The All American Red Heads, circa 1940.
(Courtesy of Bruce Gould/Barry County Museum)
CASSVILLE – Not that long ago, women were simply too delicate to play sports.
At least that’s what many people believed. After all, the running and jumping and exertion required were far more than fragile femininity should bear, especially on a professional level.
Until the All American Red Heads came along, that is. Organized in 1936, the Red Heads became the country’s first professional basketball team for women. They quickly proved their abilities through winning the majority of their games, which were played against men.
“They’ve made a joke out of that ‘weaker sex’ idea,” recorded a newspaper in the early 1940s. “They handle a basketball as well as a mother-in-law handles that ‘no ‘count pup’ that married their daughter. They play men’s rules and men’s teams and four out of five times they have the opposition feeling like Mr. Milquetoast himself before the evening’s activities are ended.”
And while they traveled constantly during each six-month season, they were tied to a little town that few on the road likely knew.
A little town called Cassville.
How it began
The team was the brainchild of C.M. “Ole” Olson, a Cassville businessman who was a professional basketball player in his younger days.
The story behind Olson’s connection to Cassville — other than the fact that he simply lived there — is a little unclear. What is known, however, is that the Red Heads weren’t Olson’s first foray into team ownership or leadership. “Ole was of slight build, but he was a good basketball coach and even better manager,” wrote local historian Emory Melton in “The First 150 Years in Cassville, Missouri.” He previously led Olson’s Terrible Swedes, a men’s traveling team, that existed through the mid-1930s.
“Olson was the originator and the greatest exponent of back-handed passing,” wrote Washington’s Daily News in 1975. “His outfit thrilled audiences all over the land with behind-the-back shooting, back-hand passing and general basketball wizards long before the Harlem Globe Trotters were ever heard of.”
C.M. “Ole” Olson, top and center, was a professional basketball player and owner of Olson’s Terrible Swedes before beginning the All American Red Heads. (Courtesy of newspapers.com)
That experience taught Olson to recognize good ideas when he saw them. In 1936, one of those wild (red) hairs hit: Several employees at his wife’s chain of beauty salons liked to shoot baskets at a nearby gymnasium after work, and the idea of forming a traveling team came to be.
But Olson, a seasoned promoter, decided that the novelty of a women’s team wasn’t enough. He needed a gimmick.
“Two of the girls were natural red heads but Olson, with the aid of henna and his wife’s expertise, had all the players dye their hair and thus the ‘Cassville Red Heads’ were born,” wrote the Del Rio News Herald in 1974.
It’s safe to say his bid grabbed the attention he sought.
“When six red-haired damsels get together in one group that is something to write home about,” recorded California’s Fresno Bee in 1936, just months after the team began. “When all six are all-American and one billed as the greatest girls’ amateur athlete of the day, that is an occasion of importance.”
Those athletic abilities led the team’s name change from the “Cassville Red Heads” to “All American.”
After all, as the article noted, the team’s players were very accomplished. In addition to the aforementioned beauty operators, the team consisted of former Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) athletes, including a six-foot center and Olympic star who held records in the basketball throw, baseball throw, discus, javelin and shot put, noted the Bee.
While impressive, things were different in those days: Listing the girls’ athletic abilities simply wasn’t enough.
“Despite their athletic prowess and the fact the players average five feet nine inches tall and 150 pounds each, each girl is said to be beautiful,” noted the newspaper. “The team members are dressed in the latest fashions, both for street clothes and cage uniforms.”
Even the team’s own early advertisements sound a bit quaint when read through 21st century glasses:
(Courtesy of Bruce Gould/Barry County Museum)
But when “weaker sex” stigmas were very real, the Red Heads’ presence proved that women could do what men did — and likely led the change of other opinions, too.
“A lot of places, it was believed that if … you did sports, you’d be unable to have children,” says Tammy Moore Harrison, whose father purchased the team from Olson in the mid-1950s. “They didn’t know that it was healthy for women to exercise at the time. It broke all that status quo.”
