Spanks: She’s a Diamond on the Diamond : Former Softball Star Is Coach at Cal Poly Pomona
After a playing career that spanned three decades and more than a few mind-bending, hair-singeing summer road trips to Phoenix and Fresno, it’s not surprising that the facts surrounding the birth of Carol Spanks’ softball career are a bit sketchy.
She’s not sure who introduced her to the game or why. She’s not sure why she fell in love with the game instead of other more socially acceptable women’s sports at the time, such as tennis or golf.
What she remembers is standing in the fields of Whittier’s grammar schools and parks, playing countless pickup games, playing until, as a freshman at Whittier High School, a physical education teacher named Carolyn Broady told her of a tryout with the Buena Park Kittens, farm team to the Buena Park Lynx.
That was 1951. Over the next 24 years--playing for the Kittens (1951-53), Lynx (1953-57) and Orange Lionettes (1957-75)--came 13 All-American honors at shortstop, 4 national championships and 19 appearances on national all-star teams. She is beginning her 11th season as coach of the softball team at Cal Poly Pomona, where she has compiled a 374-154 record.
Looking back, Spanks, 52, who lives in Tustin, isn’t quite sure how it all started.
“I really don’t remember much of that first tryout with the Kittens, it was so long ago,” she said. “I just remember that I was very shy and very scared. People were yelling out all this softball terminology like, ‘Let’s shoot two (turn a double play).’ I didn’t know what they were talking about. All I had ever played in was pickup games. This was my first contact with organized, competitive women’s sports. I was lost.”
In the early 1950s, there was no Title IX, the federal legislation passed in 1972 that gave women equal access and opportunity in sports. There was only the Girls’ Athletic Assn.
“Punch and cookies and nobody sweats,” Spanks said.
In the early ‘50s, GAA provided “play days,” friendly get-togethers with a game or two thrown in.
“Anyone competitive wanted a lot more than GAA provided,” said Sue Ciarelli, who played first base for the Kittens. “The Kittens and the Lynx provided that outlet for us to channel our competitiveness. Of course, at the time, most people thought you were a bit odd if you wanted to get dirty and play competitive team sports.”
According to Spanks, who will be inducted into the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame Monday night at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, the times dictated that it was all right for a woman to try her luck at tennis or golf, country club sports that allowed her to remain relatively well-coifed and poised. Softball’s all-dirt infield fell a bit outside the walls of absolute acceptability.
“There were a lot of women, a lot of very good athletes, who quit because they couldn’t take the social pressures,” Spanks said.
Perhaps bowing to some of those pressures, players wore thick satin shorts, not baseball pants.
“I guess they wanted to make sure we looked very feminine,” Ciarelli said.
The shorts accomplished that until a player had to slide or dive, which produced bruises and cuts. One player, pitching great Bertha Ragan Tickey, got so fed up, she wore long baseball pants. Of course, they were made of satin.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t much care what we wore,” Spanks said. “Our cuts always healed. All I cared about was playing the game.”
And when she played, she usually did in front of a decent-sized crowd. Spanks’ Lynx and Lionette teams averaged crowds of 1,000 and 2,000 during their summer evening games. A big game or tournament would draw upward of 4,000 to 5,000.
“I don’t know if we were totally accepted as athletes at the time, but we were popular,” Spanks said.
Even with the big crowds, the teams struggled to break even. So when it came time to take the show on the road to play teams such as the Fresno Rockets or Phoenix Ramblers, the players sat packed in a station wagon, with air conditioning as close as the window crank.
They would drive all night Friday. On Saturday and Sunday they would play doubleheaders, and they would return Sunday night.
“You were pretty worn out after,” Spanks said. “But we loved it. We had nothing, so we didn’t think we were missing anything. We were getting a chance to play, and that’s all that mattered to us.”
Some played better than others. There were few in Spanks’ class at shortstop. Her speed, range and hands made her exceptional on defense. In an era in which softball may have been even more dominated by pitchers--"Games where both pitchers got 17 or 18 strikeouts weren’t unusual,” Spanks said--she managed to get timely hits and was an exceptional bunter.
“She was one of the best,” said Frank Ciarelli, who coached Spanks on the Kittens. “I always hear people say the athletes of today are better than the ones in the past. Well, if you put her on today’s softball market, she would still be one of the best. She was that good.”
She played on national championship teams in 1962, 1965, 1969 and 1970. She retired in 1975. In 1982, she was inducted into the Softball Hall of Fame, located in Oklahoma City.
She received her degree in physical education from UCLA and taught in Norwalk-area schools during her playing days. In 1978, she became softball coach at Cal Poly Pomona.
There are times when players will ask her about the early days. They beg to see the old scrapbook, and more than a few times they ask if she wants to get back into the game.
“Age has a way of making that decision rather easy,” said Spanks. “Looking back, I’m really happy about the era I played in. The players today may have more conveniences, but I played with people who really had to love the game to play it. I think I was pretty lucky.”
CAROL SPANKS Age: 51. Hometown: Whittier. Residence: Tustin. Accomplishments:
Named to the National Softball Hall of Fame.
Thirteen-time All-American shortstop.
Played in 19 national all-star games.
Has compiled a 374-154 record coaching the Cal Poly Pomona softball team.