From the parking lot of Stratford, Conn.'s Memorial Field at seven one morning last week, the still-cold smokestacks of the Raybestos-Manhattan industrial plant could be seen off in the distance. The railroad tracks that separate the chimneys from the field were empty, awaiting the passage of the early morning New Haven-to-New York commuter special. Dew was still on the grass, and from the diamond the chirping of what sounded like a hundred hungry birds was heard. Only there were no early birds looking for worms. The music was the high, lilting chatter of the Japanese women's Softball team as it worked through its morning practice session in preparation for an 8:30 a.m. game in the Women's World Softball Tournament. The Japanese had finished their previous night's game at 11:30, and since it is their custom to practice before every contest, they awoke to eat a five o'clock breakfast and proceeded to Memorial Field. They hoped their early diligence would be rewarded not with a worm but with their second consecutive world fast-pitch championship; they previously had won in 1970 at Osaka.
Despite their early rising and their regimen of counting every lap and pitch, charting every opposing batter, measuring every distance with a tape, weighing every softball and clocking every opposing runner, the Japanese—and the 13 other foreign entries—were no match for the Raybestos Brakettes. The Brakettes, who represented the U.S., swept all nine of their games without allowing a run and knocked off Japan 3-0 before 12,500 fans in the championship finale. By winning, they brought the world title to America for the first time in the 10-year history of this now-quadrennial event.
Besides the U.S. and Japan, there were three other serious contenders for the title in the field that included representatives from countries as diverse as the Republic of China, New Zealand, Mexico and South Africa. The Netherlands was the crowd's sentimental favorite. At first the fans were attracted by the Dutch women's striking uniforms, formfitting white T shirts and royal blue ballerina tights, and their even more striking looks—platinum blonde hair and heavy blue eye shadow. But the spectators soon began to applaud the Dutch for the infectious enthusiasm that helped them overcome a tendency to throw only with their arms, as most Europeans do.
The Philippines were also a threat, mostly because of the left-handed pitching of pudgy Julita Tayo, who had lost a 13-inning heartbreaker to the Japanese in the recent Asian Games, and also because of a flashy infield anchored by Third Baseman Josefina Cruz, who charged slow rolling ground balls, snatched them bare-handed and fired them to first base as she leaped high in the air and kicked her heels like a Russian dancer.
The only other team given a chance was Australia, whose tall, awkward players were powerful at the plate but less than proficient in the field. The day following a particularly disastrous game in which their shortstop made four errors in one inning, the Aussies assembled for a lecture by Coach Myrtle Edwards. While her team sat in a tight circle on the ground, Edwards, a strapping woman wearing a long, pleated skirt and a white sailor cap pulled down over her ears, admonished them with a wagging finger in the traditional manner of English "schoolmistresses. Her sternness was of no avail. The Aussies twice were defeated by the U.S., and during one of the losses they struck out in 20 of their 21 plate appearances against the deliveries of the most powerful woman softball pitcher in the world.
The star of the United States team, as she has been for the past 15 years, was Joan Joyce. A shy, muscular 33-year-old righthander, Joyce hurled a perfect game, two other no-hitters and two one-hitters. In her 20-strikeout performance against Australia she did not allow a ball to be hit in fair territory; the 21st out was recorded on a pickoff play after a batter had walked. She set a tournament record by fanning 76 batters in 36 innings. Joyce so dominated the event that when she warmed up before a game the opposing team's pitcher often would stand unselfconsciously behind her and sigh in awe. The Japanese women clustered around 5'10" Joyce like Lilliputians beside Gulliver and uttered a shrill and startled "hai!" whenever she unleashed one of her rising fastballs. The ace of the Japanese staff, 4'11", 90-pound Michiko Matsumura, admires Joyce so thoroughly that she said her primary goal in coming to the world championship was to learn about pitching from the American star. That was a surprising admission from a player who at the age of 19 had pitched 30 innings without surrendering an earned run in the 1970 world tournament.
Matsumura's admiration was not misplaced. In the final game against Japan Joyce struck out 15 hitters, 11 of the first 12 of whom tried to bunt their way on base despite a team batting average of more than .400 for the nine-day tournament.
Although the outcome was never seriously in doubt as Joyce mowed down batter after batter, the championship game was scoreless for the first 3½ innings. The Americans were having difficulty solving the unorthodox delivery of Japan's Miyoko Naruse, who won three games and led the hitters of all nations with a .515 batting average. By the bottom of the fourth the U.S. women had adjusted their timing and pushed across the only three runs of the game. The winning hit, a bases-loaded double up the right centerfield alley, was delivered by 26-year-old Second Baseman Willie (Wilhelmina) Roze, who was born in Hamden, Germany. Roze, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1958 and has been playing with the Brakettes for eight years, teaches physical education during the winter and once again lives in a town named Hamden, this one in Connecticut. She came through with her hit after Naruse had handed out two intentional passes to face her.
"It was just a matter of time before we got to her," Roze said. "I was never in doubt. I just wanted to get a run as soon as possible, and then Joanie would hold them. Sometimes when you play a team you're supposed to beat and you let them stay with you for a while, they start playing harder and it's more difficult for you to scrounge out a run. I knew that if I didn't come through someone else would."
One Brakette who has been coming through for the team all season and who batted .500 in the tournament was Third Baseman Irene Shea. Slim, quick, 31 years old, Shea played her position flawlessly in the finals, even though the Japanese repeatedly bunted in her direction. They were thrown out every time.
Like most of the women playing softball—or any game, for that matter—Shea feels she was deprived of an opportunity to excel in sports when she was younger. "When I was 12 growing up in Bainbridge, N.Y. I was better than all the boys in my neighborhood in any sport—baseball, basketball, even ice hockey," she said before the finals. "Oh, I could join in their games in the park, but I couldn't play Little League baseball. Yes, I feel deprived. Lots of girls were deprived of sports as an outlet in those days. It's funny—a father would never think of telling his daughter to deliberately flunk a test in school, yet he'd try to discourage her from playing sports too seriously. People should never try to discourage you from something you're good at. If your body is something you can do things with on a sports field, then you should be allowed to.
"Still, I don't know whether I'd like to see softball get as professional as other sports. I wonder if it doesn't destroy your desire to produce when you're making a lot of money for playing sports. My attitude toward softball might change if there were a price tag attached to it. As it is now, softball is a very satisfying outlet for me. I'm not looking for anything, any publicity or money, but I have no resentment toward anyone who makes a lot of money at a sport. I just love going out to play a game without worrying about anything but the game. I think the fans sense this in the girls, and that's why they enjoy watching us play." Indeed, it would be hard not to like a team that is so good it beats even the early birds.