Unheralded sportswoman Catherine Fellmuth probably surpassed the great Babe Didrikson in all-around athletic achievement.
Catherine Fellmeth was one of the most extraordinary athletes America ever produced, but remains a virtual unknown. A world class track and field athlete, 1927-1941, she won the National AAU championship in shot put five times, discus three times, and baseball throw once. Fellmeth also made her mark as a top basketball player, a nationally renowned softball pitcher, and a national champion bowler. She also competed in bicycle racing, volleyball, and speed skating, and won medals in each. Fellmeth is perhaps the only American athlete who with her teams have won national championships in three different sports–in softball in 1934; in track and field in 1930, 1931, 1933 and 1936; and in bowling in 1940 and 1942.
Catherine Fellmeth was born Catherine Rutherford in Chicago on July 26, 1908, to Henry A. Rutherford (immigrant from Canada) and Marie Josephine Rutherford (born Koehler, from Germany). Her father died in 1913 when she was five years old, and was raised by her mother and a stepfather, Peter Ackermann, a machinist working in a repair shop. The family lived on the South Side in a working class neighborhood, but about a mile north of Ogden Park, where many track and field meets were held. She attended high school in her South Side neighborhood, but only for two years.1
Rutherford grew up in the Back of the Yards community on the South Side, less than a mile from Cornell Square Park, one of the more active Chicago parks in the support of athletic teams for boys and girls. The first mention of her track activities was a report in the Chicago Tribune on a Central AAU indoor track meet for “novice” competitors in the third week of January 1926. Rutherford representing Cornell Square Park helped her team win the 440 yard relay and took third in the 50 yard dash. The most notable early mentions of Rutherford were her achievements in the annual Chicago Daily News awkwardly named Women’s “Chicago Olympic” Track and Field Meet each summer. She helped Cornell Square win the meet three years–1926, 1927, 1928–with thirds and seconds in sprints. She was still learning what her strengths were, not yet competing in throwing events.2
The Chicago American began a rival all-women meet in 1928, an extravaganza of 900 female competitors conducted in alliance with the Central AAU. At the 1929 American meet, Rutherford competed again for Cornell Square and won the baseball throw. The American singled her out, reporting, “Catherine Rutherford was the ‘ace’ of the Cornell Square team. She won the baseball throw with a toss of better than 237 feet, which is as good as some big league outfielders.” The following year, 1930, not surprisingly, she was recruited by the most elite club in the city, Illinois Women’s Athletic Club (IWAC).3
Rutherford early in her athletic career was highly active in speed skating competition, beginning in 1927, when she competed for Cornell Square in the Silver Skates Girls’ Senior class, her debut in the sport at a relatively late age for a skater, 18 years. The following year, she helped her Cornell team win the South Parks Girls Derby by winning individual honors. In the many private club derbies, Rutherford when she placed, it was usually third, except when she competed in a Class B event. In the 1930 skating season, Rutherford competed for a private club for the first time, Moynihan Skating Club. She took third place in the Senior Girls class in the large and prestigious Silver Skates competition, an admirable achievement against the largest field of top skaters in the Midwest. Also during 1930, she took two Class B 440 yard titles in both the Central States derby and the Western Skating Association derby, and a Class B 220 yard title in a private club derby. Rutherford skated at least to 1931, when she was competing for minor club, South Chicago Skating Club. After 1931, she dropped speed skating. apparently to concentrate on her growing career in bowling, a sport that many of its meets during the same months of the skating season.4
Rutherford’s early activities in other sports are more sketchy. Non-contemporary sources on her softball and bowling careers report she became involved in both in 1927, and took second in a Chicago Daily News bowling tournament in 1928. In June of 1927 Rutherford competing for the Marquette Athletic Association took a third place in a bicycle race sponsored by the Franklin Skating and Athletic Club. She also competed with a city parks’ championship volleyball team, All these activities by Rutherford is most remarkable, and decades later when asked where her athletic ability came from, she said, “Well, I was a Tomboy, and it all just came easy for me. And I always had good health which was another big advantage.”5
