It Happened in Jersey: Women's Sports
Women’s hoops fans often wonder what might have happened had the two greatest college stars of the 1970s ever played on the same team. Imagination is a wonderful thing, however in this case it isn’t necessary. During the third (and final) season of the Women’s Professional Basketball League, 1980–81, Carol Blazejowski and Ann Meyers suited up for the New Jersey Gems, who played their home games in West Orange at what is now the Richard J. Cody Arena.
Meyers (right) had joined the Gems a season earlier, when they played in Elizabeth’s Dunn Center, leading the club to a 19–17 record and sharing league MVP honors with Molly Bolin of the Iowa Comets. Blazejowski (below) had been the league’s first draft pick in 1978, but turned down a pro contract so she could retain her eligibility for the 1980 Olympics. After the U.S. Boycott was announced, she signed a three-year deal with the Gems for $150,000.
Meyers and Blazejowsi teamed with Tara Heiss, also a member of the ill-fated Olympic squad, and Faye and Kaye Young, twin sisters who had played their first two pro seasons across the river with the New York Stars. Faye would become the coach at Manhattan College and Kaye married future NFL coach Bill Cowher. The Gems went 23–13, fashioning the third-best record in the league. They lost in the opening round of the playoffs to Nancy Liebermann and the first-place Dallas Diamonds, 2 games to 1. Kathy Mosolino coached the team in its final season; George Kennedy and Howie Landa coached the Gems in their first and second seasons, respectively.
During the 1980–81 campaign, Blazejowski scored 1,067 points—including a 53-point performance—for a 29.6 ppg average. She was one of only two players in WPBL history to reach quadruple-figures in a season. Prior to Blazejowski’s arrival, Meyers had been the league’s greatest drawing card, a triple-double threat almost every time she took the court. It was as a Gem that she developed a romance with Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale, who was filming a feature on Myers for a Los Angeles TV station.
America’s boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow spelled doom for the WPBL. The plan from its inception was to bring all the gold medalists into the league for the start of its third season. With zero publicity for America’s top players, the WPBL failed to draw enough fans in 1980–81 to stay afloat, and the league disbanded.
Meet Me in Newark
The first AAU track & field championships were held in Newark in 1923. Held in Weequahic Park, it was exclusively a women’s event. The New Jersey venue was no coincidence. During the ’teens and 20s, the top female athletes in America competed for athletic clubs or teams sponsored by various businesses. One of the most successful track and field squads was the Athletic Association assembled by Prudential Insurance, which was headquartered in Newark. The 1923 AAU event was held on Saturday, September 29th.
Twelve different organizations sent athletes to Newark, including Prudential, the Newark Normal School, the Paterson recreation Department and the German-American Turnverein, all from New Jersey. Other clubs came from New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Conspicuous by their absence were local college track squads. Women’s track programs had been all but non-existent in the previous decade, and would not begin producing world-class athletes until after World War II. Most of the competitors in Weequahic Park were, or had been, high-school stars.
The meet involved 11 events: High Jump, 50- and 100-Yard Dash, 60-Yard Hurdles, Running Broad Jump, Shot Put, Discus, Javelin, Baseball and Basketball Throw, and 440-Yard Relay. The new AAU rules for women limited competitors to three events, outlawed stretching or massage between events, and dictated a dress code of bloomers or loose, knee-length running shorts. Women also had to wear a bra and a running shirt with quarter-length sleeves—no tank tops.
Marion McCartie, who ran for the City Bank team in New York, won the 50-yard dash in 6.6 seconds. The 100-yard dash went to Frances Ruppert of Philadelphia’s Meadowbrook Club in 12 seconds flat. Ruppert’s time tied the American record, which was set by three other women in the qualifying and semifinal rounds.
Prudential’s Hazel Kirk edged teammate Esther Bering in the hurdles, which were held on grass instead of the park’s cinder track. Thus Kirk’s time of 9.6 seconds established a new national record (on grass). Behring won the basketball throw with a toss of 87’6”, defeating Eleanor Churchill of the Robinson Female Seminary, which was part of Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Churchill won the baseball throw with a distance of 234’5.75”.
Helen Dinnehey of Philadelphia’s Shanahan Country Club won the long jump at 15’4”. Catherine Wright of the Bridgeport Athletic Club won the high jump, clearing the bar at 4’7.5”. Babe Wolpert, a Newark resident who entered the meet on her own, won the discus at 71’9.5”—almost a foot farther than Ranck. Ranck finished first in the javelin with a throw of 59’7.75”. Berta Christophel, a Newark Turverein member, heaved the shot put 30’10.5”, almost a foot farther than Roberta Ranck, a Philadelphia “turner.” The Meadowbrook Club took relay honors with a record time of 52.4 seconds. The team consisted of Ruppert, Dorothy Bough, Grace Rittler and Madeline Adams.
The hometown Prudential A.A. team won the meet with 22 points, followed by the Meadowbrook Club with 19 and the Philadelphia Turgemeinde with 17.