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Another Oklahoma college team once gave folks a reason to cheer

"Dust Bowl Girls: The Inspiring Story of the Team That Barnstormed Its Way to Basketball Glory" by Lydia Reeder (Algonquin Books, 304 pages, in stores Tuesday)

Before Henry Iba won men's basketball national championships in the 1940s at Oklahoma State, and before Bud Wilkinson and his Oklahoma Sooners ruled over college football in the 1950s, there was another Oklahoma college team that brought pride to the state.

If you are a sports fan and don't know the story of the Oklahoma Presbyterian College Cardinals from Durant, do yourself a favor and pick up the new book “Dust Bowl Girls,” which will be in stores on Tuesday.

It's “Hoosiers” and “A League of Their Own” rolled into one. Author Lydia Reeder (whose great-uncle Sam Babb was the team's coach) tells the story of the Cardinals, a team made up of mostly Oklahoma farm girls, which won the AAU National Championship in 1932 over the defending national champions Golden Cyclones of Dallas, a team led by the legendary Babe Didrikson.

The Cardinals defeated the mighty Golden Cyclones and the self-promoting Didrikson (who sort of becomes the villain of this story) not once, not twice, but three times that season, including in the epic national championship game in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Few people believed in the “church school girls” from southeastern Oklahoma, as evident by the Cardinals' No. 4 seed in the 1932 AAU national tournament, even though they already had beaten the top-seeded Golden Cyclones twice that season. But the Cyclones had Didrikson, the Texas Tomboy as she was dubbed, who later that year would win two gold medals and one silver medal in the 1932 Olympics.

Didrikson demanded all the media attention, but the real stars of the tournament were the team in garnet and gray from Oklahoma Presbyterian College, a school whose roots trace back to the arrival of church missionaries in the Indian Territory to teach Choctaw children.

The underdog prevails

Oklahoma Presbyterian College closed its doors in 1966, but from March 1931 to March 1934 the Cardinals' women's basketball team won 89 straight games, including two consecutive women's AAU National Championships.

What makes the Cardinals' achievement even more impressive is that they competed and defeated older and more experienced teams. No college team had ever won the women's AAU National Championship before Oklahoma Presbyterian College's title in 1932.

Of the 22 teams invited to the tournament that year, only six were high school and college teams. The rest were from independent amateur clubs sponsored by companies. A Texas team had won the tournament five straight years before 1932.

The backdrop for “Dust Bowl Girls” is the Great Depression and the stereotypes that existed about female athletes in the 1930s.

There was a national debate at the time about the “appropriateness” of women's athletics. The 1932 AAU National Championships even included a beauty pageant between games, featuring a player from each team. To their credit, the Cardinals were one of three teams in the tournament which chose not to have a representative.

The best part of any success story is the journey. It's that story which is the heart of “Dust Bowl Girls.”

Babb, the architect of the team, was the son of a fire-and-brimstone preacher who eventually lost a leg after protecting his younger brothers from a beating by their father.

Babb may have never started down the career path of teaching and coaching had he not been rejected by a seminary school that doubted his “crippled body” could handle the rigors of religious study and preaching.

Babb recruited a women's basketball team for Oklahoma Presbyterian College from Oklahoma farm girls whose families were likely one crop failure from financial ruin. Babb got them off the cotton fields and into college.

The best of the bunch was Doll Harris, who starred for the Cement Lady Bulldogs when she wasn't feeding the chickens, milking the cow, gathering eggs and hauling water — her daily chores on the family farm.

Most of the girls came from similar circumstances, and they would see the ocean for the first time on a barnstorming tour over Christmas break.

Having a roster of farm girls probably made it easier for Coach Babb to schedule 4 a.m. practices. The Cardinals practiced daily from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. so they could use the Southeastern University gym instead of the limited space available on the Oklahoma Presbyterian College campus.

They would practice for an hour in the cold because the heat wasn't turned on in the Southeastern field house until 5 a.m.

Harris would become the Cardinals' star, outdueling Didrikson in three head-to-head meetings and being named captain of the 1932 AAU All-American team.

There is a great scene Reeder describes in the book during the 1932 AAU championship game about a small group of avid fans who gathered at the Boyet-Long Drug Store in Durant to receive game reports over the telephone.

The crowd's mood would go from somber to joyful as the game went back and forth. The Cardinals trailed entering the fourth and final quarter and the drugstore crowd was quiet when the telephone rang with the final report.

Drinks were spilled, and fans leapt from the soda fountain chairs when it was announced that the Cardinals had rallied in the fourth quarter to win. “Dust Bowl Girls” is another great sports story about an underdog whose triumphs inspired a community that badly needed a lift in the midst of hard economic times.

I can't wait for the movie.

— Ed Godfrey, Staff Writer

Related Photos
<p>The women's basketball team of Oklahoma Presbyterian College was presented a trophy by Durant businessman Clyde Clack at a 1993 Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Four Durant civic clubs had the trophy made to honor the Cardinals' national championship teams. [THE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVE]</p>

The women's basketball team of Oklahoma Presbyterian College was presented a trophy by Durant businessman Clyde Clack at a 1993 Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Four Durant civic clubs had the trophy made to honor the Cardinals' national championship teams. [THE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVE]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-e1b446e6f151a387cd02a26efbaa6cbf.jpg" alt="Photo - The women's basketball team of Oklahoma Presbyterian College was presented a trophy by Durant businessman Clyde Clack at a 1993 Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Four Durant civic clubs had the trophy made to honor the Cardinals' national championship teams. [THE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVE] " title=" The women's basketball team of Oklahoma Presbyterian College was presented a trophy by Durant businessman Clyde Clack at a 1993 Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Four Durant civic clubs had the trophy made to honor the Cardinals' national championship teams. [THE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVE] "><figcaption> The women's basketball team of Oklahoma Presbyterian College was presented a trophy by Durant businessman Clyde Clack at a 1993 Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Four Durant civic clubs had the trophy made to honor the Cardinals' national championship teams. [THE OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVE] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-40b5e6875ec5aa0dd6f64ff06311ad28.jpg" alt="Photo - " title=""><figcaption></figcaption></figure>
Ed Godfrey

Ed Godfrey was born in Muskogee and raised in Stigler. He has worked at The Oklahoman for 25 years. During that time, he has worked a myriad of beats for The Oklahoman including both the federal and county courthouse in Oklahoma City for more... Read more ›

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