Rutherford in her early years at the IWAC usually did not take first in her throwing specialties–namely shot put, discus, and baseball–but she was usually good enough to provide a few seconds and thirds for her team. However, in 1930, when she made her debut with the IWAC in the Chicago American-sponsored Central AAU outdoor meet, she took first in both shot up and baseball throw. Later at the National AAU in Dallas, she won her first medal in the National AAU with a third in the baseball throw. Rutherford had a good year in 1931, but at her second nationals she failed to medal. In the AAU Nationals and Olympic Trials in 1932, Rutherford may not have competed or simply did not place in the top four.6
The year 1933 saw Catherine Rutherford rising to the top in her specialties. In the Central AAU first all-woman indoor meet in March, she won the shot put, beating her previous superior, Evelyn Ferrara, and took second in the baseball throw to Nan Gindele. The 1933 National AAU outdoor meet was held at Soldier Field in Chicago at the end of June. The IWAC team took the team championship, and local papers hailed Rutherford as the meet’s individual scoring winner, who took first in both shot put and baseball throw, and second in the discus.7
Rutherford in the early 1930s emerged in other sports as a significant figure, after she joined the newly formed Fellmeth Athletic Club (FAC) in the fall of 1931. The FAC was established by Edmund Fellmeth both out shis interest in sports and in using teams to promote his painting and decorating business. He sponsored both men and women basketball teams, a women’s softball team, and a men’s amateur baseball team. Rutherford by January 1932 was already called a star on the Fellmeth basketball team. By July 1932, the Southtown Economist gave Rutherford her first feature story, hailing her pitching on a men’s team, and reporting on her all-around athletic success in bowling, baseball throw, basketball, and speed skating. In March 1933, the same paper said that she “is regarded as one of the best feminine cage stars in the city.”8
In bowling she had won women’s singles titles in 1930 and 1932, the latter a Chicago American women’s tournament. In classes F through A, she captured the Class B Single’s title with a spectacular “strike spree” that drew a huge crowd. It was common in this era for female athletes to become romantically linked to their coaches or managers, and that happened with Rutherford who married Fellmeth in September 1933.9
Fellmeth by 1934 had become one of the top softball pitchers in the city with the Fellmeth Girls. As in the amateur sports world she was recruited sometime in 1934 by one of the top teams in the city, Hart Motors Girls. The team already had a top pitcher, so they used Fellmeth as a backup pitcher. She served on the team as Hart won the Chicago American city championship in August, and then national championship in September. She returned to the Fellmeth team, now called the Decorators, the following year.10
In the 1934 National AAU indoor meet in Brooklyn, New York, in mid-April was the first big track meet in which Catherine competed as Mrs. Fellmeth, and first with an ad hoc “Chicago Park District” team, in that it was a merger of twelve Lincoln Park District and two South Park District competitors. The 1934 team, having inherited most of the players from the IWAC national champs of 1933, easily won the team title, in which Fellmeth provided points with her second in the shot put and third in the baseball throw. There was no National AAU outdoor meet in 1934, but the Central AAU held a large outdoor meet in August, won by the Lincoln Park team, of which Fellmeth was a member. Fellmeth did not compete much in 1935, because she had her son, Edmund Fellmeth Jr., in February of that year, and spent much of her year nurturing her baby.11
Fellmeth’s only track and field meet in 1935 was the Central AAU in August. She competed in three throwing events, winning the baseball throw, but taking second in shot and discus, to future star Dorothy Dodson, competing under her single name, Dorothy Wihr. While the Fellmeth Decorators competed in the Chicago Major Girls Softball League during 1935, Fellmeth probably did not compete, or competed very little.12
In the winter of 1936, Catherine and Edmund Fellmeth together, one could presume, sponsored a basketball team they called the Fellmeth Paints. With Catherine on the team the fivesome (in Chicago the women played the more aggressive and physical men’s rules game in contrast to much of the country that played the tamer six-person line game).did extraordinary well. The team took second in the American Tournament, a huge annual extravaganza that involved just about all the hundreds of men and women teams in the Chicago area. During the summer Fellmeth pitched for the Alamo Theater Co-eds.13
