Friday, June 5, 2020
Daughters of the game (story audio)
More from MPR


Daughters of the game

Larger view
The starting lineup for the Grand Meadow girls' basketball team in 1930. (Photo courtesy of Dorothy McIntyre)
Tuesday night in the small southern Minnesota town of Grand Meadow, about 30 miles southwest of Rochester, the Grand Meadow Larks high school girls basketball team opens its season against Spring Grove. The girls take the court in the long shadow of Grand Meadow girls' teams of an earlier era -- teams that compiled a 94-0 record between 1929 and 1939. That record has not been touched by any boys or girls high school basketball team -- before or since.

The unparalleled success of those Grand Meadow teams has become a footnote in a larger piece of history lost -- the fact that girls' basketball flourished in the early part of the 20th century before it was banned.

Grand Meadow, Minn. — It's a Saturday afternoon at the Meadows, a retirement community in downtown Grand Meadow. Women in their 80s and 90s are getting together to talk... basketball.

"We realized there were hundreds of teams that played during this era, and the history had been put into scrapbooks, into drawers, into closets," says Dorothy McIntyre, one of the authors of a new book, "Daughters of the Game: The First Era of Minnesota Girls High School Basketball, 1891-1942."

The undefeated Grand Meadow teams are part of the story, and on this day they are getting their first look at the book. The community is gathering to celebrate and honor the former players who established their place in history.

"The book was really written for the women who played, because they thought they had been forgotten," says McIntyre. "They would say to us, 'We can't believe that you're interested in our history, because sometimes even our family didn't want to hear our stories.'"

Basketball was catching on with young boys and girls across the country after it was first invented in 1891.

Grand Meadow's players were among thousands of girls in Minnesota that played basketball in high school programs in the first part of the 20th century. But none of those programs were as successful as the Grand Meadow girls. Between the years 1929 and 1939, they played, and beat, teams from all over southern Minnesota and Iowa.

"Elkton, Rose Creek, LeRoy, and then we were challenged to some other towns," recalls Mae Harvey Gross, wearing bright red and looking years younger than her 80s. Gross played in 1938 and '39. She says all the Grand Meadow teams were good, but the strengths of the teams varied over the years.

"There were some teams that were very, very aggressive, tough, tough fighters. But we depended mostly on our six-foot center, and weren't the big tall players," says Gross.

Hazel Peterson Blanchard enthusiastically signs books for admirers. She played for the team in the mid-'30s, and says players were aware of the streak. Blanchard was asked if other teams feared the Grand Meadow girls.

"I don't know if they feared us. We didn't want to be feared," Blanchard says.

The game was different back in the 1920s and '30s. Like other girls teams, the Grand Meadow girls played a six-player half-court game, competing on either offense or defense. The team averaged more than 38 points a game, and held their opponents to just over 12 points.

Once the Grand Meadow team started to win, news of the girls' success spread. Crowds began to show up for their games. Jim Hinck remembers watching when he was growing up in Grand Meadow.

"It really was no contest most of the time," says Hinck. "They'd be so far ahead by the time the game was over, you'd sit there and kind of yawn and watch the girls put on their act."

"And they came to watch us practice, too, sometimes," recalls another player, Ruth Bratrud Jacobson. "And they would go home and not go to the next game, which was the boys game. They watched our practices, and we liked that."

Still vivacious in her 90s, Jacobson played with the very first team in 1929. She was coached by Lila Reiersgard, who started the winning tradition and coached for the first seven years of the streak. Jacobson remembers the coach took basketball seriously.

"She treated it as a business, and stuck to it, and had her players doing everything she wanted them to do," Jacobson says.

"I think they just were well-organized, because at that time you had to play a fast passing game because you couldn't dribble more than two times," says the book's co-author Marian Bemis Johnson.

Johnson did most of the research for "Daughters of the Game." She says the Grand Meadow teams stood out because they actually executed plays.

