Saturday, July 11, 2015

Steel City Chicks

“Just a steel town girl on a Saturday night
Lookin’ for the fight of her life
In the real-time world no one sees her at all
They all say she’s crazy.”
“Maniac [Flashdance],” Michael Sembello

On the NWI Times history website is an old Calumet Regional Archives photo of the Steel City Chicks, a softball team in existence for 20 years, starting in 1938.  During the 1980s Archivist Steve McShane was a collector for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant project entitled “Black Women of the Middle West.”  In the Steel City Chicks collection are photos, news clippings, and a list of the 74 women on its roster at one time or another.

Coached by Fred Price, who starred on a men’s squad sponsored by the Avondale Club, the original players were Froebel grads who had formed a club team.  Price forbade members from arguing with umpires or fighting opponents.  In 1986 he told Post-Tribune reporter Lawrence Muhammad:  “When I first took those girls on, they were all macho.  They would just as soon get into a fight as get into anything else.  They hadn’t been used to taking orders, especially from men.  They had been running their own team.”

After the Chicks established a local reputation for excellence, Price began receiving invitations to compete against white teams.  Before he’d accept, he extracted promises that there’d be no segregation at the ball parks.  Usually things went smoothly.  Price recalled:
  One of the few instances I can remember was up in Union Pier, Michigan, when I was coaching first base and somebody up in the stands said, “Hey, shine!  Move over so we can see.”
  Schererville had a fine team, but we’d beat them year after year.  But this year we lost, and every girl on our bench took out for the Schererville bench.  This surprised me.  Every girl had the same idea, to rush that Schererville bench.  It looked like they wanted to win a fight, if not the game, but they started to pat those Schererville girls on the back and tell them how glad they were to play such a good team, and it completely knocked me off my feet.  But that’s how I had succeeded in changing their attitudes.  If you can’t lose, you ain’t got no business winning.  That’s what I taught my girls.

When Price opened tryouts to players who weren’t from Froebel, most original members quit and formed their own team.  Price scheduled a game with them, using new recruits, and beat them.  Afterwards, Price welcomed back those who wanted to rejoin, telling them, as he recalled, “Girls, we’re going to have a new beginning.”

The Chicks wore blue and gold satin uniforms, including short shorts They played on Sundays, first in North Gleason Park and then, thanks to Price, at Twentieth and Washington in Chick Stadium, which had bleachers, a scoreboard, lights, a 10-foot fence, and flush toilets.  They traveled to neighboring communities and as far away as Illinois, Wisconsin, Kentucky in a bus made by cutting and molding together two V-8 Fords.  Star pitcher Omega “Big Pitch” Lyons, who stood five foot nine and weighed over 300 pounds, threw a sinker that caused batters to hit ground balls.  In 1986 Price recalled:
  Omega couldn’t bend over, run fast or slide into the bases, but everywhere the Chicks played, in Kokomo, Logansport, Marion – in parks where blacks couldn’t normally go – fans knew Omega.
  The type of ball Omega was throwing, she would never throw it more than waist high, and it had a natural drop to it.  By the time it reached the plate, it would be about a quarter to a half an inch lower than when the batter first saw it.  They’d hit the ball, and my girls would catch it [usually] on one hop.
A formidable switch-hitter, Lyons (below, left), first baseman Milrose Price, and outfielder Margaret Edwards got nicknamed the “Big Three.” They rarely lost.
Conservative columnist Meghan Daum criticized people for “rainbowifying” Facebook profile photos in the wake of the 5-4 Supreme Court decision validating same-sex marriage.  Claiming she supports the ruling, she speculated that peer pressure caused so many to adapt the multi-colored option.  What a killjoy.  Can’t you find anything better to write about, Meghan?  Similarly, Heather Wilhelm ridiculed “Yes Means Yes” campaigns intended to reduce on rape incidents, particularly on college campuses, claiming that requiring one to explicitly ask permission before initiating sex takes away the spontaneity.  Wilhelm gratuitously opined: “No wonder American campuses are such a goofy, sad train wreck.”   Questioning as “highly dubious” reports of widespread campus sexual assault, Wilhelm seems to prefer a climate where guys try to get dates drunk, high, or tranquilized on Quaaludes.  Wilhelm, no surprise, blasted the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, extolling Antonin Scalia’s sarcastic rantings and referring to “Justice Kennedy’s addled mandate from Mount Make-Up-A-Law.”