Catherine Fellmeth chose not to compete for the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany because she wanted to take care of her infant son, but nonetheless she was fairly active that year. She competed for the newly formed Illinois Club for Catholic Women (ICCW) in the Central AAU indoor meet in March. Perhaps showing a little rust from not competing in 1935, she took a second in shot put and a third in the basketball throw, At the Central AAU outdoor meet in June, had considerably upped her game with first place finishes in
shot put, baseball throw, and discus (the last a new Central AAU record). Fellmeth traveled to compete at the National AAU and Olympic Trials in Providence Rhode Island, in July, where she took a second in baseball throw and third in shot put–two non-Olympics events–and did not place in the discus–an Olympic event. She many not even competed in the discus,14
The two clubs that sponsored Chicago’s elite track and field athletes in 1936 disbanded after the Olympics, and in early 1937 a new team of uncertain origin stepped in to sponsor the remaining elite competitors who had not retired, Rivals. With such competitors as Betty Robinson and Annette Rogers no longer competing, Fellmeth was one of the few elite tracksters left. The Rivals as expected easily won the annual Central AAU outdoor meet in the first week of August, led naturally by Fellmeth, who won baseball throw, shot put, and discus, the latter which she broke her own Central AAU record. Because the Rival sponsors did not support a trip to Trenton, New Jersey, to compete in the AAU National outdoor meet, Fellmeth was deprived of the opportunity to win two national titles, as both her Central AAU marks in shot put and discus were better (considerably so in the latter) than the marks made in the AAU National. In basketball, Fellmeth led her Felmeth Paints to the semi-round in the American Tournament, losing to the eventual champion.15
Fellmeth was a key member of the 1938 elite track and field team, Dvorak Park, which assumed sponsorship replacing the Rivals team. Dvorak Park and the Polish National Alliance were the only Chicago teams that sent competitors for the National AAU outdoor meet in Naugatuck, Connecticut, on August 6, and Fellmeth represented Chicago well, taking two firsts, discus and shot put, providing Dvorak Park ten of its 12 fourth place points. A week later, in Chicago, Fellmeth led the Dvorak team to first place in the Central AAU outdoor meet at Ogden Park, with wins in the shot put and discus, both in which she broke her own Central AAU records.16
Fellmeth in 1938 had her most outstanding year, helping her teams in four different sports win a local title. First she was the crucial member of the four-member bowling team, Riddell Shoes, which won the Chicago championship. In basketball, Fellmeth left the disbanded Fellmeth Paints to join the top local team, Queen Anne Aces. As guard, she led the team to the American Tournament championship, equivalent to the city title. She kept busy in the summer as pitcher of the Rival Dog Food softball team leading her team to the city championship. Lastly, at the previously Central AAU track meet she led her Dvorak track team to the championship with two individual titles. In the organized competition in the amateur women’s athletic world, there was a fierce competition to gather the best athletes, and it is a tribute to Fellmeth’s athletic ability to being recruited in each of her sports to the city’s top teams.17
At the 1939 National AAU outdoor championship at Waterbury, Connecticut, Fellmeth’s team, the Chicago Hurricanes took second to the Tuskegee Institute team. The Hurricanes, the name for the Chicago Park District team, received most of its points from Catherine Fellmeth, who repeated for the second consecutive year as discus and shot put winner. In basketball, Fellmeth and Anne Soloway changed affiliation again, leaving the Queen Anne Aces to join a new elite team, the BIll Rand Girls, which included some of the best women players in the city. The team took second in the American Tournament, and won the Windy City League title.18
Fellmeth in 1940 was living on the South Side with her husband, Edmund, and her five-year old son. Her husband’s job was listed as a painter for a painter contractor, and she listed herself as an instructor in a bowling alley. To the census taker, she reported to have earned 250 dollars income for her work, but that would be sufficient to have her declared a professional by the AAU, if they had known about it.19
Fellmeth retired from basketball after the 1939 season, and from track and field after the 1941 season. During the 1940 track and field season, she defended her National AAU titles in the discus and shot put for the Chicago Hurricanes. The following year, Fellmeth showed a some diminishment of her throwing skills, At the National AAU, competing as unattached, she could do no better than third in discus, but won shot put title for the fourth year in a row.20
