever Team of Legend. And now comes this magnificent book.
It’s all documented, destined to become a classic of sports literature. To borrow a phrase, Reeder has fashioned the stuff of which dreams are made — a true story for the ages, worthy of the same careful cinematic craftsmanship that gave us “Hoosiers.”
But whether or not it’s ever made into a film, go ahead: Stand up and cheer for the Dust Bowl Girls.
The details are: Lydia Reeder, ‘Dust Bowl Girls: The Inspiring Story of the Team that Barnstormed Its Way to Basketball Glory,’ Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (a division of Workman Publishing, New York), 286 pages with detailed notes. Official publication date: January 24, 2017.