The Women’s College World Series is big business. Televised nationally by ESPN, its stars become idols for thousands of young viewers.
It wasn’t always this way. Dot Melvin knows it, having played in the first sanctioned Women’s College World Series. There were no television cameras at that 1969 event, a sign of the times for women’s sports.
So was this:
“What we got as an award (for qualifying) was a compact with face powder,” Melvin said, smiling.
Jo Streit still has hers, as do some of her teammates. They also have memories that are fresh 50 years later, and a sense of pride for being in “the pioneer days of it.”
Those were Streit’s words, and indeed the 1969 Illinois State softball team was a pioneering bunch, battling its way to second place in the forerunner of what plays out each year in Oklahoma City.
The 1969 venue was Omaha, Neb., for a nine-team event organized by the Omaha Softball Association and sanctioned by the Amateur Softball Association. It was recognized by the Division for Girls’ and Women’s Sports (DGWS) as a championship tournament.
ISU was runner-up out of nine teams, with Melvin the lone senior on a squad that included a freshman infielder named Melinda Fischer, ISU’s record-setting, 34th-year head softball coach.
The team was honored Saturday during a Redbird doubleheader against Missouri State, its 50-year reunion weekend reconnecting some players for the first time since that memorable season.
“I cannot tell you how grateful we are,” Melvin said. “Just to be able to see each other, to see where ISU softball has gone …”
Melvin, a third baseman, and Streit, a junior shortstop, were co-captains in 1969. They and their teammates wore uniforms of short-sleeved white sweatshirts and blue shorts. They traveled in station wagons, played on fields with no dugouts.
And there was this:
“There were no helmets,” Melvin said. “If you got conked on the head, you just got conked on the head.”
It was OK. They didn’t care about what was missing. The focus was on what they had … a chance to compete like their male counterparts.
There were no organized girls sports in high school, only “play days.” To get to college and be able to play on a real team for a real championship was … well, “like something from heaven.”
Those were Jill Hutchison’s words. Yes, that Jill Hutchison, who went on to become ISU’s longtime, Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach. In 1969, she was the softball team’s graduate assistant coach under Carmel Imel.
“Everyone had a passion to play," Hutchison said. "They were competitive and they were good. Then to get to the College World Series and the very first one, it was a huge deal.”
ISU lost its opening game in eight innings to John F. Kennedy College, 3-2. Delayed by rain, the late-night contest was played in heavy fog.
“You turn to say something to your outfield and you can’t see them,” Melvin said. “It was like, ‘I know you’re there … we have two outs!’”
The Redbirds fought through the losers’ bracket the next day, winning four games to earn a title-game rematch with John F. Kennedy College.
“We thought, ‘OK, this is going to be payback,’” Melvin said. “It wasn’t.”
John F. Kennedy won 2-0, sending ISU home in second place and Melvin with a “real nice charm bracelet” ... the prize for making the all-tournament team.
ISU arrived in Normal to a throng of one. Hutchison remembers a photographer from the school newspaper, The Vidette, being in the parking lot.
“That was it, but they (the players) didn’t care,” she said. “They were just so excited they got to do it. And you know … what a start!”
Indeed, not only for the WCWS, which became an NCAA event in 1982, but for Redbird softball, which under Fischer has established itself as a perennial Missouri Valley Conference title contender.
"It is very special. I am very proud of what she (Fischer) has done for ISU and the way she’s done it with such integrity,” said Tudy Schmied, a first baseman in 1969 and later head of ISU’s Wellness program.
“You’re glad for these kids for what they have, the facilities they have, the scholarships they have. It’s great.”
The reunion drew two players from Arizona, two from Florida. Nearly the entire team returned, with the only player who is deceased being Jan Smith.
Their hearts are full, their bond strong.
That was clear on a sunny Saturday, all these years later.