Although Fellmeth had left track and field and basketball by 1941, she continued for some years as a champion softball player and bowler. Fellmeth was one of the aces pitchers in the Chicago Girls’ Major Softball League in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In 1941 she was the top pitcher on the championship Garden City Brewers team, where she led the Brewers to the city championship. By 1943 she was competing on the Reingolds team. A newspaper story in 1947 credited Fellmeth with 360 victories during her career. That year, she was still pitching, notably tossing for Chicago’s Match Maids who shut down the New Orleans’ legendary Jax Girls, ending their 86 game winning streak.21
By the early 1940s, Fellmeth had become a nationally renowned bowling star, leading her team, Logan Square Buicks, twice to the national team championship, in 1940 and 1942. In 1946, in Kansas City, as a member of the Meister Braus she won the All-Events World Championship (equivalent to national champion). It was a shame she emerged in the incipient days of television, because millions never experienced the excitement of seeing the most visually sensational bowler of the day. In 1947 she was described in the newspapers as “bowling’s most spectacular performer, thanks to the highest backswing of any woman in the history of the game.” In her backswing, she brought the ball all the way up straight up over her head, 180 degrees from straight down, and the ball is brought down in a “flashing delivery which sends the ball hooking into the pins with devastating force.”22
Fellmeth had begun instruction in bowling in the late 1930s, and throughout the 1940s she wrote a bowling instruction column under various names that was syndicated to newspapers nationwide. She also ured the country promoting bowling, providing instruction, and giving exhibitions, For example, in November 1947, she spent ten days in San Antonio bowling alleys giving instruction and exhibitions. She also presented at an academic conference in 1946, at the Fourth Annual Industrial Recreation and Music institute, at Purdue University. As one of the experts in various fields of sport, she demonstrated and explained bowling. After becoming a spokesperson for Brunswick, 1946-1954, most of this work was done for the Brunswick Corporation, manufacturer of Bowling equipment. She even had her own bowling ball, Catherine Fellmeth Varipapa Bowling Ball Brunswick A866 She was one of only two women spokespersons appearing in a Brunswick bowling hints booklet, alongside superstar Marion Ladewig.23
An athlete can be competitive in bowling for a longer time than in most sports, and Fellmeth was active in bowling at least until 1953, when she competed with the Blatz Beers in Chicago. Her winning ways continued as well, when in 1947 she won the Chicago singles title, and in 1948 led the Tavern Pales to the Chicago team championship. In 1949, competing in a handicapped men’s event in California she took first. More impressively, scoring the event from scratch she took second.24
In 1970, Fellmeth was retired and living in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, when she was inducted into the Women’s International Bowling Hall of Fame. At that time she was known as the Queen of the Quarter Horses, for her raising of racing quarter horses. In 1980, at the age of 72, competing in the Wisconsin Senior Olympics, she won gold medals in bowling, shot put, discus, and baseball throw, and became known not only competing in senior competition but also promoting it. She was also competing in national bowling tournaments, when there was not yet a senior division. In 1981 she was inducted into the Chicago Sports Hall of Fame. The first academic mention on Fellmeth was in 1993 in a Gerald Gems article on working class women in sports—the historian realizing she was a significant athlete but had little to go on. Catherine Fellmeth died on July 22, 1995, in Lake Geneva. Reportedly, a bowling magazine years earlier had dubbed her “America’s Queen of Sports,:” a suitable epitaph that I think belongs on her tombstone.25
1. Thirteenth Census of the United States 1910–Population, Bureau of the Census,. Illinois, Cook County, Chicago, Ward 29, Enumeration District 1283, Sheet 6B (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1982); Fourteenth Census of the United States 1920–Population, Bureau of the Census, Illinois, Cook County, Chicago, Ward 29, Enumeration District 501, Sheet 3A (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1992).
2 “Swift Team Wins Novice Track Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 24 January 1926; Virginia Farrar, “Girls’ Olympic Goes to Cornell Square,” Chicago Daily News, 27 September 1926; Virginia Farrar, “Cornell Square Successfully Defends Women’s Olympic Title,” Chicago Daily News, 30 May 1927; Anne Armstrong, “Cornell Square Wins Track Meet,” Chicago Daily News, 11 June 1928.
