The All American Red Heads, a women’s professional basketball team, 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 was the brainchild of C.M. Olson of Cassville, Missouri. Olson was a former player and coach who started a barnstorming business, sending men’s basketball teams across the country to play against local teams. Beginning in the 1920s, Olson’s men’s teams–the Terrible Swedes and the Famous Giants—traveled to small towns, drawing big crowds for the match-up against the local team. Most of the town would turn out for the event. Then the barnstormers would move on to the next location.
Olson’s wife, Doyle, owned five beauty parlors in Arkansas and Missouri. With the success of the men’s traveling teams, the couple decided that a female team could make good business sense. In 1936 Olson recruited seven female players from 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, which must have sparked the idea for the team name. (After the first few years, Olson or team members must have turned to dye or henna treatments as later descriptions of the team noted they were all red heads.)
Since women’s teams were hard to find, Olson’s plans for the Red Heads pitted them against local men’s teams. For that reason, they played according to the rules of men’s basketball.
Red Heads On the Road
The first year the team played 133 games in six months, traveling to nearly 30 states. After that, bookings were no problem. Olson was besieged with requests for the Red Heads.
The All American Red Heads traveled cross-country, playing to packed houses almost every night. Occasionally they played double-headers. Audiences paid 25-40 cents to come to the games to “see female muscle seriously pitted against male muscle,” wrote a reporter for Life magazine (April 17, 1939).
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 started the game strong to get ahead. Then they eased off a bit to do more trick shots and fancy dribbling. Flirting with the opposing team, with the referees, and with the audience was part of their routine. Toward the end of the game, they reapplied pressure to bring 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.
From the photographs, the first uniforms were navy. They wore very short shorts and short-sleeved shirts.
Off court, the women who signed on to play for the Red Heads also agreed to a strict policy of good behavior. Olson knew that image was vital to their success, so their rules included no smoking or drinking.
Olson Sells the Team
In 1948, Olson sold the All American Red Heads to Orwell Moore, a basketball coach whose wife played on the team for a time. The team was so successful that Moore hired a second team of Red Heads to travel. From 1964-1971, Moore had three “Red Heads” teams touring during the season.
Report from the 1950s
In the 1950s, a young man named Sam Toperoff was on a men’s basketball team in the Army, and the team was scheduled to play against the Red Heads. Toperoff later wrote for The New York Times. In 1989 the newspaper published a reminiscence he wrote about this game. It gives a great feeling for the style of the Red Heads.
By this time, the uniforms of the Red Heads altered from the original. Toperoff describes the women wearing “skating-style skirts” that were very short, midriff blouses, knee highs, and red sneakers (The New York Times, 6-11-89)
Toperoff’s position on the Army team was that of guard. Just before the game, 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 to his own team so he ignored her and foiled Zethel’s trick shot.
Clearly this was part of her plan. She then made another request for him to let her play through. Again, Toperoff was determined to block her. Zethel expected this and and veered in the other direction. Toperoff tried to respond, lost his balance and fell. By this time, Zethel’s fancy shot was well on its way into the basket. 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.
Re-Discovering the Red Heads
The Red Heads were pulled from obscurity by a lucky find by a grandson of a former team member. One day when looking 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 from 1934. This photo was for an amateur league they played in, representing a local soap factory.
This find led Molina on a hunt for more information. His grandmother had passed away so there was no opportunity to ask about her experiences but he began to track her basketball-playing history. That’s how he came upon the Red Heads. From there, he tracked down everything he could find about this 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 realized that Molina was his hope that the collection might live on and be appreciated. Moore gave what he had on the team to Molina, who now has the largest collection in existence of team memorabilia.
Basketball Hall of Fame
John Molina undertook applying to the Basketball Hall of Fame, asking them to accept the Red Heads. After several unsuccessful attempts, Molina was finally rewarded in 2012. On September 7, 2012, sixty-five surviving Red Heads appeared at a ceremony at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame to represent the team’s induction.
Molina has just completed a book on the early days of women’s basketball. The book is filled with photographs and great stories: Barnstorming America: Stories from the Pioneers of Women’s Basketball.
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.”
26 thoughts on “The All American Red Heads, Women’s Professional Basketball Team, 1936-1986”
I received a letter back in 1972 or 1973 with an invite to tryout for this team…I have no idea what I did with the letter and would love to show my grand kids that I could play ball at one time…are there any old archives of invites sent out back then…I would gladly pay for a copy of the invite to try out..thanks, Jenny Lou Boggs Gattis
I THINK THE REDHEADS PLAYED AT CADDO GAP, ARKANSAS ONE TIME + – 1960’s who remembers this
I hope you hear from someone on this, as I expect you are right!
Joy Polley Adkins
Class of 1954
Ashland my high school
In my senior year of high school the Red Heads played in our area and attended a girls basketball tournament in which I played, After the game they approached me and asked for my phone number, they called and asked if I would be interested in playing for them,,,,I was all ready because I loved the game,however, my father was not having any part of my opportunity, I’ve always wondered,,,what if ?..
