The Spencer Coals women’s basketball team, which achieved national fame while competing under men’s rules in Chicago and the Midwest in the 1930s, was at the center of the conflict among women’s amateur basketball authorities over playing the moderated women’s rules or the aggressive highly athletic men’s rules.
In Depression era America, the country was divided over what represented suitable and safe athletic competition for women. With regard to basketball, in the high schools and colleges, and in much of the South and West, women played a highly moderated game that presumed women lacked strength, aggressive instincts, and physical endurance to play like men. Elsewhere, in Chicago mainly, but also in Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, and other cities in the northeast section of the country, as well as pockets elsewhere, promoters of amateur women’s basketball believed that women should play the same physical, fast, and aggressive game as men and helped the game prosper in those areas.
The Spencer Coals as the top team in Chicago, the major hotbed of men’s rules basketball in the nation, developed a national reputation as what a modern woman could do athletically, thereby advancing women equality and achievement at a time when were denied opportunity to achieve by glass ceilings in all kinds of fields. The Spencer Coals was a typical industrial team of the era, sponsored by Spencer Brothers Company, a coal supply concern. The company was highly involved in the support of a variety of sports, sponsoring prairie football, baseball, and softball teams, and operating a baseball field on the North Side. The Spencer Coals competed in AAU competition, against church teams, and toured the upper Midwest, and further afield to Oklahoma, Wichita, and Canada.
In Chicago, most amateur women basketball teams in the city and suburbs played the game under the men’s rules. Most high school and college teams in the Chicago area, however, played the game only intramurally and used the moderated women’s rules. In the Chicago women’s game (which varied a bit from the national rules) the court was divided into two sections with a center line, with six players on each side, three offensive and three defensive. Each player was limited to her section, with the number of dribbles limited to three (national AAU rule was one), thus reducing the game to a mostly passing game. There were other rules in guarding that reduced roughness. The women’s amateur basketball establishment in Chicago derided this ‘line game” as playing like an “animated checker.” When in 1933, the huge American Tournament in Chicago introduced a “girls’ rule” class, the audience was so unfamiliar with the “odd looking” game it was confused as to what was going on. The physical education establishment in Chicago (reflecting the national view) regularly condemned men’s rules for women, considering it both physically and emotionally to women, and possibly damaging their ability to become mothers.1
The national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) conducted a national tournament for women, in which most of the teams came from the South and the West. In the northeast section of the country, certain district AAU organizations, in Chicago and St. Louis notably, sponsored a men’s rules competition, and during the Depression there was considerable dispute within the national AAU between the majority of members wanting to preserve the women’s line game and the minority arguing for the virtues of the men’s rule game.
The origins of the Spencer Coals are complicated, because in Depression era Chicago, the amateur basketball world, particularly with women, was an unstable one, where sponsorship of the teams would change almost annually for some teams. The Spencer Coals made their appearance in the fall of 1932, but to trace their origin one must go back to the spring of 1931, at the Central District AAU championship, when the Forest Park Cardinals beat the Jones & Winter Girls for the title, 17-12. The Cardinals featured two outstanding guards, Mary Fandell and Helen Weise; and Jones & Winter featured forward Lillian Rozhon, supported by Agnes Small, Ruth Miller, and Agnes Martin. The following fall, a new powerful team appeared, the Charles V. Barrett Girls, consisting of those six players from the Cardinals and Jones & Winter team, and coached by Mark Singer.2
In the 1931-32 basketball season, the huge Central AAU tournament sponsored by the Chicago Herald and Examiner, the morning paper owned by William Randolph Hearst, was moved to Hearst’s afternoon paper, the Chicago American. The tournament then divided itself into two tournaments, the Chicago American Tournament, which awarded championships in four classes, one of them women (of which there were about 60 teams), and the Central AAU women’s championship with eight teams competing. The 24-year old Singer was beginning his career as the most dominant coach of women basketball teams during the 1930s. The Barretts team took second to the May & Malone Girls for the American Tournament title in March 1932, but was upset and eliminated early in the Central AAU championship in April.3
