The Brownies: The Chicago Team that Pioneered Modern Basketball for Women; Essay by Robert Pruter

To illustrate concept in text

Uptown Brownies, 1925

The Brownies, along with the Jewish People’s Institute Girls and the Taylor Trunks, constituted the big three of amateur women’s basketball in Chicago during the 1920s. The team was a pioneer for the modern game of women’s basketball, using men’s rules, wearing trim uniforms, playing in large arenas before crowds of thousands, and touring the United States and Canada.

The Brownies—known also as the Uptown Brownies and the IWAC Brownies—was one of the pioneers and leaders in the modern men’s rules basketball in Chicago during the 1920s and early 1930s.   By modern, the basketball the game in Chicago allowed for women to compete in an equal manner as men’s teams, playing an unmodified game that allow aggression and highly athletic and energetic play. Also by modern, the Brownies pioneered trim men’s style shirts and trunks, discarding the loose middy shirts and bloomers that most women teams wore. The Brownies, along with the Jewish People’s Institute Girls and the Taylor Trunks, constituted with big three of amateur women’s basketball in Chicago during this pioneer era.

In the 1920s, women’s rules stipulated a court divided into three sections with lines, with six players on each side (in each section two opposing players). Each player was limited to her section, to holding the ball for only three seconds, to a three bounce dribble, making the game mostly a passing game. Roughness was minimalized by barring snatching of the ball and allowing only vertical guarding, These rules were in accord with what the vast majority of the college and high school coaching establish required, who believed that competition with men’s rules for women were injurious to women, both physically and emotionally. School physical educators also limited competition to intramurals, and were horrified at commercial amateur competition, with teams coached by men coaches and front of unruly largely crowds.

In most of the country, women competed under the line game, and the National AAU held a national tournament using the line game. Central AAU, headquartered in Chicago, on the other hand, sponsored a men’s rules tournament for women, for Illinois and surrounding states. The Brownies competed in large arenas in Chicago but also toured the northeast sector of the country and Canada, at the few cities where the men’s rules game prevailed, notably Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto, and Edmonton).

To illustrate concept in text.

Illinois Athletic Club Girls, 1919

The Brownies had a long history, tracing its roots to the Illinois Athletic Club Girls, formed in 1919. The IAC team from its formation was forward looking, advancing women in basketball. The IAC Girls as they were known wore brown uniforms and became popularly known as the “Brownies,” But the uniforms caused an uproar, over the lack of cloth. The team’s captain, Elsie Schreiber, designed the uniforms to mimic men’s briefs and shirts, which did not immediately catch on with other female teams, which continued to wear loose middies and bloomers. After the IAC Girls won the Central AAU tournament title in 1920, the IAC inexplicably dropped its sponsorship of the Brownies.1

To illustrate concept in text

Marie McDonough, 1922

The team disbanded, but within a year, in 1921, a group of girls at the Butler Community House came together to form a team, with some former members of the IAC Girls, notably Elsie Schreiber and Madge Kennedy, who formed the nucleus of the team. They took the name Brownies, and recruited a top player, Marie McDonough, who had led Hamlin Park to the Central AAU title game in 1919. These key players were still members of the team, when the IWAC adopted the Brownies in late 1926.2

The Brownies, under variations of its name, ranked among the top three women amateur basketball teams in the city along with the Taylor Trunks and the Jewish People’s Institute Girls during the next eight years. In the fall of 1921, the Brownies came under sponsorship of North Side banker Robert F. McCambridge of the Sheridan Trust & Savings company, playing under the name Uptown Brownies. McCambridge was the son-in-law of Connie Mack, manager/owner of the Philadelphia Athletics major league baseball team. In both 1922 and 1923, as the Uptown Brownies, the team won the Central AAU tournament championship, and in 1924 won the Central States league title. The Central AAU tournament title was a different story, where the Brownies lost to the emerging powerful team, Lake View Community Girls, 22 to 10.3

The Uptown Brownies was the first team from Chicago to compete for the Underwood Trophy, representative of the international men’s rule woman’s basketball championship (“international” in effect was the North American championship. The award was put up by a firm in Canada in support of the champion Commercial Grads of Edmonton, Alberta. The Underwood Trophy was challenged by Chicago teams nearly every year up to when the Commercial Grads retired in 1940. No team succeeded in wresting the trophy from the Grads, but some years a Chicago team came close. Each year the top Chicago team either engaged the Grads in Edmonton for the Underwood Trophy or in Chicago for a less official championship. The Uptown Brownies during its ascendency met the Commercial Grads four times, two games in October 1923 in Edmonton, and two more the following year in October. The Brownies traveled up to Edmonton for both of those challenge matches.