3. Jimmy Corcoran, “World’s Marks Fall in Girl’s Track Meet,” Chicago American, 2 June 1928; Leo Fischer, “I.W.A.C. Wins Track Honors, Betty Robinson Stars,” Chicago American, 24 June 1929.
4. Walter Eckersall, “Robinson Wins Silver Skates Derby,” Chicago Tribune, 24 January 1927; “Ice Skating Results,” Chicago Tribune, 31 October 1929; :”How They Finished in Silver Skates Races,” Chicago Tribune, 27 January 1930; “Murphy Annexes Skating Crown,” Chicago Tribune, 2 February 1930; “Oneil (sic) Farrell Wins Western Skating Crown,” Chicago Tribune, 3 February 1930; “Carl Steinwig, Marie Pierce Win Cullen A. C. Skate Titles,” Chicago Tribune, 10 February 1930; “Schroeder and Stack Divide Skating Honors,” Chicago Tribune, 11 January 1931.
5. “Spink Wins 22 Mile Handicap in Bike Derby,” Chicago Tribune, 13 June 1927; “Win Two Games From Peoria Ten; ’40 State Champs,” Southtown Economist, 6 August 1941; Lear Jansen, “When It Came to Sports, She was Truly a ‘A Queen,'” Janesville Gazette, 12 September 1981. The Jansen feature is the most accurate and most complete profile of Fellmeth’s career published to date.
6. Leo Fischer, “9 Girl Track Stars Earn Trip to Dallas,” Chicago American, 30 June 1930; Leo Fischer, “Seven New Records Hung Up in Women’s Track Meet,” Chicago American, 20 July 1931; Betty Eckersall, “Six Marks Fall in Central A.A.U. Meet for Girls,” Chicago Tribune, 19 June 1932; Louise Mead Tricard, American Women’s Track and Field: 1895 through 1980) (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1985), pp. 161-63; 171-73; 183-85.
7. “Annette Rogers Sets Dash Mark in A.A.U, Games,” Chicago Tribune, 20 March 1933; “I.W.A.C. Takes Women’s Title with 42 Points,” Chicago Tribune, 1 July 1933.
8. “Star-Dust,” Southtown Economist, 8 January 1932; “Fellmeth Five Wins 3 Victories,” Southtown Economist, 25 February 1932; “Girl Hurls Winning Ball for Southtown Boys’ Nine,” Southtown Economist, 8 July 1932; “Greys Seek Flag in Tilt With Corals.” Southtown Economist, 19 August 1932; “Fellmeth Cage Teams Face Strong Opponents,” Southtown Economist, 3 March 1933; “Dick” Williams, “Southtown Sport Slants,” Southtown Economist, 9 July 1941; “R. Edmund Fellmeth” [obit], Janesville Gazette, 12 October 1974.
9. “Many New Leaders in Pin Tourney,” Chicago American, 9 March 1932; “Mae Ebert 1st in Class A Singles,” Chicago American, 14 March 1932; Lewis “Dick” Williams, “Southtown Sport Slants,” Southtown Economist, 9 July 1941; “Pin Champion to Perform Here Saturday,” Ogden Standard Examiner, 10 October 1947; “R. Edmund Fellmeth” [obit].
10. “The Hart Motor Girls of Chicago,” Chicago American, 11 September 1934; “Gals Meet Gals in Cage Combat,” Southtown Economist, 5 December 1935.
11. “Bring Championship to Chicago” , Chicago Tribune, 16 April 1934; “Lincoln Park Girls Win Two Track Titles,” Chicago Tribune, 5 August 1934; Tricard, pp. 216-17; “Edmund Fellmeth, 82” MyLife.com [https://www.mylife.com/edmund-fellmeth/edmund-fellmeth], 2018.
12. “Parade Preceder Opening of Girls’ League Tonight,” Chicago Tribune,27 May 1935; “Play Three Games in Softball Division,” Chicago Tribune, 2 August 1935; “Lake Shore Wins in Central Track Meet,” Chicago Herald and Examiner, 11 August 1935; “Card 3 Games Tomorrow in Girls’ Softball,” Chicago Tribune, 25 August 1935; Tricard, pp. 219-22.