Charles V. Barrett, who sponsored a women’s basketball team through his athletic club, had died in December of 1931, and the Spencer Brothers Company took over sponsorship of Barrett’s team in the fall of 1932. Coach Mark Singer, and three of that team’s players—Mary Weise, Mary Fandell, and Lillian Rozhon—made up the core of the Spencer Coals. The new team also picked up a star guard in Anne Goldstein from the Jewish People’s Institute Girls, and former Taylor Trunks star forwards, Cassie Martin and Dorothy Benoit, all together creating a formidable team.4
By the end of December, when the Spencer Coals defeated the Leavittsburg Athletic Club Girls, in Warren, Ohio, in two games, 24-18 and 31-30, they had won 18 straight games. Among those games was a victory over the Baby Ruth Girls, one of the most formidable teams from Chicago. By early February, the Spencer Coals had played 33 games since October, beating a local team in Chicago, playing its fourth game in as many nights. This was an extraordinarily busy team, and with this kind of schedule, which also included extensive barnstorming through the Midwest, belied the team’s contention that it was an amateur organization. Throughout the history of amateur touring teams, barnstorming players often received appearance fees by opponents and were normally paid traveling expenses by their sponsors. Under these arrangements, the Spencer Coals at best were “semi-pros,” although all the players were card-carrying members of the AAU.5
In March 1933, the Spencer Coals edged the Six Points Co-eds for the prestigious American Tournament title 17-16, making up an earlier loss to the team. The Six Points Co-eds represented the defending champions of the tournament, as they were competing as the May & Malone Girls in 1931. The Spencer Coals met only their second setback on April 9, 1933, when-the Six Point Co-eds beat them 26-22 for the Central States YMCA women’s basketball title, at the South Chicago YMCA. The team avenged the loss less than two weeks later, narrowly defeating the Six Point Co-eds for the Central AAU championship, 42-40. The Spencer Coals ended the season with a 60-2 record.6
The 1933-34 season for the Spencer Coals was not as successful as their first season, perhaps hurt by the loss of star player Cassie Martin. Early in the season, in October 1933, the Spencer Coals met the National AAU champions, Oklahoma Presbyterian College Cardinals, and lost to them in two games, 24-18 and 25-12. The game was played at the 132nd Regiment Armory, and was intended to be a part of Chicago’s Century of Progress exposition. The Cardinals were such an outstanding team, that they beat the Spencer Coals playing unfamiliar men’s rules. Later in mid-December, the Coals again met the team (now called Oklahoma City University Cardinals), in a three-game series, in Oklahoma City—all three were close but losing games for the Coals.7
Back in Chicago the Spencer Coals resumed their winning ways from the previous season. When they smashed the American College of Physical Education, 50-10, on January 21, 1934, it was the team’s fifteenth consecutive victory. A month later, the Coals had reached their twenty-fifth consecutive victory, beating their most challenging Chicago opponent, Rickett’s Restaurant Girls, by 23-20, at the White City arena. The Rickett’s team was the same team as the Six Point Co-eds under new sponsorship, which had given the Spencer Coals its only two losses the previous year.8
In early March, 1934, the Spencer Coals competed in a large tournament in Burham, Illinois, involving five male classes and one female class. There the Coals were beaten by one of their toughest rivals, the Baby Ruth Girls.9
The Spencer Coals in the 1934 edition of the American Tournament entered its team in two of the four women’s classes—the open and the girls’ rules class. Spencer Coals lost in the open class in a tight game, 19-17, against the Rickett’s Restaurant Girls, but winning the girls’ rules title, 24-20, over the Empire Sporstverein Girls. 10
Then the Spencer Coals went on to win the 1934 Central AAU championship for the second year in the row, beating the Great Northern Debutantes, 40-20. The Spencer Coals at this time had Lillian Rozhon, Anne Goldstein, Rae Levine, Mary Fandell, Ruth Olbur, Frances Wallace, Branche Koska, and Helen Weise on their roster, and the Debutantes roster was not too shabby either, with Olympian Nan Gindele, Teddy Martin, Dolores Naas, and three former members of the great Taylor Trunks—Cassie Martin, Hazel Kelfstrom, and Teddy Teichmann.11
