In 1940, the headlines on the front page revolved around the German bombings of Britain and President Franklin Roosevelt being elected for a third term.
But further back in the pages of Litchfield’s News-Herald a group of young ladies were earning accolades for their play on the softball diamond.
The Litchfield Air Steppers, named after the shoe produced by the team’s sponsor, the Brown Shoe Company, won at least 37 games in 1940 and finished second in the ASA State Tournament to the Caterpillar Dieselettes of Peoria.
Becky (Wey) Tarter’s father, Frank, was a coach on the team and her mother, Mary (Bishop), had previously played for one of the Brown Shoe clubs as well. While she wasn’t born yet during the Air Steppers’ state run, Tarter remembers stories from her parents.
“Ball was big in Litchfield. My parents both got jobs at Brown Shoe, just so they could play,” Tarter remembers with a laugh. “That was first time girls played in shorts and my grandpa wasn’t going to let her play. She was the youngest of ten kids and they had to talk him into it.”
Tarter’s father was just 23 in 1940 and was fresh off a stint in the St. Louis Browns’ farm system. In 1938, Wey played in 30 games for the Beaver Falls Browns of the Pennsylvania State Association and hit .276 with 29 hits and three home runs according to www.statscrew.com.
Tarter’s uncle, Stanley “Lefty” Bishop, also played in the Browns’ organization in 1937, for Mayfield Clothiers in the Kentucky-Illinois Tennessee League, but blew out his arm to end his career. According to Tarter, her father could have played longer, but opted for a better paying job instead.
“He said he was tired of watering down his chili with water and ketchup,” Tarter remembers for her father’s reason for quitting.
Still, the competitive bug was there for Wey, and many other employees at Brown Shoe, who built the Brown Shoe Company Recreation Park near the factory. The fields, now known as Schalk Field, were dedicated in 1934, with a dance and a baseball game, which the Brown Shoe team won over the Litchfield Anchors.
Wey was a key part of the Litchfield Browns baseball team in 1940, starting at second base for the team that won the Tri-County Baseball League for the third straight year, but as good as the Browns were, the Air Steppers were even better.
The “Shoe Lassies,” as they were sometimes referred to in print, played a schedule loaded with some of the top teams from Illinois and the St. Louis area and more often than not came out on top.
Entering the 1940 Illinois state tournament, the Air Steppers were 32-10 on the season behind ace “Shorty” Carwile and a group of hard-hitting ladies from Litchfield, Mt. Olive and Morrisonville, plus a player from the Madison team on loan for the state tourney. The tournament was such a big deal that play-by-play of the games was broadcast through the public address system at Library Park for those who couldn’t go to the game in person.
In their opening game at Kitchell Park in Pana, the Air Steppers took on Smith’s Hardware of Jacksonville. The News-Herald recap of the game said Carwile struck out 15 and allowed just two hits in a 6-1 victory, with Kreevich drilling a home run to deep right field to spark the offense.
The team scored another big win in the quarterfinals as they eliminated Danville 9-1 to make it to the final four. “Lefty” Odle struck out ten on the mound for the Air Steppers in the win, while Dunn provided the offense with a home run and a triple.
The Air Steppers’ win to make it to the championship game was much closer than their first two games in Pana as they defeated the Enright Parrot Coals of Rock Island 2-0 in the semifinals. Valerie Barbre, the import from the Madison team, had two hits in the win, while Carwile struck out ten batters.
The win set up a rematch with the Caterpillar Dieselettes, who knocked off the 1939 state champion, the Peoria Farrow Chix, 1-0 in their semifinal. Litchfield had beaten the “tractor girls” 3-2 earlier in the season, but the Dieselettes swept the championship series in two games, winning 2-0 and 1-0 to the dismay of the Litchfield faithful (the write-up for those two games was about a third of the articles for the other state games).
The championship was the first of many for the Dieselettes, who eventually became the Pekin Lettes in 1959 after Caterpillar dropped their sponsorship in the mid ‘50s. The oldest Amateur Softball Association member in the United States, the Lettes were inducted into the ASA Hall of Fame in 2005.
In spite of the loss, the Air Steppers made an impact on the Dieselettes as Shorty Carwile and catcher Mildred Scheffel would play with the Peoria squad in the world championship tournament in Detroit.
The Air Steppers would win at least two more games after the state tournament, with the final win gracing the pages of the News-Herald a 15-0 victory over the Schram City Sweethearts, despite having just seven members from their original roster in the line-up.
Their win total could have been even greater had it not been for bad blood between the ASA and another softball organization, the American Association, run by former American League MVP George Sisler. ASA Commissioner Ed Bumgardner of Chicago told the Air Steppers’ manager Joe Abel that his team would be suspended for a year if they played in Sisler’s tournament. That threat was enough to keep the Brown Shoe team at home and from piling up even more wins.
With the exception of a team picture, a version of which was posted by the Gillespie Public Library on Facebook on June 8, more information on the Air Steppers is difficult to track down.
Articles from the 1940 season provide a glimpse of the team and their success, but leave out some details like first names of many of the players. Even with the wonders of the internet, it’s difficult to know how long the Air Steppers played between the 1940 season and when the factory closed in 1967.
The 1940 season may not have even been Brown Shoe’s best team, as a reference to the Air Steppers is also made in an article in a Sept. 1939 issue of the Decatur Daily Review, listing them as the Farrow Chix’s opponent in the 1939 state championship, something not mentioned in the state articles during the team’s 1940 run.
Hopefully, some of the players passed on stories to their children and grandchildren the way Frank and Mary Wey did to their daughter after their playing days were through. If not, maybe the memories of a special part of Litchfield sports history can live on for another 80 years through the retelling of their story now.