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11 Female Sports Pioneers

by: Esteban On  Wednesday, June 6, 2012

pioneering female athletes

You know what’s cool? Girls and young women today can play sports and have the same hopes and dreams as boys and young men: play professionally, become a hero, get their face on a serial box, make lots of money—all that stuff. Sure, there’s not exactly equality of the sexes in the world of sports, but it’s a lot better than it was. Fifty years ago, little girls playing soccer couldn’t have imagined getting their faces on the front page of every sports page in America the way Brandi Chastain (born 1968) did in 1999, or the way Abby Wambach (born 1980) did last summer.

But today things are different, and there are a number of pioneering female athletes we have to thank for this state of affairs. This list of 11 is hardly definitive, but hey, it’s a start. So why don’t you starting clicking and learn a few things.

11. Ann Meyers Drysdale

ann meyers drysdale

Ann Meyers Drysdale was the first woman to sign a contract with an NBA team in 1979, but that was really just a publicity stunt and she was cut by the Pacers almost immediately. Her real contribution to women’s sports was at the college level. Namely, this 5’9″ guard became the first woman to receive a full athletic scholarship from UCLA, where she went on to become a 4-time All-American. So you’re welcome, WNBA players.

(And yes, she was married to Don Drysdale of the Dodgers. She was his second wife.)

10. Julie Krone

julie krone

Today, female jockeys like Chantal Sutherland have it easy, relatively speaking. Horse racing is still an old boys club (they call it the “sport of kings,” not the “sport of queens”), but it’s nothing like it used to be. So Chantal and company owe a lot to Julie Krone.

No, Julie Krone wasn’t the first female jockey to compete at the highest level of the sport. (That honor belongs to Diane Crump.) But she is the first to win one of the sports biggest events, and thus ought to be considered the most successful female jockey of all time.

Krone became the first woman to win the Belmont Stakes (the third leg of the Triple Crown) in 1993, retired in 1999, then staged a comeback and became the first woman to win the Breeder’s Cup in 2003. Now she’s retired again, and her final win total is somewhere around 3,700. (In case you’re wondering, that’s a lot.)

9. Eri Yoshida

eri yoshida

In 2008, 16-year-old pitcher Eri Yoshida became the first woman to be drafted by a professional baseball team. Sure, it was the Kobe 9 Cruisers of Japan’s second-rate—no, make that third-rate—Kansai Independent Baseball League. And sure, even then she only played 11 games. But she got drafted for her crazy sidearmed knuckleball, and she got paid.

Have you ever been paid to play baseball?

Right. Anyway, Yoshida tried her luck in the Independent minor leagues here in North American in 2010, signing on with the Chico Outlaws, making her the first woman to play any kind of pro ball in North America since the next woman on our list.

8. Ila Borders

ila borders

Now, pitcher Ila Borders—there’s a modern female baseball player whose credentials are more legit.

In 1994, Borders became the first woman to start either an NCAA or NCIA game, pitching a complete game victory for Southern California College. Two years later she transferred to Whittier College, an NCAA D-III school and played there for one season. Then, in 1997, she joined the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League and became the first woman to start a professional baseball game (in a men’s league)…anywhere. Her career was up and down for the next three seasons, but the highlight would have to be 1999, when she went 1-0 in 15 games and 35 innings with a 1.67 ERA in her unorthodox role as a 3-inning starter. Unfortunately, Ila retired in 2000 after realizing she wasn’t going to get a shot with any major league farm team.

7. Toni Stone

toni stone

Ila Borders may have been the first woman to start as pitcher in a professional baseball game, but she wasn’t the first woman to play pro ball. That honor probably* goes to Toni Stone, who played second base in the Nego Leagues with the San Francisco Sea Lions, New Orleans Creoles, Indianapolis Clowns, and Kansas City Monarchs. We don’t have many stats for the Negro Leagues, but we do know that in fifty games with the Clowns (for whom Hank Aaron had played just two years before Stone arrived) she hit a respectable .243. And one of her hits was off the legendary Satchel Paige, who many believe may be the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball.

*It’s tough to say. I mean, do you count women like Jackie Mitchell? Technically, though not in actuality, she was a pro way back in 1931.

6. Janet Guthrie

janet guthrie

Before Danica there was Janet.

Guthrie was the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500—both in 1977. In total competed in 11 Indycar races and 33 NASCAR races over five seasons, and finished as high as 5th in Indycar and 6th in NASCAR. This was more than enough to get her helmet and racing suit into the Smithsonian, get herself inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

5. Manon Rheaume


If not for Quebec native Manon Rhéaume, women’s hockey probably wouldn’t enjoy the popularity (relatively speaking) that it does today.

In 1992, before women’s hockey was an Olympic sport, Rhéaume made history by signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning and actually playing in preseason games in both ’92 and ’93. That made her the first woman to play in any of the four major North American men’s sports leagues. (Yeah, the games didn’t count, but she got paid.) After that she spent five years playing in the minor leagues, including stints in the IHL and the ECHL on squads affiliated with NHL teams.

4. Babe Zaharias

babe zaharias

Babe Zaharias first competed in a men’s PGA tournament in 1938. That’s 75 years before anyone else would even try it. But Zaharias didn’t stop there. While also playing in the WPGA and later the LPGA, she continued to compete in PGA events. In 1945 alone she competed in three tournaments, and she made at least one of the cuts (yes, there were several back then) in all of them.

In short, Babe Zaharias wasn’t just the first star of women’s golf. She put women’s golf on the map. Moreover, she was one of the first female athletes ever to become a household name.

3. Wilma Rudolph

wilma rudolph

If Zaharias was the first female athlete to become a household name, Rudolph was probably the second. In 1956, at the age of just 16, this track star won her first Olympic medal at the Melbourne Games—a bronze in the 4x100m relay. In 1960, at the age of 20, Rudolph—just a student at Tennessee State University—took the track world by storm. She won gold in the 100m and the 200m, earning the coveted “fastest woman in the world” title. Then she anchored the 4x100m relay team to a gold as well.

Oh, and did I mention she was black? Yeah, that’s kind of an important part of the story, too. She says she wanted to win in 1960 as a tribute to her hero, Jesse Owens.—you know, the African-American track star who won four gold medals at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics.

So yeah, Wilma Rudolph was pretty awesome.

2. Althea Gibson

althea gibson

Speaking of legendary black female athletes, how about Althea Gibson? They call her “the Jackie Robinson of tennis” because she was the first black player—man or woman—to play at Wimbledon in 1950. Then, in 1957, she became the first to win it. Well, the singles title, anyway. She won doubles back in 1956. But that wasn’t the first time a black person had won a grand slam tennis tournament, because just a few months before that Gibson won the French Open.

When it was all said and done, Gibson won 6 grand slam singles titles and 6 grand slam doubles titles and, of course, was the first black person to win each of them. Not bad.

1. Billy Jean King

billy jean king

Billy Jean King didn’t change women’s sports by being “the first” to do something. She changed women’s sports through shear determination. She crusaded for equal pay for women at the U.S. Open and got it. And she championed the women’s tennis tour founding the WTA in 1973.

In other words, women’s tennis wouldn’t be what it is today—the most successful, popular, and lucrative women’s sport in the world—if not for Billy Jean King.