IUN’s library fire alarm blared just as Thrill of the Grill commenced in the courtyard.  I told Chancellor Bill Lowe that someone must be drumming up business.  There was a “free” table for the several hundred students on campus for orientation.  At a second line I paid just 4 bucks for a burger, Cole slaw, bag of chips, bottled water, and lettuce, tomatoes, and onions at a condiments table.  Joining me were Historian David Parnell, Chemist Dan Kelly, and Biologist Spencer Cortwright.  I had hoped that Kinsey Report would be playing, but the weather had been quite threatening all morning.  Maybe next time.
Florence Thompson, above, and Allie Mae Burroughs

I audited Samuel A. Love’s Still Film class– always fun to see a master communicator at work.  Discussing the 1930s dustbowl, Sam compared the sensation to having sand blow into your face on the beach during a windy day. Human contact under those conditions produced an electric shock. Sam discussed Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, photographers with the New Deal Farm Security Administration.  The homeless “Migrant Mother” who posed for Lange in 1936 in a pea-pickers camp was 32 year-old Florence Thompson, Sam explained.  A freezing rain had destroyed the crop, so the pickers were out of work.  Thompson sold her car tires to purchase food for her kids, who had been killing birds and eating frozen peas. Lange later photographed Japanese-American internees during WW II. Sam raised ethical questions photographers face and discussed invasion of privacy issues today, given the easy dissemination of images on social media.  I added that the human consequences can be tragic.
below, Ashante West collection

In the summer of 1936 Walker Evans, who resented his “art” being used for “propaganda” purposes, photographed tenant families in southern Alabama for Fortune magazine.  The editors opted not to use them, but James Agee did in his 1941 classic “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”  The gaze Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of a cotton sharecropper and 27 year-old mother of four, captures the stoic resignation of one struggling to survive and with few pleasures in life.

Burns Funeral Home in Merrillville was packed for Tom Higgins’ wake.  I spoke with former IUN University Division staff member Mary Bertoluzzi, who I last saw at Jim Tolhuizen’s memorial service.  When her unit got phased out, university officials squandered the opportunity to employ her talents elsewhere.  Inside on display were a big IU flag, Tom’s army reserve uniform, and touching personal photos on his sailboat and smiling with that trademark twinkle in his eye.  Daughter Tracy said he was joking and storytelling right up till the end.  Wife Betty, whom I’d talked to often on the phone, exclaimed, “You’re the writer, aren’t you?”  On hand were many former athletes still in good shape, some Horace Mann grads, active in the Gary Old Timers Association or just fans whose lives he’d enriched, myself included.
 abandoned Emerson School; Post-Tribune photo by Carole Carlson

After the body of 17 year-old Connita Richardson, who had been strangled, was found at abandoned Gary Emerson, Jerry Davich solicited memories of that once proud institution.  1959 grad George Bodnar, who is still friends with some classmates, recalled how a coach inspected boys for cleanliness after they showered and before they used the indoor pool.  He told Davich: “He checked every boy from head to toe, and everything in between, if you know what I mean.  I still can’t believe we had 80 naked boys in that swimming pool, but that’s how it was done back then.”

On WXRT’s Saturday show on 1982, reporting on John Belushi’s death, the producers played the quote from “Animal House” where Bluto reacts to the Delta being expelled by saying, “Christ.  Seven years of college down the drain.”  In the car I heard songs by Joe Jackson, Peer Gabriel, and the Go-Gos.  A no-nukes concert in New York City’s Central Park attracted 750,000 people to hear an all-star cast that included Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne.  I turned 40.  It was the year of “ET: the Extra-Terrestrial,” and Time’s person-of-the-year was a computer.  “Flashdance,” filmed in 1982, was the surprise hit of 1983.
The Gary Air Show, not my cup of tea, was back after several years – a waste of fuel and money that could be put to better use.  Samuel A. Love at Marquette Park posted: What else flies in the air? Nice, mildly subversive public art display. Good antidote to genocidal militarism. It's tough to watch fighter planes fly over a city I've heard so many say should have been decimated.”

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