The All American Red Heads, Women’s Professional Basketball Team, 1936-1986
The All American Red Heads were the female equivalent of the all-male Harlem Globetrotters; Like the Globetrotters, they were stellar at the game of basketball but also delightfully pleasing entertainers.
The team grew out of a business run by C.M. Olson of Cassville, Missouri. Olson was a player/coach who came up with the idea of sending barnstorming basketball teams across the country to play against local teams wherever they went. Beginning in the 1920s, Olson’s men’s teams–the Terrible Swedes and the Famous Giants—traveled to small towns for one-night stands. The local gymnasiums would be packed with huge paying audiences; commonly most of the town would turn out to see the excitement. Then the teams would move on to the next location.
Olson’s wife, Doyle, owned five beauty parlors in Arkansas and Missouri, and with the success of the men’s traveling teams, the couple decided that a female team could make good business sense all-around. In 1936 Olson recruited and hired seven female players who had all played on various basketball teams that were part of the American Athletic Union. The women were great players, one of them was 6-feet tall, and two of the seven women had red hair. (After the first few years, Olson or team members must have turned to dye or henna treatments as later descriptions of the team report them all as red heads.) They were also reported to be attractive.
The game the Red Heads played was according to the rules of men’s basketball. Their competition was always a local men’s team.
On the Road
The first year the team played 133 games in six months, traveling to nearly 30 states. After that, the requests poured in, and Olson established a schedule where he would book the team for six solid months and then they would have time off until the following season.
The All American Red Heads traveled cross-country, playing to packed houses almost every night; occasionally they played double-headers. A reporter for Life magazine (4-17-39) writes that audiences paid 25-40 cents to come to the games to “see female muscle seriously pitted against male muscle.”
The women were more than great athletes—they were great performers. The Life reporter described their “circus like shooting” and “rough style.”
Over time, the women perfected a system. They would try to start the game strong and get ahead; then they would ease off and do more fancy dribbling and trick shots. This was accompanied by a good amount of flirting with the opposing team, with the referees, and with the audience. Toward the end of the game, they would reapply pressure with the intent of bringing in a win. The system was entertaining and very successful. They won more games than they lost, with a 70 percent win rate for most years.
Off court, the women who signed on to play for the Red Heads also agreed to a strict behavior policy. Olson knew that impeccable behavior in public—including no smoking or drinking—was vial to their image.
The popularity of the team grew exponentially. In 1948, Olson sold the team to Orwell Moore, a basketball coach whose wife played for the Red Heads for a time. Moore hired a second team of Red Heads to travel; by 1964 (until 1971) he had three teams touring during the season.
From the photographs, the first uniforms were navy—very short shorts and short-sleeved shirts. Later a freelancer for The New York Times wrote a reminiscence of when he was in the Army and played against Red Heads in the mid-1950s. He described their uniforms as “skating-style skirts” that were very short, midriff blouses, knee highs, and red sneakers.
Sam Toperoff, the freelancer who wrote the article, actually writes a very amusing account of that long-ago game (NY Times 6-11-89). He was a guard and just before the game started he was approached by the opposing guard. The Red Head introduced herself as Zethel, winked at him, and then partly shook/partly held his hand. She kept a running patter with him throughout the game, and at one point explained to him a set play the Red Heads hoped to carry out. She asked him to please cooperate and let her carry through with her trick play. Toperoff didn’t want to look foolish in the eyes of his team so he ignored her and played against her for all it was worth, foiling Zethel’s trick shot.
Clearly this was part of her plan because she then made another request for him to let her play through. Again, Toperoff was determined to block her, but Zethel faked him out and veered another direction and completed the play. Toperoff tried to respond, lost his balance and fell. By this time, Zethel’s fancy shot was well on its way to a successful basket, and she turned, offering Toperoff a hand to help him up. He instinctively accepted the help, and once he was up she patted him on the butt. The crowd went wild.
The Red Heads were pulled from obscurity by a lucky find by one of the grandsons of a Red Head. One day when hunting around his grandmother’s attic in Glastonbury, Connecticut, John Molina found an old photograph of his grandmother, Bernice Gondek Molina, with some of her fellow teammates who played in an amateur league for a local soap factory. The photo was dated 1934.
Molina was fascinated and wanted to know more. His grandmother had passed away so there was no opportunity to ask about her experiences but he did begin to track her basketball-playing history. That’s how he came upon the Red Heads and began to hunt up everything he could find about this forgotten team that had been quite a phenomenon for fifty years (1936-1986).
Over time, he got to know the second owner of the Red Heads, Orwell Moore. Moore began to entrust Molina with his collection of materials. Molina now has the largest collection of team memorabilia, and after several unsuccessful attempts to get the Red Heads accepted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, he and the Red Heads were rewarded for his efforts on September 7, 2012 when 65 of the surviving Red Heads appeared at a ceremony at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame to represent the team’s induction.
Molina now maintains an extensive website about the team; the personal stories of a great number of the players make for hours of fascinating reading. His two Web sites, allamericanredheads.com and womensbasketballmuseum.com, contain some of the highlights.
In addition, on March 8, 9, and 11, 2013, during the Big East Championships at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut, Molina will have on display the largest collection of Red Heads memorabilia ever exhibited.
About Women’s Basketball
Women’s basketball is one of the few sports that developed about the same time as the men’s sport did. The game began at women’s colleges and spread from there. The first game is said to have taken place at Smith College in 1892 where an instructor, Senda Berenson, taught basketball to the women, hoping it would improve their physical health. As developed at the college level, the rules were modified so women “did not have to over-exert.”
The fact that the Red Heads played the men’s game with the men’s rules makes them even more remarkable. John Molina says it best: The Red Heads dribbled, juggled, danced, and laughed their way into the hearts of audiences.”
Justina Ford (1871-1952), Physician
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