The Commercial Grads had won the inaugural Underwood Trophy in June when they beat the Favorite Knits from Cleveland. The Grads then set up three challenge matches in September and October, and the Brownies came in between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Warren National Lamps challenges. The Brownies gave the Grads a tough fight, narrowly losing two games, 20-17 and 25-20, before 9,000 screaming fans. The following year, the contests were not so close, as the Brownies succumbed 26-13 and 39-8.4

The Brownies, a leader in modern women’s basketball, led in the changing garb of the

Wire photo showing two Brownie team members showing their modern and old uniforms

Chicago female basketball teams from the loose “clothy” middies and bloomers to the trim men’s style uniforms, a reflection on the new modern attitudes towards basketball for women in Chicago. Many of the teams in Chicago made the change for the 1923-24 season.   The city was far ahead of the rest of country, and what was happening there was made evident to the rest of the nation not only by the photos of Chicago teams sent over the wires, but also one showing the old and new uniforms of the Brownies team, one of the pioneer teams that changed to more modern athletic outfits.5

In the 1924-25 season, the Brownies had lost their sponsor and went by the name of Chicago Brownies. Again the team was defeated for the Central AAU championship for the second year in a row to their chief nemesis, the Lake View Community Girls, who would eventually evolve into the legendary Taylor ‘Trunks.6

To illustrate concept in text

Brownies as the Taylor Trunks in 1926; notice Brownies uniforms on teammates in back row

In the 1925-26 season, the Brownies obtained a new sponsor, the T. J. Taylor Company, which made travel trunks. The team was called the Taylor Trunk Brownies. The season was not a good one for the team, and it was eliminated early in the Central AAU championship, which was won by the Tri-Chi Girls (previously the Lake View Community Girls). Taylor withdrew its sponsorship from the aging team that included Marie McDonough, Alma Huyters, Marge Kennedy, and Elsie Schreiber. Despite their weak season, the Chicago Tribune gave the team as significant profile at the end of 1926, noting that in the previous five years the team had lost only six league and tournament games and won 160 games. The losses did not include the four defeats to the Commercial Grads and a couple of others to Canadian teams.7

The Brownies made a dramatic change in their sponsorship, when they joined the recently opened Illinois Women’s Athletic Club (IWAC), in early 1927. When the IWAC opened its doors in October of 1926, amateur women basketball in the city was trending downwards. The Central AAU, which had sponsored and promoted the women’s game since 1920, was showing less interest, and terminated its championship for women after the 1926-27 season, but retaining the men’s tournament. Thus, there was no Central AAU tournament for women in 1928, 1929, and 1930. Some leagues for women’s basketball disappeared, notably the Bankers Basketball League, and some church leagues. Some women basketball teams at this time became semi-professional, notably the Taylor Trunks, barnstorming in the Midwest, collecting appearance fees to cover “travel costs.” The IWAC rejected this professional model, and sought to maintain amateur purity for its team and promote the amateur game in the city and suburbs.8

Clearly, the IWAC adopted a top team to represent the club, but had to find some way to include the team’s longtime male coach, John Rouzan. Virtually all female amateur basketball teams were directed by male coaches at this time, and the IWAC acceded to keeping the coach by ensuring that the team was always accompanied by a female “Club Representative,” Marie Wagner. Team practices involving its coach undoubtedly were not held in “no man’s land,” as leaders of the IWAC described their facilities. The club’s official photo of the team shows Wagner with the team, but not Rouzan.9

Under IWAC sponsorship in the 1926-27 season, the Brownies experienced a revival in their fortunes. Led by Captain Elsie Schreiber, the Brownies participated in a new women’s league, the Middle States Girls Basketball League. In one league match, the Brownies beat the Finnish-American Athletic Club team 76 to 0, demonstrating how dominant the Brownies could be but also showing the era’s lack of sportsmanship. The team played top teams in the Broadway Armory, the premier basketball arena in the city. As indicative how big women’s basketball was to Chicagoans, in one contest against Toronto’s Young Women’s Hebrew Association at the armory, the Brownies game against the eastern Canadian champs was at the top of the card, while a men’s professional game was on the undercard. The IWAC Brownies capped their season by winning the 1927 Central AAU tournament, beating the Kenwood Girls, 27 to 9.10

At the end of the 1928-29 season, in April, the IWAC Brownies competed for a Midwest championship, at Beloit, Wisconsin, which hosted a tournament of “state champions” from Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, and Illinois. The Brownies defeated the Beloit Fairies, 15-11, for the title.11

The IWAC Brownies reorganized for the 1929-30 season. The longtime male coach was no longer with the team, and the team’s longtime captain and star, Elsie Schreiber, became the pioneering female coach for the team, a development that no doubt was applauded by the IWAC hierarchy. The elevation of Schreiber to coach fitted in well with the mission of the IWAC, that women would be in charge, and Schreiber as coach was something that amateur women’s basketball simply did not see during the 1920s and 1930s. Schreiber proceeded to recruit a whole new lineup of young inexperienced girls, forgoing the usual practice of raiding other teams for their top players. Some of the veterans of the old team– notably Emma Jacob, Marie McDonough, Edna Karstens—helped the new Brownies by playing as a scrub team opponent for practices.12

