In the 1940s and ’50s there were no Cardinals, no Suns, no Diamondbacks and no Coyotes for Arizona sports fans to follow.
But there were two semipro women’s softball teams — the Ramblers and the Queens — who were every bit as popular as the Diamondbacks are today.
The teams were fierce rivals, incredibly competitive, and when they met at Phoenix Softball Park, their games drew huge throngs of loyal followers.
The emergence of the two teams on the national softball scene earned Arizona the unofficial title of “Softball Capital of the World.”
Today, Payson Women’s Golf Association member Karen Peterson, 73, looks back on those years with many fond memories, knowing her seasons as a starring member of the Ramblers will be acknowledged on Aug. 13 at the Crescent Sheraton in Phoenix where she will be inducted into the Arizona Softball Hall of Fame.
“It is a great honor for me,” Peterson said. “In a way, I will be back with some of my old teammates.”
Peterson admits she harbored doubts she might ever be inducted into the hall because her softball career was cut short.
“I had to retire at 23 because I blew out my shoulder,” Peterson said. “I had it surgically repaired, but I could never again play at the same level I once did.”
While her playing career did not last as long as she had envisioned, Peterson was a standout infielder on Rambler teams that made six World Championship appearances.
While she was known as a fine all-around player, Peterson believes it was her defensive work at second base that earned her a spot on the Ramblers.
“No doubt about it, that’s what I was best at,” she recalls.
Peterson attributes part of her defensive prowess to a special bond she had with fellow infielder Kay Rohrer.
“We worked well together… we were a good double play (combination),” Peterson said. “I remember her as a very beautiful person, she could have had a movie career.”
Rohrer came to the Ramblers after playing for the Rockford Peaches in the Girls Professional Baseball League that was the focus of the movie “A League of Their Own.”
Rohrer died in 1962 at 39 years of age and in 1976 was inducted into the Arizona Softball Hall of Fame.
Like Rohrer, Peterson could have chosen a career other than softball.
“I once had a recording contract as a guitar player,” she remembers.
After sitting in with a band playing in a bar, she was invited to join the group that was about to make a record.
“But I was told I would have to quit college and softball to be with the band so I said, ‘No way,’” Peterson remembers.
Her softball career began to take off when she was 14 years old, playing for the Dudettes, a farm team of the Ramblers.
When she finally reached the big leagues with the Ramblers, she was taken aback by how popular the team was in the Valley.
“Some games were televised, we were on the radio and we drew huge crowds to all our games,” Peterson said. “People today might find it hard to believe just how popular softball was then.”
The biggest attractions during those glory years were games pitting the Ramblers against the Queens.
Fans aligned themselves firmly behind either team and the rivalry in the stands often turned as intense as it was on the field.
Players from both teams were considered local celebrities and when appearing in public, some were often mobbed for autographs and handshakes, much like Cardinals’ star Larry Fitzgerald is today.
Although semipro women’s softball eventually fell by the wayside, Arizona’s passion for sports can be traced to those women softball players who loved the game and played it so well.
Although Peterson never had the playing opportunities that young women do today, she harbors no ill feelings.
“There was no Title 9 in those days and not even softball in high school or at ASU or U of A,” she said. “All we had was semipro and the farm leagues.
“But I am so happy for what has happened to softball,” she said. “There are now so many opportunities.”
Today, girls can begin playing in organized leagues as early as seven years of age and continue in Little League softball, ASA, USSA, junior high, high school and in college.
Softball, however, has been dropped from the Olympics and that slight infuriates Peterson.
“It must be returned in the future,” she said. “Softball belongs in the Olympics as much as any other sport.”
Although she’s bummed by softball not being in the Olympics, Peterson has enjoyed the last few years witnessing the emergence of Arizona State and the University of Arizona on the national women’s softball scene.
“It’s exciting. I’ve often thought about going back to Oklahoma City (site of the Women’s College World Series), but haven’t yet gone,” Peterson said.
Once Peterson is inducted into the Hall of Fame, she will join the finest players to ever play the game, including former Rambler Dot Wilkinson, who today is considered the best catcher in the history of the sport.
The Arizona Softball Hall of Fame originally was housed in Hayden Library on the campus of Arizona State University, but in 2005 the hall’s board of directors contracted with the Prescott Parks, Recreation and Library Department to permanently house the display in the former National Guard Armory facility on Gurley St.