Last weekend, members of Redbird softball’s pioneering 1969 team returned to campus 50 years after they finished runners-up in the inaugural Women’s College World Series.
To mark the anniversary, the 10 returning members of the historic team were honored Saturday, April 13, between the Redbirds’ doubleheader against Missouri State at Marian Kneer Softball Stadium. The alumni had gathered the previous night at the Kaufman Football Building to reminisce and to meet the current softball players.
One link remains between the two teams: Longtime head coach Melinda Fischer ’72, M.S. ’75, was a freshman on the ’69 team. “(The World Series) was the biggest thing in the world to me,” Fischer said. “We would have loved to have that championship.”
Illinois State was one of nine teams in the tournament, beating Kearney State, St. Petersburg Junior College, Colorado State College, and Missouri State (formerly Southwest Missouri State), before falling to John F. Kennedy in the championship game.
The 1969 season began a successful run for the Redbirds. They made seven appearances in the College World Series over the following 12 seasons and were runners-up again in 1973.
Several of her former teammates congratulated Fischer for carrying on the team’s legacy. Fischer has won more than 1,000 games during her 34 seasons at Illinois State and is the winningest coach in the University’s history.
“It’s an honor to be here. You’ve handled this softball program with class,” former first baseman Tudy Schmied ’70, M.S. ’75, M.S. ’90, told Fischer.
During Friday’s festivities, Fischer sat her former teammates with her current players so the latter could learn about their predecessors. One thing that came through during these conversations was just how much things had changed in women’s collegiate athletics in the intervening decades.
Legendary former women’s basketball coach Jill Hutchison, M.S. ’69, was a graduate assistant coach for the 1969 softball team. Even though softball had become an official sport at Illinois State four years earlier, Hutchison said there were no real intercollegiate games until that first College World Series held in Omaha and Fremont, Nebraska.
Instead, teams from throughout Illinois would get together for informal “play days,” where they would contest multiple five-inning games over the course of a Saturday. These were the days when players wore P.E. uniforms to games and traveled together in station wagons.
“It was just a different time,” Hutchison said. “These were the real pioneers. They did it because they loved it. They laid the groundwork for the team today.”
Players recalled returning from that first World Series to a campus that may not even have noticed they were gone. That didn’t stop them from proudly celebrating their achievement and chanting, “We are second in the world!”
“The passion part is what you remember the most,” said Betsy Mosher ’72. “We didn’t do it for the fans or media.”
The reunion brought together alumni from as far as Florida and Arizona and many teammates who had not seen one another in years.
“Illinois State, every time I walk here I get emotional,” said Karen Roppa ’71, an All-American softball player at Illinois State. “We are proud. Because we are proud to be a Redbird.”
Roppa showed off two mini-bats and other memorabilia she collected from the World Series. “There are certain things you never get rid of. We were so excited to be part of this adventure.”
Next month, Illinois State will welcome back the only national title winning team in the University’s history. The 1969 Redbird baseball team, which won the College Division Championship, will be honored during a ceremony held prior to Illinois State’s game against Evansville set for 1 p.m. Saturday, May 18, at Duffy Bass Field. Look for a story on that historic team in the August issue of Illinois State magazine.