And they did it while wearing shorts, which wasn’t typically a female garment at the time, either.
“Dressed in their brilliant red, white and blue uniforms the towering Red Heads from Cassville, Mo., flash an attack of hardwood wizardry that rivals any offered in the nation,” wrote the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in 1939. “Several high school, college and university quintets have met defeat at the All American’s hands and other men’s squads have had to use every trick they could muster to eke out a victory.”
A 1941 advertisement in the Wise County Messenger promoted the team’s arrival to Texas. (Courtesy of newspapers.com)
Their wins added up. At one point, according to the New York Times, the team won 96 games in 96 days, and could draw 2,000 people to games in towns of 3,000 people.
And, while they didn’t fill rosters of men’s teams during World War II like ladies did with professional baseball, they still did their part on the Home Front.
“They have played at hundreds of Army camps and military hospitals for the past three years, bringing much-needed entertainment and that delicate touch of femininity into the lives of hundreds of thousands of G.I.s.,” recorded a flier about the team from the early 1940s.
One of those stops was in Springfield, Mo., at O’Reilly General Hospital, where more than 600 individuals overflowed the hospital’s gym, crowding out many disappointed soldiers who weren’t able to get into the building.
“Soldier patients and personnel at O’Reilly General Hospital today conceded that the girl members of the All-American Redheads, professional basketball team, are fine sports,” recorded an unidentified local newspaper clipping. “Besides the basketball beating — a practice game for which no admission was charged and the girls received no pay — the Redheads visited several wards and chatted with bed patients, besides making an appearance at the afternoon tea dance.”
In light of the Red Heads’ success, Olson also created the Ozark Hillbillies as a farm team. The Hillbillies are pictured in Phoenix, Ariz., circa 1940. Note the curious glance of a passerby. (Courtesy of Bruce Gould/Barry County Museum)
The Red Heads, however, wasn’t the only team Olson put on the road in those days. He also started the Ozark Hillbillies, a farm team, to ensure the Red Heads had enough talent in the pipeline. After all, the Red Heads’ popularity was reaching celebrity levels.
“Moving picture short subjects and lavish layouts in the national picture magazines have made the Red Heads even better known than such outstanding men’s teams as the New York Celtics, New York Rens or Harlem Globe Trotters,” wrote Illionis’ Freeport Journal-Standard in 1940. “They’re broke all attendance records in this, their fourth season on the road, and will make basketball a year around job this summer with an exhibition tour of Hawaii and the Philippine and a tentative appearance at the re-opening of the New York World’s Fair.”
The team’s touring car in North Carolina in the early 1940s. (Courtesy of Bruce Gould/Barry County Museum)
In the late 1940s, one of those games was in Siloam Springs, Ark., where 85-year-old Willa Faye Mason lived. A high school basketball player, Mason went with her teammates to see the Red Heads in action.
“I think we sat on the lowest bleacher so we could see them real good, you know, right there by the floor,” recalls Mason. “They made quite an entrance, and they had beautiful uniforms.”
That picture, however, isn’t all Mason sees in her mind. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness. How these girls can play ball!’”
Soon after Mason witnessed that game, a new player joined the Red Heads who would play for seven seasons, coach for two, and become known as the group’s “Red Skelton.”
“(She) is the pivot of the ‘magic’ comedy show given by the Red Heads, ‘trucking’ down the court with that basketball ‘spinning’ on her finger tip, rolling that ball up her legs, around her arms, dribbling between her legs, hiding the ball with one hand, and … she brings the house down,” reported the New Castle News in 1950.
That player was Mason.
A picture of the team touted its impending arrival in California’s Times Standard in 1952. Mason is pictured at left. (Courtesy of newspapers.com)
In 1949, after graduating from high school, Mason was recruited to be a Red Head along with two of her high school teammates. “(Mr. Olson) knew my record, and knew how many points I made, and he knew all about me and he knew all about (my teammates),” says Mason, who still lives in Siloam Springs today. “So he offered jobs to all three of us.”
