Kate Smith sang The Star-Spangled Banner on tape, and Toto, who is fat, bald and knows asphalt, passed his cantaloupe all around. In Stratford, Conn. the Women's National Softball Tournament was under way.
Anthony Caldaroni, who is Toto, paves curbs by day and "caters" softball games at the Raybestos Memorial Field at night. "You try curbing 90 tons of asphalt, then come out here and cut cantaloupe," he says. The food is free, courtesy of Toto's Corner, a group of 12 fans who let Winky the GE man run watermelon and ham sandwiches and cream puffs and chocolate cakes through the crowd for them. "We are, you might say, dyed-in-the-wool supporters of the Raybestos Brakettes," says Bob Gann, one of Toto's Corner. "He means," says Toto, "we donate."
Toto's Corner has been watching the Brakettes play for more than 20 years, and all agree that this season Raybestos has its best team ever—which might mean the best team ever. Toto says that when Bert pitches and Donna plays second and Joanie plays first the Brakettes have the greatest women's infield in the history of the world. Toto then says to have some more cantaloupe.
Bert is Bertha Tickey, a plump grandmother of 43 who is the Cy Young, or Sarah Bernhardt if you will, of women's softball. Since she has already won 735 games and pitched 161 no-hitters, Bert is making this season her last. As befits a legend, Mrs. Tickey is going out gracefully, and on top. She began throwing no-hit games for the Lionettes of Orange, Calif. but left when the Raybestos people called 11 years ago.
Mrs. Tickey was the first of many, who, with strangely nomadic yearnings, wander from town to town and from team to team, whizzing a softball past opposing batters. "I don't know exactly what it is," she says. "We all like to travel, and some of the girls just get tired of one place after a while. I had a good offer, so I came." Mrs. Tickey's hair swirls back into a blonde pile like whipped cream, and, unlike most of her hard-visaged, baby-I've-been-around colleagues, she is just as sweet. The widely held theory that a girl softballer is less attractive than a lumberjack is a false one. But equally misleading is a statement by Morris A. Bealle in his book, The Softball Story, in which he says, "The athletic proficiency attained by top-flight girl softball players has detracted in no way from their feminine charm. Many of them could enter any beauty contest in the land and finish in the upper brackets." As a matter of truth, there isn't much girl watching at a women's softball game.
Donna Lopiano and Joan Joyce are the second basewoman and first basewoman of the Brakettes and, since Mrs. Tickey has slowed down a bit, the best women pitchers in the world. Donna made the National All-Star team at 16 as an infielder and is now a senior at Southern Connecticut State. Joan, a home-town girl, caused quite an uproar in the Stratford area four years ago when she pitched the Brakettes to the championship and then up and quit to go to school in California and, not very coincidentally, play for Orange.
Joan Joyce is probably one of the finest women athletes in the world. She won the Connecticut bowling championship three weeks after taking up the sport, plays to a 13 handicap after a year of golf and once scored 54 points in a basketball game. She also chases fire engines. In the 1965 national softball finals, with 12,000 people bursting the Raybestos park, Joan pitched Orange to a 14-inning victory over the Brakettes. "Half the crowd was for Stratford and half wanted Joanie to beat us," says Donna. "Most of the bad feelings had worn off by then, but it was still awfully tough to lose to Joan."
Last year Bertha and Donna brought Stratford through the losers' bracket of the tournament and won back the title by upsetting Orange twice on the final night as Joan was forced out of the last game with an injured leg. Now, with Joan back in Connecticut after finishing college and with a fourth girl, young Donna Herbert, being groomed to replace Mrs. Tickey, all the chickens have come home to roost and Stratford not only has the best infield but easily the deepest and best pitching staff of all time.
Because of many upsets in the regional, this year's tournament had a weaker field than usual, and the Brakettes were expected to have little trouble. "But," said Don Porter, executive secretary of the Amateur Softball Association, "surprises are common in this tournament. Anything can happen." He was smiling. A Brakette loss would have been the biggest upset in Stratford since Jack Palance played Caliban several summers back at the Shakespeare Festival just down the road. Softball fans are not Shakespeare lovers, it was learned. Toto announced that his Corner had seen only one festival event, the Jimmy Dorsey band in a police benefit. "I don't like Shakespeare," says Toto, "but Bob Eberly was great."
Toto was positive that Raybestos could not lose, but Joan Joyce objected. "Look, we can be beaten," she said, "it's just that we can't be beaten twice." Only a team with great pitching could hope to defeat the Brakettes, and of the other teams in the tournament, Orlando, Fla. had the best. Orlando's Jean Daves had beaten Stratford during the regular season, but that was when she was backed by an All-Star team. She had lost two other games to the Brakettes in 18 innings and in 24 innings, and she was hesitant about her chances in the tournament. "They are too powerful," she said. "You have to hold them scoreless to have any chance. You know your team isn't going to score much on that pitching staff." She was right. Stratford beat her 3-0 on three unearned runs, and Orlando was eventually knocked out of the double-elimination tournament by Orange.
A virtual oasis of pulchritude in a field that included the Webb Cats of Yakima, Wash., who drive trucks for old man Webb's logging company, was the foreign entry, the girls from The Netherlands. Toto, who is not accustomed to such splendor on a softball diamond but who still has the good eye at 59, kept saying where are the Dutch girls and you should see the Dutch girls because they are really something and you will breathe a lot and you will remember those Dutch girls. The memory of their pitcher, Inike van der Veldt, will last the longest. Inike has terrific blue eyes and yellow hair that sweeps over her face down to here, and most of the Stratford people were certain they were seeing the Noxema girl who says, "Take it all off."
But, alas, Inike and The Netherlands were eliminated early and, like everybody else, had to be content with siting back and watching the Brakettes roll through the tournament undefeated without even allowing a run. Rain postponed the final game but only prolonged the challengers' appointed fates. When the rain stopped Joanie Joyce blew down the Redwood City (Calif.) Jets 6-0—she and Donna Lopiano hit home runs for good measure—and Raybestos had another title. Bert retired and Inike, sigh, flew home to The Netherlands. "Cheer up," said Toto, "have some cantaloupe."