At the close of the Central AAU tourney in late March, the Spencer Coals traveled to Oklahoma to compete for the National AAU’s experimental men’s rules, or “Tomboy,” championship, that was held simultaneously with the tournament’s regular women’s rules competition. The National AAU was receiving many requests to look into adopting men’s rules in some kind of national tournament, and sponsored a small seven-team tournament to be played the same days as the AAU regular women’s tournament. The Spencer Coals beat Chicago rival, Rickett’s Restaurant Girls, in the semi-finals, and then the Shaw-Stephens team of the St. Louis suburb, Maplewood, 28-19, to win the title in the final. The “men’s rule flight” was supposed to have been eight, but Louisville did not show up, and the Spencer Coals team was given a bye. The only respectably competitive teams were the Shaw-Stevens team from the St. Louis area and the two Chicago squads. The other teams were from the South and West, where the women’s line game prevailed. The organizers should have included a couple more teams from the Midwest, say from Cleveland and Detroit.12
Most observers at the “tomboy” games had never seen women playing by men’s rules, and many were appalled, unused to seeing the level of aggression and athleticism engaged by female players from the modern northern urban centers of Chicago and St. Louis. Basketball founder James Naismith was there as well, and he reportedly “recoiled in horror” at what he saw. He was quoted as saying, “the girls who play under men’s rule are taking on a tough job—and really shouldn’t be doing such things. The present women’s rules are ideal for their game.” These remarks were made at a post-tournament meeting where “dissention…broke out” between the respective advocates of men’s rules and women’s rules. Men’s rules advocates pointed out the popularity of their game n their “bailiwicks.” No sources have reported whether Spencer Coals players were aware of the “tomboy” description of their game and the clamor of censures directed at the kind of game they long loved and played, but if they had it must have been something of a culture shock for them. The “tomboy” experiment was never repeated at the AAU nationals.13
Later in May, the Spencer Coals went up to Edmonton, Canada, to play the Commercial Grads for the Underwood Trophy, emblematic of the “international women’s basketball championship,” but in reality just North America. The Grads were the top men’s rules women’s basketball team in the world. The Coals lost the three-games series to the Grads in two games, the first 100-39 the second 46-37. The first was one of the worst scores that Chicago teams had ever played against the Grads. Most of the previous Chicago teams who competed for the Underwood Trophy were coached by Harry Wilson since he took the Lake View Community Girls up to Edmonton in 1924. Mark Singer had never coached against the Grads before, and his team went out fast, taking an early lead, but as other contenders for the Underwood Trophy before them had learned they were quickly exhausted from the high altitude.14
The second game, the team played smarter and slower and made the game competitive. The team was also without one of their best players, Anne Goldstein, who was prevented from going to Edmonton by the AAU, who ruled her position as a playground instructor made her a professional. Mark Singer in her place added an excellent player, Peggy Self, formerly a top player for the Baby Ruth Girls.15
The Spencer Coals had a less successful season in 1935, playing a variety of local amateur teams, such as the Club Store Co-eds, who were billed as the “United States girls” colored titleholders. The team had their four veterans in Rozhon, Goldstein, Fandell, and Weise, and they were augmented by an excellent player, lone Murphey, who was a teammate with them earlier when they were all members of the Charles V. Barrett team in 1932. In the American Tournament, the Spencer Coals lost the major girls title to the Andy Frain Usherettes, which was also for the Central AAU title (the Usherettes were the Rickett’s Restaurant Girls the previous year, so the Coals lost to the same team in the title game two years in a row).16