It was a chance unlike any other available to women at the time.
“We were the first women’s professional basketball team,” says Mason. “But see, they didn’t have the WNBA, and colleges didn’t even have scholarships or they didn’t play these conferences like they do now. You played in high school, and after that, there wasn’t much offered to a girl to play basketball.
“It was an opportunity to travel, and see the USA and get paid for playing.”
Team members pose for a picture in Biloxi, Miss., in the early 1940s. (Courtesy of Bruce Gould/Barry County Museum)
Mason quickly lists off some of her favorite states. California, Oregon and Washington were all nice, as were Arizona and New Mexico. Canada and Mexico made the list, and New York City was fun, especially since they got to stay in the city for several days while playing in the outskirts at night.
“See, we played every night,” says Mason. “Every night in a different town.”
And then, during her last season, there was the 20-game tour to Alaska.
“A girls’ basketball team had never ever played up there, and my goodness, they turned out,” she recalls. “The gyms were just packed (to) come and see us play.”
Those games were often organized by local civic organizations trying to raise money for particular causes. After booking the Red Heads, the host group would rally a team of locals to face off with the girls. “Once in a while, we’d play places where they had enough coaches to make a team, and they’d play us,” says Mason.
In addition to playing the game, the team “did things to please the audience,” says Mason, such as half-time shows with trick shooting. Other things might include shaking hands with another player, since “back in those days, girls didn’t even shake hands with fellas,” notes Mason.
Or, if Mason had to take a ball out-of-bounds and a bald-headed man was sitting there, “I might turn around and pat him on the head or something,” she says. “And the crowds always loved that. We did little things for entertainment.”
Other entertaining elements were a cooperative effort.
“(The Red Heads) execute such laugh-provoking maneuvers as a ‘conga line’ in which all the girls form a twisting, snake-like defense and dance the ball toward the basket,” recorded the Maryville Daily Forum in 1953. “Or the piggyback during which one of the gals will work the ball to the Red Heads goal then jump on one of her teammate’s back to shoot the basket.”
Sometimes, the girls’ antics caused confusion on the court — but it worked in their favor, proven by the Council Bluffs Nonpareil in 1949:
“Besides the undoubted ability they possess, the Red Heads get by with modified murder. They know how to complete the job of getting the goats of opponents and officials who are usually somewhat discomfited before they start.
What’s a poor official going to do, after he’s been rewarded for calling a foul against one of the girls by a forgiving hug and kiss? And what’s a rugged male basketball player to do when, starting a long dribble down the center, he finds that a comely miss has linked arms with him and is trotting adoringly at his side?”
Those things, however, weren’t what the girls were really about. “…Our mission was to play basketball,” says Mason, and in the end, “we won about 65 percent of the time.”
Mason continued with the team until 1956, when she left and finished her college career, eventually earning a doctorate degree and becoming the women’s athletic director at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla. Her seven-season stint as a Red Head was longer than many of the team’s members, who frequently quit after only a season or two.
“At that age, usually they’re anxious to get married,” says Mason. “Some of them, they went to play, (and) they’d leave their boyfriend at home and the boyfriend wouldn’t like it. They wanted them to come home. And a lot of the boys that liked to play basketball were jealous of the girl that got to play basketball with a pro team. You just ran into all kinds of psychology, you know.”
A new chapter
Around the time Mason retired, the team also went through a change in ownership. Orwell Moore came on as a coach in the late 1940s, and in 1955, he purchased the team from Olson and moved it from Cassville to Caraway, Ark., a city located in the state’s northeastern corner. If owning and coaching weren’t enough, he had another connection to the team: His wife, Lorene “Butch” Moore was a member of the team for 11 years, during which she scored 35,426 points.
He remained the team’s owner through the rest of its existence, leading it through a heyday where three teams of Red Heads were on the road, and outlasting all other women’s teams which eventually came and went.
