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Meet Betty Chapman, A Softball Pioneer You’ve Never Heard Of

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(Photo courtesy of nationalgirlsbaseballleague.com)

Jackie Robinson is the subject of books, feature films and articles, as well as an inductee into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But Betty Chapman, the very first Black woman to play professional softball on record, has a story of her own that deserves to be told.

The lack of documentation of women's sports history, as well as the lack of documentation of Black families from the mid-20th century, make it difficult to properly represent the impact of Chapman's story.

Softball America attempted to pay tribute to the softball pioneer by piecing together her life through censuses, newspaper articles and archived college yearbooks in the article below.

Chapman, who was born on Aug. 18, 1930 to parents Ada Belle and James O. Chapman, grew up in Illinois where her roots were planted and her love for sports was cultivated. Not much is known about her early life, other than that Chapman attended New Trier High School. She was very active within her college community, so more information on her life was documented around that time.

Chapman began college at Illinois State Normal University, which is now just Illinois State, in 1949. The university was integrated at the time, which was not the case at many other schools around the country, as her freshman year began five years before the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in schools. Although the university was integrated, there were very few Black students in attendance there. That environment would prepare Chapman for being the first and only Black softball player in her professional league in the coming years.

At Illinois State Normal University, Chapman studied elementary education and participated in several extracurricular activities. According to ISNU's yearbooks, Chapman participated in the Elementary Education Club, the Philadelphia Society, the Wesley Foundation and was a librarian for the University Women's Chorus, as well as advocating for and participating in many sports.

There weren't formal women's sports on campus at the time, but Chapman took every opportunity to participate in games where she could. According to Illinois State's newspaper, the Vidette, Chapman played volleyball, tennis, hockey and basketball in college. She also wrote for the paper and would go on to become the Women's Sports Editor in her junior year, which was quite possibly a new position she created at the Vidette.

Chapman began playing professional softball just after her sophomore year of college. According to a 1953 issue of Jet, Chapman “read of good salaries to be made in softball leagues” prior to beginning her professional career. She played for a team named the Admiral Music Maids in the National Girls Baseball League, or NGBL.

The National Girls Baseball League's name is a misnomer, however, since the NGBL was a league of all-women teams that kept the traditional underhand pitching motion and played with a 12-inch softball. Their game was very similar to modern fastpitch softball, and the NGBL is often classified as the first professional softball league in existence.

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While the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League is more widely known, thanks to the hit film A League Of Their Own, that league played with baseballs and an overhand pitching style. The NGBL was the first true professional softball league. In addition, the NGBL was integrated while the AAGPBL was not.

The NGBL was founded in 1944 and had 11 seasons over 10 years. The founders were a trio of influential men from Illinois: Emery Parichy, a contractor from Oak Park, Charles Bidwell, the owner of the Chicago Cardinals football team and Ed Kolski, a Chicago politician.

The Chicago-based league featured varying numbers of ball clubs over the years, but the Music Maids, for whom Chapman played outfield, were a constant in the NGBL until 1953. Chapman played from 1951 to 1952, as shorter careers for women in the pro leagues were common at that time.

During the years Chapman played, the league was reported to draw over 500,000 fans annually, and even rivaled the attendance numbers at the local White Sox games, according to NGBL player Freda Savona.

Those attendance records mean that her career, however short, would have inspired countless young Black girls in the area. As a boundary-breaking Black woman professional athlete in the 1950s, Chapman likely would have faced similar racism and struggles as athletes like Jackie Robinson.

After her playing career, however, information about her life again becomes difficult to acquire. Softball America determined that post-graduation, Chapman left Illinois at some point to work in Washington, D.C. as a government official, and then returned, as evidenced by her obituary. She died on April 30, 2001 in Evanston, Ill.

And while her story isn't as readily told as those of other softball pioneers, Chapman's influence on the growth of the game should certainly be celebrated and appreciated.

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