In March 1935, one of the leading teams in the country playing men’s rules basketball, the Shaw-Stephens team from Maplewood, Missouri, conducted a 16-team invitational national men’s rules tournament held at Washington University, with the sanction of the AAU Ozark Division. The aim of Shaw-Stephens in holding the tourney was an idealistic one, hoping that by staging a successful men’s rules tournament it would prevail on the National AAU in holding its next tournament with such rules. The Spencer Coals team was one of the 16 invited, but it pulled out after it lost the major division of the American Tournament to the Andy Frain Usherettes. The reason given was failure to procure leaves of absence for their players from their places of employment (which if anything ensured their amateur bona-fides). In the Coals’ place, the Platt Co-Eds, which won the American Tournament free-lance division stepped in, competed. The Baby Ruth Girls from Chicago was also an entry, indicative of the large role of Chicago in men’s rules basketball. The tournament was won by a team that normally played women’s rules, the Tulsa Stenos, so the National AAU was not persuaded.17
The Spencer Coals disappeared as a team at the end of the 1934-35 season, when the coal company dropped sponsorship. Mark Singer took the team with him to play as the T. J. Bowler Girls, under sponsorship by a Democratic political leader, Thomas J. Bowler, replacing an unsuccessful women’s team called the T. J. Bowler Boosters. Besides such Spencer Coals stars as Lillian Rozhon, Annie Goldstein, and Cassie Martin, Coach Singer added Betty Neuman of the disbanded Baby Ruths. The only tournament that the Bowlers won that year was the Calumet Region Tournament, in January 1936.18
The T. J. Bowlers lasted through the 1936-37 season, and then Mark Singer reorganized the team as the Turner Clothiers for the 1937-38 season. The Clothiers were a pretty solid team. It competed in the Windy City League, and took second to the Queen Anne Aces in the American Tournament, losing the title by one point. In the 1938-39 season, Singer again reorganized his team under the resurrected name of the Taylor Trunks, even though he and none of his players had anything to do with the legendary team from six years earlier. The members of this team were Lillian Rozhon, Millie De Lord, Dorothy Dennison, lone Murphey, Mary Graven, Bee Zoller, and Ruth Miller. The team played in the Windy City League, and lost the title to the Bill Rand Girls.19
Then for the 1939-40 season, Singer dropped the Taylor Trunks name and resurrected the Spencer Coals name for his team to play in the Windy City League. He lost the great Lillian Rozhon (who had been with him since 1931), but gained another great player, Mercedes DeSutter. The other players, going back to several Mark Singer teams, included lone Murphey, Frances Wallace, Bee Zoller, Dorothy Dennison, and Mary Gravin. The team was still working off the reflected glory of their namesake earlier team’s 1934 achievement in winning the national AAU “Tomboy” tournament. When this new Spencer Coals team was billed on a basketball triple header at White City, they opened with a game against the Chicago Co-Eds, and the newspaper item described the Coals as “former national champions under men’s rules.”20
The new Spencer Coals were a highly successful in the 1939-40 season, garnering at least a 19-game winning streak, but they lost the championship of the American Tournament to the Queen Anne Aces, whose lineup that year included Spencer Coals veteran Lillian Rozhon. The Spencer Coals disappeared at the end of the season. The era of Mark Singer teams was over. The new Spencer Coals was not actually a “Spencer Coals” team but merely a team using the legacy name.
The legacy of the original Spencer Coals team was its ambition to demonstrate that women were capable of playing highly competitive basketball in equality with men. The Spencer Coals was not successful in that aim with much of America, unfortunately, in that in subsequent decades, while amateur women’s basketball went into the decline in Chicago and other northeast cities, the National AAU tournament using women’s rules thrived in the postwar years.
1. Harland Rohm, ”Boys’ Rules Speed Girls’ Basket Games,” Chicago Tribune, 27 December 1926; “Rules of ‘Softies’ May be Retained for Girls Cagers,” Charleston Gazette, 2 April 1934; Joanna Davenport, “Chapter 5–The Tides of Change in Women’s Basketball Rules,” in A Century of Women’s Basketball. From Frailty to Final Four, edited by Joan S. Hult and Marianna Trekell (Reston, Virginia: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance), 1991, pp. 83-108.
2. French Lane, “DePaul Frosh Win C.A.A.U. Heavy Title, Chicago Tribune, 29 March 1931; Jack Elder, “Big Basketball Tourney Ends; Crown Victors,” Chicago Herald and Examiner, 30 March 1931.
3. “Battle for Basket Title” , Chicago American, 12 March 1932; Leo Fischer, “Hail Champions of Cage Tourney,” Chicago American, Chicago American, 14 March 1932; Betty Eckersall, “Barrett Five Loses in A.A.U. Upset, 14-12,” Chicago Tribune, 6 April 1932.
4. “Spencer Coal Quintet Signs Anne Goldstein,” Chicago Tribune, 18 October 1932; “Leavettsburg Girls Meet Chicago Maids,” Akron Beacon Journal, 23 December 1932.
