Oregon Girls Basketball’s Forgotten Era

Article courtesy Rachel Bachman, The Oregonian

Leta Mosby’s high school basketball career was like many other girls’: She practiced every day, traveled to road games and looked forward to the season-capping tournament at McArthur Court.

It was the era when Mosby played that was remarkable: the early 1930s.

Leta Mosby Boslaugh 1918-2013

Leta Mosby Boslaugh 1918-2013

The large-school state basketball tournaments begin this week, and hundreds of girls will shoot for a title as they have since the tournament’s 1976 debut. Many of their mothers never had the chance to play the sport. But perhaps their grandmothers or great-great grandmothers did, holding a county championship cup or just running their bloomers off trying.

Starting in the early 1900s, girls joined high school teams from Knappa to North Bend and Wallowa to Ashland — often playing the same schedules as the boys. Standout players won acclaim in local newspapers, which sometimes featured girls and boys games in the same column.

But by the 1940s, social and political forces had nearly killed off girls basketball in Oregon. As national critics campaigned against the sport, local leaders steered girls to more “feminine” sports such as tennis and golf. They substituted intramurals for varsity girls basketball, which they deemed too rough and competitive.

In most places, it would take until the 1970s to get the teams back.

The early years

Soon after James Naismith’s 1891 invention of basketball, Senda Berenson, a physical education instructor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., adapted the rules to make a gentler game for women. It spread quickly to high schools in the East, then across the country. By the 1920s, a handful of states had state basketball tournaments for girls.

In Oregon, high school yearbooks devoted pages to girls basketball teams, including photos, game summaries and player descriptions. The girls posed proudly in their uniforms of “middies” — Navy-style tops — and billowy bloomers that gathered at the knee.

The 1920 Roseburg yearbook proclaimed its team “the most active athletic organization of our school year.”

Most girls teams played on a three-section court with six players per team: two guards on the defensive end, two centers in the middle and two forwards near the opponent’s basket. One center could cross into other sections, with the other players moving the ball by passing and limited dribbling.

Leta's teamBasketball was a natural for the resilient girls of rural Oregon, said Louise Leininger, who played for Mosier High near Hood River in the mid-1930s.

“We were farm girls,” said Leininger, 89. “We were hoisting boxes with fruit in it and things like that.”

For players and spectators alike, weekly games and county tournaments became social events. The yearbook from Knappa Union High in Oregon’s northwest corner noted that a 1926 girls game against Westport “was enjoyed immensely by the large crowd of spectators.”

Joanne Lannin summarized the sport’s nationwide hold in “A History of Basketball for Girls and Women”: “At many high schools, girls basketball was eclipsed in the mid-1920s only by football in the number of fans who cheered rabidly at games and followed the team faithfully.”

The roaring ’20s

As the sport grew, girls teams across the state made headlines.

“THE WALLOWA COUNTY CHAMPIONS,” announced a caption under a photo of the Enterprise High team that ran in a 1921 newspaper. “VIDA GIRLS TAKE LANE HOOP TITLE,” a 1928 Eugene Guard story proclaimed.

Vida High, in a small town 30 miles east of Eugene, was a 1920s juggernaut despite its tiny enrollment. Of the school’s 10 students in 1928, seven were girls, all on the basketball team. Forward Metola Allen, one of two 6-footers on the team, scored 64 points to lead Vida to a 72-32 victory over Thurston for the 1928 county championship.

The next year, Vida star Gladys Minney scored 171 points in four tournament games, including 50 in the final. Minney finished her career with 73- and 84-point games, and in one game reportedly scored 104.

The girls game was ever-changing, eventually transitioning to a two-part court and even some full-court games. Girls teams competed with boys for practice space and faced unpredictable playing conditions.

The 1919 Roseburg yearbook recounts one time when “the girls started the game handicapped by a floor about as large as a pocket handkerchief and very poorly lighted.” Another gym was “so cold as to almost demand earmuffs.”

The 1928 Pleasant Hill yearbook notes: “The Balcony fell while they were playing Creswell and one corner of the backboard struck Awbrey on the head. She was not seriously hurt but was unable to play the rest of the game and it was lost with a score of 13-14.”

Nina (Dilley) McKeehan, who played for Pleasant Hill, recalled an incident in a 1929 game.

“I was teetering on the edge, starting to fall out of bounds, just holding myself,” said McKeehan, 95. “One of the players on my team came up to pull me back –which was not legal, of course –but she took hold of my pants and broke the rubber (at the knee). They just streamed clear across. Brought down the house.”

As the 1920s unfolded, girls and women nationwide enjoyed more freedom than ever before. They won the right to vote in 1920, ditched their corsets and tackled the new world of girls team sports.

Leta Boslaugh (born Leta Mosby) and her brother, Jerry, grew up shooting a rubber ball through an oatmeal canister fastened to a kitchen door. She went on to play for tiny Dorena High, 35 miles southeast of Eugene, in the early 1930s.

She practiced, “every day, every morning, every night,” said Boslaugh, 90. “We lived basketball. It was the thing to do out in the country.”

But not everyone was ready for the changes that came with girls basketball’s blossoming.