13. Eddie McGuire, “Chicago American Tournament News,” Chicago American, 9 March 1936; Leo Fischer, “Crown Champions in American Tournament,” Chicago American, 10 March 1936. “Parichy Roofers Play Good Ball, Take 2 Out of 3,” Forest Park Review, 14 July 1936.
14 “Helen Stephens Ties World Sprint Mark in A.A.U. Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 26 June 1936; “Five Women’s A.A.U. Marks Fall in Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 14 June 1936; Tricard, pp. 229-30; “Catherine Fellmeth – Pitcher: Career Highlights.”
15. Leo Fischer, “Decide Cage Meet Titles This Week,” Chicago American, 1 March 1937; “Rivals Win Two Titles in A.A.U. Women’s Track,” Chicago Tribune, 8 August 1937; Tricard, pp. 241-42.
16. Leo Fischer, “4 Title Games End Cage Meet,” Chicago American, 3 March 1939; Tricard, pp. 247-48.
17. Leo Fischer, “Five Title Games to Climax Cage Meet,” Chicago American, 2 March 1938 “Bowlers Hold Ninth Annual Reunion Today,” Chicago Tribune, 11 December 1938; Tricard, pp. 247-48. In non-contemporary newspaper reports and later small biographies on Fellmeth, these championships have been wrongly ascribed to 1937.
18. Leo Fischer, “Final Champs Crowned in Big Cage Tourney,” Chicago American, 4 March 1939; “Harmon Quintet Wins; in National A.A.U. Tourney,” Chicago Tribune, 9 March 1939; Tricard, pp. 252-53.
19. Sixteenth Census of the United States 1940: Population Schedule, Bureau of the Census, Illinois, Cook County, Chicago; Enumeration District: 103-947, Sheet 7A (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration,.2012).
20. Tricard, pp. 254-55, 260-61,.
21. “Chicago Softball Tourney Opens at Shewbridge Field,” Southtown Economist, 20 August 1941; “Brewers in Last Game at Shewbridge Field Monday,” Southtown Economist, 3 September 1941; “Gold Crown Ten Faces Rheigold Team Tonight,” Southtown Economist, 21 July 1943, “Pin Champion to Perform Here Saturday,” Ogden Standard Examiner, 10 October 1947; Edward Jensen, “Softball Pickups,” Chicago Tribune, 27 July 1947.
22. “Defend National Bowling Titles” , San Antonio Express, 11 May 1941; “Logan Squares, Nina Van Camp Win WIBC Titles,” Chicago Tribune, 8 June 1942; Ralph Dickerson, ”Strikes and Spares,” San Antonio Express¸ 11 November 1945; “Gangway!” , San Antonio Light, 24 August 1947.
23. Proceedings, Fourth Annual Industrial Recreation and Music institute Purdue University, Indiana Manufacturers Association, Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, Industrial Recreation Association, October 24-27, 1946, p. 5; “Gangway!” , San Antonio Light, 24 August 1947; Catherine Fellmeth, “Pin-Down Girl,” Kingston Daily Freeman, 29 October 1947; “S/A. Bowling Chatter,” San Antonio Light, 16 November 1947.
24. Edward Jensen, “Softball Pickups,” Chicago Tribune, 27 July 1947; James Segreti, “All-Star Pin Leaders Face Test Tonight,” Chicago Tribune, 21 January 1948; “Mrs. Fellmeth Wins Men’s Top Prize in Open Pin Tournament,” Altoona Mirror, 16 May 1949; “Detroiter Team Safe in WIBC As Top Squads Falter,” Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, 23 May 1953.
25. “Short Shorts,” The Progress¸ 5 May 1970; Robert Wiedrich, “Tower Ticker,” Chicago Tribune, 31 May 1970; “Ambassador” , Mansfield News Journal, 18 February 1973; Jansen, “When it Came to Sports,” 1981; Gerald R. Gems,. “Working Class Women and Sport: An Untold Story,” Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal; vol. 2, no. 1, (31 March 1993): 17.