A Legacy Of Their Own

Brakettes, Now A Pro Softball Team, Have A Six-decade History In Stratford

July 20, 2006|By ADRIAN BRUNE; Special to the Courant

The television cameras and many fans were long gone, but manager John Stratton and the Connecticut Brakettes were having what he likes to call ``a perfect softball experience'' Sunday at DeLuca Field in Stratford.

It was the bottom of the seventh inning, the score 6-6, with the Brakettes' Kelly Kretschman on second base in a National Pro Fastpitch game against the Texas Thunder. Then, with two outs, first baseman Kellie Wilkerson's single into left field drove in the winning run for a 7-6 victory that completed a four-game series sweep.

What was left of the crowd of 674 went wild and, for a few fleeting moments, the 16 women of the Brakettes -- one of seven teams in the nascent national professional women's softball league -- felt like Yankee superstars.

"They hit the ball exceptionally well today and we had some fans here, which makes all the difference,'' Stratton said. "My goal is for everyone on the team to enjoy themselves, and we did today.''

Though they don't wear skirts, have team names like the Rockford Peaches and get chastised by Jimmy Dugan about how ``there's no crying in baseball,'' professional women's softball is making a "League of Their Own'' comeback in the United States.

Women like the Brakettes -- college standouts and Olympians -- playing for seven teams across the country now spend their summers away from their day jobs, live together in large group houses and play softball before moderate crowds for a pittance, compared to what the major-leaguers make.

"These women are some excellent athletes -- most of them have been playing since they were 6 years old -- and they deserve an opportunity to showcase their talents after college,'' said David Carpenter, the Brakettes' owner. "When people really understand what a high-quality game softball is and how every play counts, I believe it will really take off.''

It hasn't quite yet, however. ESPN and ESPN2 broadcast some games -- ESPN showed the Team China vs. Team USA game last Saturday night and ESPN2 has the Brakettes on its schedule tonight at 8.

But each Brakette has a regular-season job. Some, like Jen Owens -- whose brother Henry spent some time this season as a relief pitcher for the New York Mets -- are high school teachers and keep their summers free for softball. Others, like Julie Brooks, a graphic designer, save up vacation days or ask their employers for three months off to live out their dreams. Many piece together coaching gig after coaching gig to make ends meet, with their eyes on the summer season.

The 12 women who live in the Brakettes' house in Monroe take trips to New York, watch other teams' games and fish in the pond out back during their free time. Not only have they come to know each other well, but ask anyone on the team and she can tell you stories about teammates.

How Sarah Pauly, considered one of the best pitchers in the league, was the last pitcher that left fielder Denise Denis faced in her college career at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, for example.

"A week after that NCAA game, I drove up [to DeLuca Field], saw Sarah and was like, `Don't I know you?''' Denis said in the dugout during Saturday's game. "She said, `Yeah, you're the one who was always fouling off my pitches.' I was up there for like an hour when I came to bat.'''

Or there are stories from childhoods spent on the diamond. Recent Louisiana State University graduate Stephanie Hill pointed to a woman on the Texas team during the game Sunday and told the story of growing up with her in New Orleans.

"I never thought when we were playing basketball and softball together as kids, we'd be playing against each other the NCAA regional [softball tournament] and then two months later playing professional softball,'' she said.

The history of the Connecticut Brakettes stretches back nearly to 1943, when Philip K. Wrigley came up with the All American Girls Softball League. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate and Chicago Cubs owner, attracted fans to women's softball, as many of his best major leaguers were going off to war. Possibly riding on the success of the league, which drew up to 3,000 fans per game during World War II, William S. Simpson organized the Raybestos Girl All-Stars in 1947, named after an automotive brake manufacturer. They became quickly known as the Brakettes.

The women's league faded in the early 1950s, but the Brakettes have lasted through six decades of both amateur and professional competition. Joan Joyce, a Waterbury native who played 17 years with the Brakettes, became one of the best-known female athletes of her time with a 429-27 pitching record, including 105 no-hitters and 33 perfect games. Joyce left the Brakettes in 1976 for the Women's Professional League and later became a professional golfer.

The Brakettes were the Yankees of women's softball, winning 26 national championships -- including eight straight beginning in 1971.

Stratton, who has been part of women's softball since working as a bat boy in the 1950s (his wife was also a softball player in the early days), hopes a corporate sponsor will recognize the sport's entertainment potential and come along to promote it.

``If we could get Revlon or even a place like Mohegan Sun to give the league $500,000 to cover some of these costs and pay these players, we would make it,'' he said. ``In Japan, all of the teams have a corporate sponsor and they pay the big bucks. No one here is making money at this right now.''

Least of all Carpenter, the retired owner of a manufacturing business, who has financed the Brakettes for the past 11 seasons, covering his players' room and board and paying them a salary ranging from $3,000 to $6,000 per summer.

``I feel by next year we'll have eight or 10 teams and be able to build the attendance. Right now, we're working on how to do more broadcasting,'' Carpenter said. ``I think when some corporations realize what a good game this is and that we have a stable league, it will attract some interest.''

Meanwhile, the Brakettes must finish the season, then return to their paying gigs -- or find one.

``My mom is my biggest supporter, but she's pushing me to get a job. I'm trying to break into a regular life,'' said Denis, a recent college graduate who will start working as a media analyst this fall.

But she has a few games -- and good times -- left.