“There were other teams that existed for short periods of time,” says Harrison, the Moores’ daughter, who now lives in Louisiana. “But not for 50 years.”
By the 1970s, times were a’changing. Title IX of the Education Amendments were signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1972, prohibiting sex-based discrimination in any federally funded education program or activity. As the number of women’s athletic programs grew, the novelty the Red Heads offered declined.
Fifty years after it began, the team threw its last basket on the road.
One of the members on that final team was Mechelle Pollard Weyer, who played 1985 and 1986, and lives in Arkansas. “We didn’t get the crowds that they did in the ’70s and ’60s,” she says. “Because they were used to seeing girls playing at that point in time in history.”
But even though the team disbanded, its story wasn’t over. “After the team had quit traveling and playing, we all wanted to stay in contact with one another,” says Weyer, a sentiment that prompted the formation of the All American Red Head Alumni Association. The group still exists today, and Weyer currently serves as its president.
Former players — Weyer estimates there are between 65 and 70 still alive — stay in contact on Facebook, where there’s a closed group for them to chat and reminisce. The association also holds reunions, which in recent years have often been held in conjunction with awards the team has received.
In 2011, the team was recognized by the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn., and an exhibit still features one of the team’s limousines. Another honor came in 2012, when the Red Heads were inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. It was the moment, Harrison notes, that represents the team’s proudest success.
“Everybody knows that the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame is the pinnacle of what people aspire to do in basketball,” she says. “It was a totally amazing experience.”
The next reunion is scheduled for June 2017, when members will once again gather in Knoxville at the Hall of Fame. This time, however, it’s not because of their exhibit. It’s because of a new book they’ll be signing about the history of the team.
Entitled “Breaking the Press: The Incredible Story of the All American Red Heads,” the publication offers a comprehensive look at the team’s story, starting in 2012 and going back in time.
The project was launched by Moore, but wasn’t finished when he passed away in 2009. Instead, Harrison made her father’s dream a reality. “It was just weighing on me to finish it for him,” she says.
On Jan. 9, the book launched on Amazon.com, and is now available for purchase. And while it tells the progression of the Red Heads, it also tells a greater story: How a group of girls made — and changed — history by doing what they loved.
“For one thing, I believe that the WNBA wouldn’t have come along as soon as it did if it hadn’t have been for the Red Heads paying the way, and showing people that physically women could handle playing the game, and playing full court and doing the things that you had to do play basketball,” says Harrison. “Really they broke a stereotype, and changed history a lot that way.”
Want to learn more?
“A red-haired Irish lass,” Chino Champion, Feb. 25, 1938
“All-American Red Heads play at Anderson Sunday, Nov. 1,” Joplin Globe, Oct. 27, 1953
“All American Red Heads play here Sunday night,” Times Standard, Feb. 16, 1952
“All-American Red Heads to be inducted into Hall of Fame,” Lindsay Reed, Monett Times, April 19, 2012
“All-American Red Heads will dazzle floor fans,” New Castle News, Jan. 19, 1950
“Girls’ basket team impresses O’Reilly,” unidentified and undated publication
“The First 150 Years in Cassville, Missouri,” Emory Melton, 1995
“Look for a show,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, March 17, 1949
“Photo in an attic leads to a forgotten team’s place in the Hall of Fame,” Howard Beck, New York Times,
“Red Heads appear March 10 to help PAHS cheerleaders,” Daily News, March 3, 1975
“Red Heads breeze in through blizzard,” unidentified and undated publication
“Red Heads to play here in Dimes benefit,” Maryville Daily Forum, Dec. 31, 1953
“Red Headed women top Fresno high schedule,” The Fresno Bee, Dec. 6, 1936
“Terrible Swedes who play here Thursday,” Gettysburg Times, Jan. 7, 1929
“Thursday games to close local Hardwood Chart,” Freeport Journal-Standard, March 27, 1940
“World’s champion Red Heads play independent All-Stars this afternoon,” Lubbock Avalanche Journal, Jan. 8, 1939