5. “Spencer Coals Defeat Baby Ruth Five, 20-16,” Chicago Tribune, 24 November 1932; “Spencer Coals Defeat Leavittsburg A. C., 30-31,” Chicago Tribune, 3 January 1933; “Spencer Coals Triumph Over Amphions, 31 to 6,” Chicago Tribune, 5 February 1933.
6. Leo Fischer, “Record Crowd Sees Windup of American’s Cage Meet,” Chicago American, 20 March 1933; “Six Points Beat Spencers for Y.M.C.A. Title, 26-22,” Chicago Tribune, 10 April 1933; “Spencer Coals Basketball Team,” Oak Park Leaves, 13 April 1933.
7. “Former Stars of N.U. Defeat Tulsa, 34 to 30,” Chicago Tribune, 24 October 1933; “Cardinals Win Two Games in Chicago,” The Campus, 27 October 1933; “Cardinals Take Three Victories,” The Campus, 15 December 1933; “Cardinals Have Not Replied to Challenge from Grads,” Edmonton Journal, 5 January 1934.
8. “Spencer Girls Defeat Physical College, 50-10,” Chicago Tribune, 21 January 1934; “Spencer Coals Defeat Ricketts Girls, 23 to 20,” Chicago Tribune, 17 February 1934.
9. Leo Fischer, “Blue Eagles Capture Open Cage Crown,” Chicago American, 8 March 1934.
10. “Five Games on Card Tonight in District Meet,” Chicago Tribune, 1 March 1934; Leo Fischer, “Men’s Semifinals Top American Tourney Tonight,” Chicago American, 5 March 1934; Leo Fischer, “Five Title Games Tonight as Cage Meet Nears End,” Chicago American, 9 March 1934.
11. “C.A.A.U. Girls Play for Title,” Chicago Herald and Examiner, 26 March 1934; “Spencer Coals Win Title,” Chicago American, 27 March 1934.
12. “Southern Teams Advance,” Emporia Gazette, 28 March 1934; “Strong Oklahoma Sextets Advance in Cage Tourney,” Joplin News, 29 March 1934; “Tulsa Team Wins Title,” New York Times, 31 March 1934; Robert W. Ikard, Just for Fun: The Story of AAU Women’s Basketball Paperback, Fayetteville, AK: University of Arkansas Press, 2008, pp. 40-41.
13. “Rules of ‘Softies’,” Charleston Gazette, 2 April 1934; Al Mitchell, “Out of the Pressbox,” Mason City Globe-Democrat, 7 April 1934; Robert W. Ikard, Just for Fun: The Story of AAU Women’s Basketball, Fayetteville, AK: University of Arkansas Press, 2008, pp. 40-41.
14. “Grads Score Decisive 100-39 Victory Over Chicago,” Edmonton Journal 21 May 1934; “Grads Defeat Chicago In Second Straight Game To Retain Championship,” Edmonton Journal, 22 May 1934.
15. “U.S. Amateur Union Bars Member of Chicago Team From Series Against Grads,” Edmonton Journal, 9 May 1934.
16. Leo Fisher, “Cage Winners Await Champs’ Tourney,” 11 March 1935; Leo Fisher, “Olde Timers Win A.A.U. Title in Cage Classic Finals,” Chicago American, 14 March 1935.
17. Dan J. Forrestal Jr.,”Shaw-Stephens to Sponsor Men’s Rules Cage Tourney for Girl’s Teams,” St. Louis Globe Democrat, 12 February 1935; Eddie McGurie, “Tourney News,” Chicago American, 14 March 1935; Ray J. Gillespie, “Shaw-Stephens and St. Edwards in Quarter-Finals of Cage Player,” St. Louis Star-Times, 14 March 1935; Reno Hahn, “Shaw Girls Get One Field Goal and Lose Final,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 17 March 1935.
18. “Bowler Girls Basketball Team Looking for Games,” Arlington Heights Herald, 29 November 1935; “Entries Close At 9 p. m. for Cage Tourney,” The Times, 30 January 1937.
19. Leo Fischer, Five Title Games to Climax Meet,” Chicago American, 2 March 1938; “Harmon Quintet Wins; In National A.A.U. Tourney,” Chicago Tribune, 9 March 1939.
20. “3 Basketball Games Carded at White City,” Chicago Tribune, 26 November 1939