“I well remember the first night we were on the floor in our shorts,” recalled Arah Nell (Arnold) Brickey, who played for Pleasant Hill from 1925-29. “We had lots of comments. It was quite a departure from the bloomers with all the pleats and gathers and whatnot.”

By the 1930s, girls basketball had grown popular enough that some schools had two teams. In 1932, Pleasant Hill had 24 girls go out for basketball — more than one-quarter of the school’s enrollment of 89.

“Not altogether ladylike”

Yet as girls basketball flourished in small towns, it appeared to be all but dead in the state’s larger high schools. Portland’s Lincoln High had only intramural basketball because “girls interscholastic athletics is not permissible,” the 1917 yearbook said.

It’s not clear why larger high schools in Oregon shunned or discontinued girls basketball while small schools celebrated it. But it’s possible that a nationwide lobby against the sport, which began around the turn of the century and intensified in the following decades, targeted city schools and prominent leagues.

In 1907, Illinois had banned girls high school basketball, disbanding nearly 300 teams statewide. Officials from the Illinois High School Athletic Association cited the sport’s roughness, according to an online story by current IHSAA staff member Scott Johnson, and declared, “the exercise in public is immodest and not altogether ladylike.”

In the early 1920s, Lou Hoover, wife of future president Herbert Hoover, spoke out against competitive sports, especially basketball. She felt it excluded too many girls, who she thought would benefit from more cooperative forms of athletics.

Hoover founded the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Foundation, which in 1925 voted 72-7 to ban extramural competition for girls. The National Association of Secondary School Principals supported the resolution, according to “A History of Basketball for Girls and Women.”

The campaign spread across the country. Many state associations ended their girls state tournaments — only stalwarts such as Iowa, Oklahoma and South Carolina held out — or banned the sport altogether.

In Oregon, Roseburg High’s thriving girls team won the 1926 Douglas County championship. But the following season it disappeared from the yearbook. In its place was a system of multi-sport intramurals called the Points System for Girls that the yearbook said had been instituted at “leading schools” statewide.

The points system offered a chance to win points in activities from indoor baseball to folk dancing. But for female basketball players, the news was clear: no more road trips, no more spectators, no more team.

Girls basketball hung on longer in rural areas. Leininger remembered playing for Mosier’s team during the lows of the Depression, when basketball provided a social outlet as the team traveled to nearby towns such as Maupin, Odell and Dufur.
But in the mid-1930s, even girls basketball teams at small schools began disappearing.

Treva (Bloor) Wallace played on the girls basketball team at Bellfountain High near Corvallis in the mid-1930s. She is married to Harrison Wallace, the lone survivor from the famed 1937 Bellfountain team that won the boys basketball championship despite an enrollment of 27. Girls basketball at Bellfountain ended around 1935, Treva Wallace recalled, “because they said it was too strenuous.”

Mosier’s team ceased play about a year after Leininger’s 1936 graduation, she recalled. The reason?

“They said it was too rough for us physically,” Leininger said.

A November 1938 bulletin from Oregon’s state high school sports association hinted at small-town teams’ fates. It heralded Klamath County’s adoption of the intramural points system, a sign that smaller schools had joined larger ones in ending competitive girls basketball.

In 1940, Pleasant Hill’s team disappeared from the yearbook. By then, the girls basketball leagues that once webbed across the state were all but gone.

The new wave

For nearly 30 years, competitive girls high school basketball was virtually dormant in Oregon, save a handful of private high school teams. Most girls played individual sports, joined the intramural Girls Athletic Association or played no sports at all.

In the late 1960s, girls basketball teams began to reappear in high school yearbooks. Pleasant Hill’s 1970 yearbook noted that “under revised rules, the girls played full-court games for the first time.” The team played a four-game season, losing only to eventual league champion Creswell.

The 1975 yearbook at Portland’s Jefferson High School, a present-day power in girls basketball, noted that 1974-75 was the girls team’s first season in the Portland Interscholastic League.

In 1976, the Oregon School Activities Association launched a girls basketball state tournament. Decades after its heyday, the sport was starting from scratch.
Girls sports burgeoned in the next three decades, propelled by 1972 Title IX legislation that banned sex discrimination in schools.

Last year, 460,000 girls nationwide played high school basketball, more than any other sport. Nearly 6,000 girls played basketball at Oregon high schools, ranking the sport third in participation behind volleyball and track and field.

Girls basketball’s popularity is a tribute to the sport’s forgotten pioneers, who retain their love of the game.

Leta Boslaugh, who once haunted the rough-hewn practice gym at Dorena High, played on women’s basketball teams after high school and has a “Blazers fan power” sticker on the door of her Portland home.

She has taken one airplane trip in 90 years: to the Trail Blazers’ games in Philadelphia during the 1977 NBA Finals.

Brickey, the former Pleasant Hill player, calls today’s full-court girls game “so much more interesting than ours was.” But the old-time version served her well.

Brickey, 95, once taught in junior high schools around Eugene and coached boys basketball. It was easier to earn their respect, she learned, when you could play right alongside them.

— Rachel Bachman:

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