Texas Cowgirls toured with Globetrotters in ’50s

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Texas Cowgirls toured with Globetrotters in ’50s

Postby rlee » Tue Oct 25, 2011 10:57 pm

Texas Cowgirls toured with Globetrotters in ’50s
By BILLY WATKINS
SunHerald.com

PEARL -- Picture this: A double-deck bus barnstorming the northern United States and Canada with the Harlem Globetrotters filling the upstairs and the Texas Cowgirls, a women’s basketball team, riding below.
The Globetrotters, featuring Wilt Chamberlain and Meadowlark Lemon, were black. The Texas Cowgirls were white.
The years were 1957 and `58.
“We got a lot of strange looks,” said Barbara Leggette, a Pearl resident who was 18 years old and a member of the Cowgirls at the time. “But us and the Globetrotters got along great. They looked after the girls in every big city we went to and made sure nobody bothered us.”
Those big cities included New York, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago. Small towns were on the schedule, too, “because we played every day and usually twice on Sunday,” she said.
It was, in some ways, a traveling circus.
The Globetrotters were proving that comedy and basketball made good companions.
The Cowgirls -- formed in 1949 and disbanded in 1977 -- always opened the entertainment, taking on local men’s teams.
They came onto the court wearing western hats, vests and holsters filled with cap pistols. Whenever a player made a shot during warm-ups, she would take off something.
“We’d get all the way down to our uniform, and the crowd would start yelling `More! More!’ but that’s as far as it went,” Leggette laughs. “Lord help me if my daddy could’ve seen that.”
Rarely did the Cowgirls lose.
“For the most part, men resented us playing at all, so it would burn them up when we beat them,” said Leggette. “We were in Utah one night, and one of the players on the other team kept trying to get fresh with me every time I brought the ball down court. It really hacked me off. So I reared back and slapped the hell out of him. That guy didn’t know who he was messing with.”
Leggette, 72, the youngest of 12 children, grew up in Transylvania, La., a community 20 miles north of Tallulah.
She loved basketball, and spent most of her spare time shooting at a hoop nailed to a chicken house.
From fifth grade through 10th, she played at Transylvania Middle School.
Then she led Lake Providence High School to the state championship finals as a junior and senior, winning one title and losing another by one point.
Leggette earned All-State honors by averaging more than 40 points per game.
“I had a hook shot they couldn’t stop,” Leggette said.
This was no ordinary hook shot. Leggette usually launched it near the out of bounds line on the right side of the court, a good 22 feet from the basket. She learned it playing against her four brothers.
“I had never seen anybody else shoot a hook,” she said. “I was only 5-foot-6, so I had to figure out a way to get a shot off against the boys. I worked on it until I could pop that net.”
Two men from Wisconsin visited Lake Providence to work on a power plant.
They took in a local high school game, and saw Leggette pour in nearly 50 points.
They told one of her sisters about the Cowgirls, based in Beloit, Wis., and owned by promoter Dempsey Hovland.
“My sister and my mother brought me to Jackson and put me on a train to Chicago, where I took another train to Beloit for a tryout,” she said. “I was a country girl who had never been anywhere.
“When I got there, there were about 40 girls, and they were only going to keep eight. We did some drills and scrimmaged. I felt like I was as good as any of them.”
She was the only Southerner to make the team and earned the starting point guard position.
Off they went, playing high school gymnasiums and some of the most famous arenas in the world -- the old Madison Square Garden in New York and the Cow Palace in San Francisco.
The 1957 Green Bay Packers, with outstanding athletes such as Bart Starr and Paul Hornung, went 3-9 in football and 0-1 in basketball, losing to the Cowgirls.
Leggette earned $400 a month, a ton of money in those days.
She sent most of it home to help the family.
“I enjoyed every minute of it,” she said of the 1957-58 season, which ran from October through May.
As the team prepared for a European tour, Leggette received word her mother had suffered a stroke and her father was battling cancer. She also learned that one of her nieces, a special-needs child, wasn’t doing well.
Leggette returned to Transylvania. Within a 10-month span, her mother, father and niece died. She never returned to the Cowgirls.
“I helped raise my nieces and nephews, helped keep the farm going for a while,” she said. “It was the only decision I could’ve made. I couldn’t have lived with myself, otherwise.”
Leggette’s story, along with others who played with the Cowgirls, may have never been told without Jackie Butler, a 53-year-old student at North Texas State University who is working on her master’s in American history.
Butler was urged by a professor to take an inventory of a small historical museum in Winthrop, Ark., just to see what she might discover.
She found stories on World War II heroes and one about a bear killed.
“The usual small-town stuff,” she said. “But one day they gave me the key to the sports room. I opened up a box, and there was a picture of the Texas Cowgirls. It just tugged at me. I immediately wondered, ‘Girls, where are you now?”’
Butler realized finding them would be no easy chore.
“These ladies would be in their 70s and 80s, so they weren’t going to be on Facebook or MySpace,” she said.
Her search was made more difficult because each girl was identified as a Texan. Leggette’s hometown was listed as Austin.
“But I figured Southern women do two things -- they go to church and they go to the beauty shop,” she said. “And every once in a while, they would slip up and list their real hometown in a newspaper article. So I started calling every beauty shop and church in those towns.”
She had the preacher in Transylvania ask his congregation one Sunday morning if anyone knew a Barbara Leggette.
“Every elderly person in the church raised their hand,” Butler said. “That’s how I found Barbara.”
Butler has interviewed 10 former Cowgirls in person, and many others by phone.
“This is American history. These women were world-class athletes who have been ignored.
“When you think about it, it was quite fitting that the Globetrotters and the Cowgirls toured together. Both were minorities whose only choice of a professional career was one in a circus-type atmosphere. The Globetrotters became famous, but not the Cowgirls.”
Butler contacts the hometown newspaper of each Cowgirl she finds.
“If I can get their stories told, I feel like I’ve fulfilled what I was supposed to do,” she said. “And they’re stories worth telling.”
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