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McHistory: Softball integral to developing women's sport in Central Illinois

Dottie Siebert (back row far right red jacket) helped pioneer the growth of women's softball in central Illinois.
McLean County Museum of History
Dottie Siebert family
Dottie Siebert, back row far right, helped pioneer the growth of women's softball in Central Illinois.

Baseball is happening and all is right with the world. Today, though, let's hear about another bat and ball game — softball.

It was big in Central Illinois for many decades with lots of semi-pro teams and even industrial leagues for men and women, and offered an outlet for young women before they had opportunities to play other organized sports.

“Softball in some ways has eclipsed the national pastime of baseball as a more popular sport, certainly in Bloomington-Normal and McLean County. The golden age of softball would be the 1930s, the Depression era, into the 1980s and early 1990s. At one time, it seemed like everybody was playing softball,” said Bill Kemp, librarian at the McLean County Museum of History.

There were softball leagues organized by 4-H clubs, and the Farm Bureau organized on a county basis.

Most play was fast-pitch, using a 12-inch ball. There also was a six-team Women's Industrial Softball League comprised of Eureka-Williams, Beich, Funk Seed, GE, State Farm and IAA. They played slow pitch with a 16-inch ball.

O'Neil Park on Bloomington's west side became a mecca of downstate slow and fast pitch softball. As two early examples, the park hosted the 1967 and 1968 Amateur Softball Association women's state regionals, said Kemp.

Kemp gushed over a recent “incredible” donation from the Dottie [or Dorothy] Siebert family. Siebert was a well-known women's softball player and PE teacher in Bloomington-Normal and Atlanta, Illinois, from the 1960s into the 1980s. She also played softball, and kept a scrapbook detailing her playing career when she was in her 30s during the 1960s. Siebert played first for the Carlock Comets, and in the 1970s for the Bloomington Bearcats.

“This scrapbook is an absolute treasure trove of original photographs, lineup cards, schedules, newspaper clippings, handwritten notes, all related to women's fastpitch softball in the mid-to-late 1960s,” said Kemp.

Siebert was born in 1933 in Congerville. She graduated from Normal Community High School and earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in physical education. Siebert retired in 1989, after 34 years teaching in Atlanta and Unit 5 schools. She passed away in 2014 at the age of 80.

“The Comets and Bearcats were pioneering women's softball teams in the area. The Bearcats played the likes of the Moline Clippers, Pekin Lettes, and teams from Champaign, Kewanee, Shelbyville, and elsewhere,” said Kemp.

McLean County Museum of History
Dittie Siebert Family

Siebert played for the Comets in 1966-1968. The Comets merged with the Pontiac Indianettes to form the Bearcats in 1969-1970.

Passage of federal Title IX legislation in 1972 provided a big boost to women’s softball, as did the Illinois High School Association recognition of softball in 1975.

A partially-forgotten story, Kemp said, is the growth and interest in girls and women in playing softball before it became officially sanctioned.

“Many high schools organized Girls' Athletic Associations. These associations would organize teams, host 'play day' with other schools, and promote girls' athletics in general,” said Kemp.

A female PE teacher often led such associations, as Siebert did at NCHS; she also was the girls cheer coach.

“She could organize activities because young girls were just desperate, were hungry, to play sports, and in the late 1950s and 1960s there were few outlets for them," said Kemp.

The most well-known and successful women's semi-professional team in the region, Kemp said, is the Bloomington Lady Hearts.

The Bearcats are in many ways kind of a precursor, laying the foundation for the success to come.

Kemp said Siebert’s role in fostering the love of the game in young women is retold in the Hall of Fame career of Melinda Fischer, the recently-retired softball head coach at Illinois State University. Fischer came to ISU as an undergraduate in the 1960s.

“ISU in the 1960s was playing a leading role in promoting women's athletics. This is a time before the NCAA recognized women's athletics,” said Kemp.

Fischer grew up in Pekin and had to be a cheerleader at Pekin High School because girls did not have other athletic outlets, said Kemp.

“As she's cheerleading, she's looking enviously at the basketball players wishing she could play basketball which she did at ISU. Luckily for Fischer, two of her PE teachers also played semi pro softball,” said Kemp.

When Fischer came to ISU, women's and men's athletic departments were separated. The men's athletic department was at Horton Fieldhouse — at that time a state-of-the-art facility. The women were relegated to much smaller and older McCormick gym.

“She played just a phenomenal role as women’s collegiate sports was kind of gearing up," said Kemp. "In Fischer's freshman year she played softball and ISU was the runner-up in the first women's college World Series. They will finish at the top for the next several years. And in 1972, Fischer was on the ISU basketball team and ISU hosted the first women's college basketball tournament ever.”

That year was the dawn of Title IX that opened the path for women to fight for equality in funding and facilities and other things when it came to collegiate athletics.

Fischer retired in 2022 after 37 seasons and more than 1,100 wins on the softball field, said Kemp.

The WGLT series McHistory is a co-production of WGLT and the McLean County Museum of History.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.