Remaking the team with non-elite players was not successful, and the IWAC Brownies had a poor record in the following seasons. The team had one top player, Carolyn Pechron, their six foot center who also competed on the IWAC track and field team in discus and javelin. In February 1931, the team lost to the Jewish People’s Institute Girls, 24-21, the first time in nine years that the Brownies had lost to that top notch rival. The IWAC Brownies were eliminated in the semi-finals of the Central AAU tournament in 1932, to a new team, May & Malone Girls. The following year at the huge American Tournament the Brownies lost to the eventual second place team, Six Point Co-eds, in the semifinals, by an embarrassing score of 38 to 12. In the Central AAU 1933 tournament the Brownies were eliminated early. The team disbanded with the closing of the club later in the year. Unlike the club’s track and field and swim teams the basketball team did not end its history triumphantly.13

The IWAC role in promotion of women’s basketball during the history of the club was, nonetheless, important. While amateur women’s basketball was in decline, the prestigious IWAC with its Brownies team winning championships, initially, brought significant visibility to the amateur game, while their one-time rivals, Taylor Trunks, were garnering headlines with their national play and practice of playing men’s teams.  When the Brownies disbanded  in 1933 they left a huge legacy to women’s basketball in Chicago, laying the foundation for the development of modern basketball for women playing men’s rules, which is universal in the United States today.

Notes

1.  “Illinois Athletic Club’s Basket Tossers” , Chicago Tribune, 30 November 1919; “New Londoners Take A.A.U. Basket Title in Great Game, 30-24,” Chicago Tribune, 6 March 1920; “Brownies Roll Up 156 Points in First Two Basket Games,” Chicago Tribune, 29 December 1926.

2. “New London Five Puts Out I.AC in Basket Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 12 March 1919; “Brownies Roll Up 156 Points,” Chicago Tribune.

3. “Mack’s Daughter to Wed,” Sporting Life, 31 October 1914, p. 8: “Convention Boosts West,” Coast Banker, November 1922, p. 522; “Armour Square Cornells Annex Basket Crown,” Chicago Tribune, 15 April 1923; “Girls Basket Title to Uptown Brownies,” Chicago Tribune, 20 February 1924; L.V. Girls and Cornells Win C.A.A.U. Titles,” Chicago Tribune, 30 March 1924.

4.  “Brownie Girls Get Basketball Defeat in Trip,” Chicago Tribune, 16 October 1923; M. Ann Hall, The Grads Are Playing Tonight! (Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 2011), p. 271.

5.  “Some Feminine ‘Pep’” , Chicago Tribune, 7 February 1923; “Members of the Logan Port Girls women’s basketball team standing in front of a brick structure atop a building,” Photographs from the Chicago Daily News, Chicago History Museum, 1923 [http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?cdn:18:./temp/~ammem_LBoi], accessed 8 November 2013; “Sixteen Straight” , Chicago Tribune, 13 January 1924; “Setting New Style” , Kokomo Daily Tribune, 16 January 1928.

6. “New Home A. C., Cappers Reach C.A.A.U. Finals,” Chicago Tribune, 28 March 1925.

7.  “Brownies Roll Up 156 Points,” Chicago Tribune; “Chicago Reds Nip Hamburg Cagers,24-19,” Chicago Tribune, `7 March 1926.

8. “Ft. Wayne Pro Five Defeats Bruins, 49-33,” Chicago Tribune, 29 December 1926.

9.  Marie Wagner, “Club Carries Champion Basket Ball Team,” The Woman Athlete, March 1927, p. 28.

10.  “I. W.AC Girls Ready for Five from Toronto,” Chicago Tribune, 16 March 1927; “I.W.AC Cagers Down Detroit Girls by 16 to 10,” Chicago Tribune, 25 March 1927; “Briggs Beats Joyce, 18 to 15, for AAU Title,” Chicago Tribune, 1 May 1927.

11.  “Brownies Defeat Fairies for Beloit Basket Title,” Chicago Tribune, 5 April 1929.

12.  Harlan Rohn, “Mum’s the Rule on I.W.AC Girls’ Five—No Foolin’,” Chicago Tribune, 10 December 1929.

13.  Rohn, “Mum’s the Rule”; Betty Eckersall, “J.P.I. Girls’ Five Defeats I.W.AC Brownie, 24 to 21,” Chicago Tribune, 4 February 1931; Betty Eckersall, “Women in Sports,” Chicago Tribune, 14 June 1931; “Green AC Five Beats Champs in A.A.U. Meet, 13-12, Chicago Tribune, 7 April 1932; Leo Fischer, “3 More Semifinals Tonight in American Cage Meet,” Chicago American, 14 March 1933; “Spencer Coals,” Chicago American, 22 April 1933.

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1 Response to The Brownies: The Chicago Team that Pioneered Modern Basketball for Women; Essay by Robert Pruter

  1. Pingback: Violet Krubaeck: A Remarkable Chicago Athlete in Basketball, Softball, and Track and Field; Essay by Robert Pruter | The World of Early Amateur & Youth Sports in Chicago

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