Games People Play: High School Girls Basketball, Los Angeles, 1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Basketball season is now upon us.  The Lakers are doing surprisingly well with a new coach and a dynamic crop of young, developing players.  The Clippers, with a core of stellar veterans, look to be serious contenders for a title.  Over at U.C.L.A., a trio of fantastic freshmen (including Chino Hills native Lonzo Ball, who I first met as a toddler) are bringing new excitement and enthusiasm to a storied program that had a rare losing season last year.  Then, a month ago, the Los Angeles Sparks were crowned champions of the WNBA, the women’s professional league.

As a former high school boys basketball coach as well as a historian, it is always interesting to compare modern views of sports with those of years past.  In the 1920s, for example, basketball was nowhere near as popular as it is now.  It is also interesting to note that early rules prohibited dribbling, bounce passes, coaching from the sidelines, timeouts and substitutions and that the baskets were closed, with a pull chain to release a ball that went “in” rather than “through”!   This latter rule and many others weren’t changed until 1918!

Baseball and football were far more supported and both had professional leagues, though the NFL was new, having been established in 1920.  At the collegiate level, however, football was big and, as this blog has noted, U.S.C. was a perennial gridiron powerhouse during the later Twenties.

At the high school level, more emphasis was being given to athletics as a way to bind the student body together more by developing stronger school spirit.  Locally, the CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) was organized in 1914 and went statewide a few years later.  Tournaments and playoffs for championships became bigger events in a variety of sports.

However, the emphasis was almost completely on boys’ sports.  While there were girls’ teams for track and field, tennis, and basketball, among others, they were not given the support, emphasis and organization of their male counterparts.  Much of this was due to accepted ideas about how girls were expected to behave and the fear held by many was that sports was a masculine endeavor not suitable for females. Still, this did not stop girls and many schools from fielding teams with the idea that the virtues and benefits of athletics were no different for girls than for boys.

This photograph from the Homestead collection shows a girls’ basketball squad and, though it is not identified, a photo on the reverse of a young man in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood seems to indicate that these girls played at a Los Angeles high school during the 1920s.  Note the varied expressions!

The accompanying photo from the museum’s collection shows a girls basketball team, undoubtedly for a Los Angeles high school and from the 1920s (just look at those bobbed hair styles!).  While there is no captioning or identification with specifics, there is a photo on the reverse that shows a young man in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, so it seems pretty certain that the girls team was from the area.

It is interesting to note that, while basketball was created in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith in Springfield, Massachusetts as a way to have indoor athletic activity during cold, snowy winters, Senda Berenson of nearby Smith College set up rules for a women’s variation of Naismith’s concept just the next year.  On 23 March 1893 the first female game was held at the college and no males were allowed to be present!  Two years later, the first fully public women’s game was played in New Orleans.

In 1897, the first local contest was staged as an add-on to a “lawn tennis” tournament held by the Southern California Lawn Tennis Association in Santa Monica.  By the end of the decade, the sport was gaining traction among many women and girls throughout the country.  This also meant standardization was on the way and concerns about the sport being too rough on its participants led to the formation of a “Women’s Basket Ball Rules Committee” at a Conference of Physical Training in 1899 to establish rules across the board (or maybe that should be, across the court).

However, as the sport grew in popularity there was, in some areas of the country, a backlash, with bans enacted at the college and high school level, in some cases lasting for decades.  In 1907, girls basketball was deemed to be harmful and it was claimed that “heart lesions” were possible because of the intense competition and “over exercise.”  One commentator observed that “women belonged in the kitchen and not on the playing fields.”  A few years later, some educators fretted over girls traveling long distances and being out too late in the day for games.

On the local scene, in 1903, eight high schools, colleges, and private schools formed the Girls’ Basketball League of Southern California, the first on the west coast.  That year, Pasadena High School drubbed Los Angeles High School 95-0, led by May Sutton (who was soon after a two-time tennis champion at Wimbledon).  Also in 1903, Pomona College inaugurated its women’s team by narrowly defeating Occidental College 19-15.  In 1907, Long Beach Poly High School took the title in the first Girls Southern California Basketball Championship.  Four years later, though, the tournament was discontinued because of concerns like those expressed above about the perceived damaged caused by girls playing sports like basketball.

The sport grew and developed, including the aforementioned major rule changes in 1918 and afterward, and women’s basketball became an exhibition sport at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.  That same year, the first national American tournament was sponsored by the AAU (American Athletic Union).  In February 1924, a Maryland player, Marie Boyd, scored an astounding 156 points in a game.  Another milestone is when Theodora Boyd (no relation to Marie), became the first black female player for a major college team, Radcliffe College’s squad.

In 1925, however, the National Association of Secondary [School] Principals proposed banning competition for females and, three years later, the Southern Section of the CIF passed a resolution that girls performing in high school sports should only be trained and coached by women instead of men.

In April 1926, the AAU held the first National Women’s Basketball Championship in Los Angeles, where 5,000 fans watched the Pasadena Athletic and Country Club team take the crown (after all, Pasadena is the “Crown City.”)  Two years later, the first national association for officiating at women’s games was formed and, in 1929, the AAU began its women’s All-American Team selections.

Clearly, the early years of women’s sports at the high school and collegiate level featured many issues concerning female participation in what was widely deemed a male activity, as well as how to shape the rules, regulate tournaments and championships, and navigate the difficult waters of social attitudes, especially during the tumultuous Twenties when often conflicting pressures of conservatism and social experimentation were battling one another.

In recent years, it took the passage, in 1972, of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act to legislate equal treatment of women, including in athletics, in the world of secondary education where public funding was involved.  This involved facilities, supplies and equipment, proportional athletic scholarship funding, and other elements.  In general, women’s athletics has come a long way over the decades and it will be interesting to see what the future holds.

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