"And there must have been a height advantage, but if they passed quickly, and had plays, which I believe they did, they seemed to be unstoppable," says Johnson.

"Maybe because we just played as a team," says former player Agnes Peterson Olson. "And I guess the fact that we practiced, some, too. A lot of the teams in the little towns around didn't practice."

Olson is full of energy and also wearing red. She played for teams in 1931, '32 and '33.

The wins kept adding up, and by the 10th year of the program, Grand Meadow teams had compiled a record of 94-0.

But as accomplished as the program became, it ended suddenly and without fanfare. Throughout the 1930s there was a movement to end interscholastic basketball for girls across the state and nation.

In 1933, the president of the American Physical Education Association wrote that the stimulation of a cheering crowd and band, when added to the emotional and physical strain of sports, could upset the endocrine balance in young females.

In 1938, Grand Meadow, like all schools that still had girls basketball programs, received a letter from the state education department saying schools were to replace competitive athletics for girls with intramural sports, also known as the Girls Athletic Association or GAA. Mae Harvey Gross played on the last Grand Meadow team.

"We were just told it was done, and in those times you respected the one that told you that. Now it would be a different story -- maybe," said Mae Gross. "And then we got to be cheerleaders the next year. It was kind of a letdown."

"As other teams dropped their teams, then Grand Meadow ended up dropping theirs, too," says Dorothy McIntyre. "So, 1939 was the end of the teams, and that 94-game winning streak was frozen in time."

"They remained undefeated, because the only reason they didn't get beat was they called off girls' basketball," says Marian Bemis Johnson.

Johnson, like other girls who attended high school in the '40s, '50s and '60s, had no option to play sports. And that lack of opportunity was what compelled her to start research for the book.

She found that as many as 300 teams were playing girls basketball at various times all over Minnesota. But by 1942, all the teams in the state were gone.

"I just couldn't shed the feeling that I needed to know why I didn't get to play, along with a couple generations," says Johnson.

For the next 40 years, high school girls in Minnesota learned how to play sports in gym class, but didn't get a taste of competition with other organized teams. And stories of the girls who had played years before gradually faded from memory.

It wasn't until the 1960s and '70s that girls basketball was resurrected. Dorothy McIntyre worked for the Minnesota State High School League beginning in 1970, and was among those who led the fight to allow girls to play again.

"We broke down a lot of barriers and a lot of myths about whether women and girls should participate, whether something would get shook out of shape if they jumped over a hurdle. And we just assured them it would all settle back down again and they'd be just fine," says McIntyre. "But the myths and the stereotypes that had plagued these women back in the '20s and '30s lived on into the '60s and '70s."

This year, more than 400 high schools in the state have girls basketball programs, involving 13,000 girls. Marian Bemis Johnson knows from her own experience they shouldn't take the opportunity for granted.

"The young women of today do not appreciate this smorgasbord of activities they have to choose from," says Johnson. "And so I think that if they know this history and how it died, and how quickly it got shut down, that maybe they'll appreciate what they have a little bit more."

Caty Simpkins plays for the current Grand Meadow High School team.

"If I didn't play? I don't know. I love the sport so much, I can't wait for basketball season to start," says Simpkins. "I can't imagine not getting the chance."

But Simpkins says she can imagine and relate to a winning tradition, and her teammates like Laura Blomgren appreciate the example set by those teams of an earlier era.

"I think it's really cool how they went 10 years undefeated," says Laura Blomgren.

Last month in Grand Meadow, a handful of former players were celebrities for the day, signing books and posing for photos with members of their family and the Grand Meadow community. The women enjoyed reminiscing about their days playing ball.

"I don't think people even thought about it," said one.

"It was a lot of fun to have a team, you know. We just ate it up."

"What did I like about it? I don't really know, I guess I just enjoyed playing."

"We were happy, we had a lot of fun. My goodness. I wish I could do something that good, now."

It was an unforgettable day, all about an experience that won't be forgotten -- again.