Sunday, July 08, 2012

Book Review: "Women's Fast Pitch Softball"

Steven Clarfield recently sent me a copy of his (co-authored with Bill Plummer) new book, Women's Fast Pitch Softball: Best of the Best, which I am happy to review. Readers will likely be immediately impressed by these authors' ability to get Arizona coach Mike Candrea to write the preface and former UCLA and Olympic star Dot Richardson to write the foreword.

The core of the book consists of 19 chapters on all-time great figures of the sport -- 10 on contemporary  players and nine on "oldsters" (coaches from various historical eras and players from an earlier day). The contemporary-player chapters, featuring such individuals as Lisa Fernandez, Michele Smith (now a color commentator on ESPN's annual coverage of the Women's College World Series), Cat Osterman, and Jennie Finch, touch on ingredients typically associated with athletic greatness, such as preparation from an early age, hard work, persistence in the face of adversity, a never-ending quest for self-improvement, and the importance of mentors.

The chapters on the oldsters revisit the era before college softball came along with the AIAW in the 1970s (and then progressed with the NCAA from the 1980s forward). In order to be a highly accomplished coach, one has to have been around awhile, thus limiting the universe of individuals who both played NCAA softball and have amassed large numbers of coaching championships (somewhat of an exception is Sue Enquist, who played AIAW softball at UCLA and then had an illustrious career as coach of the Bruins).

I personally knew very little about ASA club softball before reading the book. However, given that the ASA apparently was the only game in town before the 1970s, it would have been impossible to profile the veteran coaches and players without discussing this level of competition. It was in this context that I first learned about historical figures such as Ralph Raymond (longtime coach of the Connecticut-based Raybestos Brakettes, who were named after the automobile brake company), Joan Joyce (pitcher for the Brakettes and California-based Orange Lionettes, who once held her own in a pitching exhibition against Ted Williams), and Carol Spanks (a fine-hitting shortstop for the Lionettes). Joyce and Spanks later went on to coach NCAA softball. 

The coaches' chapters mainly seemed to focus on the individuals' motivational styles and personal backgrounds. In the early days of collegiate competition, some of the coaches had to keep a day job and then come to campus for late-afternoon practices, that was how little pay the colleges offered. In addition to the coaches already mentioned, others profiled in the book include Sharron Backus, Margie Wright, and Judi Garman, the latter of whom is honored with an annual collegiate tournament in her name.

The final chapter supplements the in-depth profiles of the featured 19 players and coaches with very brief bio sketches of roughly 50 additional personalities. (One quibble I had, as a Michigan alumnus, is the inclusion of coach Carol Hutchins in the supplemental, rather than main, part of the book, and the misspelling of her name as "Hutchings.")

One thing I liked about the book is its relatively concise chapters. Depending on how busy one is with other things, one can read a few chapters, put the book aside for awhile, and then pick it up again. Some readers may find the book's tone to be a little heavy on romanticism and idealization of the profiled subjects. However, the authors are obviously enthusiastic about their subject matter and it's hard to begrudge that. Overall, the book is an excellent resource on the history of U.S. women's softball in the past 60 years or so, both club and collegiate.