I’m 83 now, still love the game,
What a wonderful memory, knowing you were THAT good! And yes, times were different, and your father probably worried about the travel and the stress of the game… But I hear you…it would have been quite an eye-opening opportunity! Thanks for posting.
I know two of the former players- the Sjoquist twins- Lynette and Lynnea. They are wonderful people! I played softball with Lynnea a couple of years ago in a senior league. Unfortunately she passed away recently.
I remember hearing of the basketball team when I was young, but didn’t realize they had been around as long as they were. I would have loved to habe seen them play. So glad they changed the face of women’s sports. In high school, they didn’t play much sports except in gym class with those ridiculous little one piece outfits. Good going, Red Heads!
Hi – I’m writing a screenplay about The All American Red Heads.
Trying to get in touch with John Molina or anyone who has further information on the early days of the Red Heads inception.
Appreciate any help!
I believe I still have his email. Let me contact you offline. How wonderful! And keep me posted.
Dec. 17, 2020
I was an All American Red Head from 1962 through 1974. I finished out my career as a player coach. We all loved the game to tough out almost 7 months a season. We had a blend of show in the game along with ball handling and fancy passing. Several of the players played with new pro basketball leagues, the WNBA had not been formed as of yet.
Thank you so much for posting! Congratulations…7 months of play would have been impressive. So glad to hear from you.
My mother was a Redhead player in the early 1940s. Her name was Lillie Parks Pyland. She played high school basketball at Spring Hill H.S. in Tennessee and went on to play for a team at Nashville Business College. I believe she played under her maiden name-Parks and her married name- Pyland. Any information would be greatly appreciated. email me at [email protected]
Thank you so much for posting. I’m not certain what is available on individual players but later in the week I’ll look into it. I’ll see if I can find anything.
Barb L Fischer
November 24, 2021
My mother’s cousin is the last woman pictured on the far right. Her name was Lorine Z. Daniels and played ball at Ada, Oklahoma high school in the late 1930’s or early40’s. She stayed with my mother in Sheboygan, WI when on the circuit. In Ada she would have played for Bertha Teague who had an outstanding record for girls high school basketball. Lorine was born in 1918 and died in 1971. Her married name was Wilkes.
Correction Lorine Z. Daniels.
Thank you so much for the information! So wonderful to learn more about these amazing women. After the holiday, I’ll get notes made for the captions so that the information can be located by others.
Enjoy the holiday…thank you so much for posting!
Hey Red Head fans, one of the original Red Heads Limos will be up for auction in Caraway Arkansas on the 9th of April 2022. If you are interested in this piece of history go to: http://phillipsauctioncompany.hibid.com
Oh wow! Thank you for sharing this info! Good luck.
My mother played for Drumright High School (she is 90). She was called into the coaches off one day where she had a phone call. They were asking her to play basketball for The American Redheads. She considered it.but was told she couldn’t be married. She declined and married my dad instead.
Thank you for posting. I’m glad she married your dad but it’s too bad she had to choose.
My mother in law was a red heads player. She is still alive at 82. 83 7/3/22. She is in a nursing home with dementia right now. I’m not too sure how much she could tell you, but her son, my husband knows some and we have a picture of her.
Hello, I am Joanne Stark and played basketball at Pottsville high school and have often heard the name “Clara Jo Nelson” as she went to school there, too. Always thought she played for Red Heads Pro Team. Could you let me know if you have any information about her, that you could share. The school is trying to start an Athletic Hall of Fame and I wanted to include Clara if you have any information. Thank you for your time and trouble. Clara lived on Crow Mt. near Pottsville, AR and I knew her mother and brother. I know she went to school in Pottsville sometime in the 1950’s.
Hi I very much wish I could help you. The fellow who wrote the book on the Redheads is not someone I’ve been able to re-locate. And I did a search in Newspapers.com, and I personally did not find anything. However, you might try asking for help at the Pottsville Library. Research librarians can find amazing things. The other alternative is to contact the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. The Red Heads were honored there in 2012.
I would have loved to see them play! Good luck with your search and I’m sorry I cannot be helpful.
In 1968 I received a letter to try out for the team but unfortunately my father wasn’t to keen about it. I always wonder how much fun that would of been. Over the years lost the letter. So wish I had it. Thanks
That is hard to reconcile. In so many ways, I’m sure your dad was right. But I understand your heartbreak over missing out!
Thanks for posting.
Wow, this was fun! My mother played with the AIB (American Institute of Business) basketball team (Des Moines) in 1937, getting to travel to other states for the first time. (She had to drop out because playing with the team paid for her classes and she worked at a cafeteria for her two meals a day, but she couldn’t pay the $10 a month rent.) Mom started out as a freshman playing three court basketball. Before the year was over, they had transitioned to two court. Playing with AIB was a “new ballgame” for her!
How wonderful…I’m so glad you know so much of her story… And I’m sorry she couldn’t continue, but the 1930s were a tough time. Thanks for posting!