, Muskogee, OK


April 15, 2012

Pioneers with game

— They had a saying, only their hairdresser knew for sure.

Some still keep it secret.

But there was little doubt how they could play basketball.

They were the All-American Red Heads, an organization of touring women’s basketball players from 1936 to 1986 who were the female equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters — both outstanding players and entertainers.

They almost parallel the script of the movie “A League of Their Own,” the story of a women’s professional baseball league that helped promote the game while many of the major league men were serving the country during World War II. That league hung around after the war for a while, and has been reborn in various forms.

For the Red Heads, they were a team of their own and like the baseball family, they’ve got a day coming on the steps of a Hall of Fame — they all go into the National Basketball Hall of Fame on Sept. 7.

They’d play men’s teams — mostly a collection of area coaches, some military base teams and even some NFL players competing in the off-season to stay in shape.

And at times, not only win, but embarrass them.

“We played men and we played full court,” said Myrtle Wallace Frost of Checotah, her once strawberry-blonde hair now silver. “That was quite the transition from the days of 6-on-6 where almost to when I graduated, you could dribble and stop once before having to pass.”

A three-time all-state selection at Checotah High School, Frost, now 82, averaged “25 to 30” points a game and once scored a state-record 61 points in a game as a 5-foot-10 forward. She took her talents to the Missouri-based squad in the fall of 1948 where her pivot play in the block and hook shot with either hand marveled onlookers of the day through 1953.

She points to an array of clippings and photos.

“This article here says I put on the best exhibition of pivot play that they’d seen,” she said. “One game I remember I went to shoot and had a guy right on top of me. I pivoted and hooked a left-handed shot. As we went down court he said ‘you embarrassed me.’”

It happened a lot.

“We girls were pretty good,” she said.

Certainly, there was no one else around to challenge that status.

“I think the two games I remember most vividly were when we played the Washington Redskins and the Green Bay Packers,” said Nancy Malone, a guard who played from 1973 to 1975. Malone grew up in northwestern Kansas and moved to Muskogee after completing her Red Heads career, serving in teaching capacities in Wagoner Public Schools and also at Northeastern State, Bacone and now at Connors State, where she serves as an academic tutor for athletes and in career development.

“That much I remember, and that we won. I am drawing a blank on the names of the players on those teams but I know I had watched them on TV.”

Malone, who still plays actively in the Senior Olympics and was competing in a tournament this past weekend, had a coach and teammate in another Muskogeean, Glenda Hall McClain. The Boynton native who graduated from Haskell and later taught school in Fort Gibson played from 1971 to 1975, coaching and playing near the end of that stint.

“We were pioneers of what you see today, in terms of the opportunities for women to play basketball beyond high school,” McClain said. “I think we had something to do with the advent and development of college basketball and the WNBA. I think most of us, growing up today, would have made it that far.”

Frost didn’t hesitate on that subject.

“I think I would have, yeah,” she said.

Even as the advent of the game has ushered in players well over 6 foot who, like Baylor’s Brittney Griner, can dunk. Frost didn’t.

“But we paved the way for those girls,” she said. “It was only after those opportunities opened up that the Red Heads went out of existence. We got $500 a month which was pretty good. It was worth it. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Frost, who admits she watches the men’s game a lot closer than the women’s, says there’s another edge on the side of her and her teammates.

“I’ll say this for the differences between now and then. Back then, we were tougher,” she said. “Kids are always getting hurt, something’s always wrong with them. You’d hardly ever see one of us get hurt. We’d play eight games a week, two on Sundays, for six months. And we didn’t fly between stops.”

Come September, they’ll all get their due.

“Maybe someone will make a movie about us,” Frost said.

Like many of those in “A League of Their Own,” Frost just might have her grandkids there, gazing at a photo and asking, “Is that you?”

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