Dunkirk women make contributions to softball


Special to the OBSERVER

Spring has officially arrived, when most of us are looking forward to warmer temperatures, trees and flowers budding, animals coming out from winter hibernation. It is the time when baseball season officially begins, when bats, balls, gloves and caps come out, and “Play ball” is heard on ball diamonds and playgrounds throughout the country. Dads are out playing catch with their sons and daughters.

This is not just a guy thing. Women have been engaged in the sport for many years. The first all women’s team was formed at Vassar College in 1866, but it was during World War II when the Major Baseball League was threatened with shutdown, when entrepreneurs began to promote women’s leagues to keep the sport in central focus. These leagues existed from 1943 to 1954, memorialized in the book and movie “A League of Their Own.”

A second and perhaps more permanent upsurge across all sport arenas occurred in 1971. Title IX of the Education Amendments stated that “no person in the USA shall on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Women subsequently have experienced more equality in opportunity and resources to exhibit and pursue their skills in all athletic endeavors. We can celebrate this advance especially this month of March, Women’s History Month. Four women with Dunkirk connections whose interest and achievements in softball predate this more equalizing legislation compose this Dunkirk softball collage. There are many more, of course, but here are four different stories of interest.

Renee Gravelle, Dunkirk High School librarian, dedicated her first novel, “Three Strikes” (2010), to her English professor mother, Jean Gravelle, “who taught me to love words” and Dave Gravelle, her father, “who taught me to love baseball.” Her dad coached Little League but in the ’60s, girls were not allowed to play in this arena. Resourcefully she organized pick up games on the street and in empty lots so she could be in the game.

Gravelle grew up in Spencerport, home of the real Purple Onion girls’ softball team and devoted coach, Mrs. Dwailabee, who inspired the story line of her first novel.

The story, explains Gravelle, is what happens “when thinking like a woman.” Cooperative team effort versus the more typical highly competitive “win at any cost” mentality is one of the underlying lessons. The novel not only demonstrates Gravelle’s keen awareness and sensitivity to issues pertaining to developing young women but highlights the spirit of the game and the admirable qualities of a young Puerto Rican coach facing both ethnic and gender discrimination.

“I have been writing since I was 9 years old and wishing I could play professional ball at least as long,” Gravelle said.

Certainly “Three Strikes” demonstrates her passion and dedication to both. How fortunate our local high school has such a role model for our youth. As a clear spokesperson, perhaps you read Gravelle’s commentary “Small and Large Steps for Women”(OBSERVER, March 7, 2013). Watch for her new novel in progress Fires of Halcyon. Excerpts are available at www.authonomy.com.

Delphine Gancarz Woloszyn was born in Buffalo in 1935 and attended Villa Academy where she first discovered her love of softball. She played with her local Catholic Youth Organization, then, when her family moved, transferred to Sloan High School where she pitched a 15 strike out, no hit game freshman year. Her exceptional performances led to her participation with two all women’s softball teams, The Holling Debs and Gardenville Lumber.

In 1954, while pitching against Dunkirk’s Koch’s Annies, she was recruited on the spot into their membership. She commuted to her games in Dunkirk inspired by fellow teammates Irene Wunderlich and Betty Burke. Always a team player, Woloszyn modestly credits other players for outstanding achievement yet obviously contributed greatly to her team’s victorious record. She changed her name to the more easily pronounceable “Gaines” for the ease of fan recognition. She remembers large crowds attending the field at Point Gratiot where they played.

She always looked forward to the socializing and dancing after the games at Oakdale Pavilion. (The field and the pavilion are now both gone). It was there she met her husband, Joe, back from the Korean War, and set aside her softball career in 1956 to become Del Woloszyn. Today she pitches events at the Dunkirk Senior Center where she is an active contributor and umpires city happenings. She is the proud mother of two sons and four grandchildren, all involved in sports.

Betty Burke Bartkowiak, whose dad started Service Hardware in Dunkirk where the family lived upstairs over the store on Route 5, was born May 6, 1930. She discovered her passion for sports while at St. Hyacinth’s Elementary School, played in the CYO, and became a star at Dunkirk High School graduating in 1949 with the D Award for most outstanding athlete. While still in high school she was recruited by the Buffalo Frontier Blue Banners basketball team and hitchhiked to the city to fulfill her commitment to the team. She, like Woloszyn, changed her name for easier pronunciation and recognition, becoming known professionally as Betty Burke.

During this time she was also playing for the Dunkirk Debs of the Wildcat League. Koch’s Brewery in Dunkirk sponsored a team named for their Koch Anniversary Beer and it was Betty Burke who led Koch’s Annies, the all women’s semi-pro team, to state championship in 1952 and 1953. She was deemed the league’s most valuable player in 1954.

During these years, Burke worked at ALCO in order to raise money for college. She graduated from SUNY Brockport in 1957 with a degree in health, physical education and recreation, then went on for a master’s degree from Alfred University in 1961. During college she participated in all intramural sports and won the WNY division ski meet and several tennis tourneys, coached softball, basketball, alpine skiing and bowling at Oswego University. She played MUNY League softball and basketball, received the MVP award and was inducted into the WNY Softball Hall of Fame in 1987.

After 24 years at SUNY Oswego, she retired in 1985 to Barefoot Bay, Fla., where she continues her passion for sports, now mainly focused on tennis and golf, raking up gold and silver medals in the Senior Olympic Games. She was selected for the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame in 2012. Burke is one incredibly amazing and accomplished all round athlete – quite a heroine for her hometown of Dunkirk.

Carol “Stash” Stanley is connected to Dunkirk via the new SUNY Technology Incubator. She operates her own baseball equipment company and is proud to announce that she has just hired her first paid employee from Chautauqua. Her business grew out of her experiences in competitive softball starting with a team in Syracuse, that was mostly Onondaga Native Americans in 1962-65. In the 1970s, she played for Hank’s Painting REDS from Binghamton, who won the ASA, Class A Fast-Pitch National Softball Championship.

Stanley attended SUNY Fredonia before there was a softball team there and is happy that times have changed that. She played on a semi pro team in Erie, Pa., and while an assistant softball coach at Ohio State University “started tinkering with protective gloves” worn under the traditional baseball glove. Fast pitch softball called for more protective hand protections. Stanley’s first invention, the Stan-Mill Mitt, has been on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown since 1988. She is quick to tout that all her products are “made in America,” originally in Gloversville, former hub of the American glove manufacturing industry.

Stanley’s most recent invention is The “LaceLocker.” This is a simple, nearly indestructible design that prevents shoelaces from becoming untied, flopping around, getting wet, dirty or frayed. Teachers, parents and athletes all will appreciate the advantages of LaceLockers.

Stanley has been employed at the university registrar at the University of Virginia, formed the varsity softball program at SUNY Binghamton and trained the Peruvian Women’s National Softball Team. She has been named a distinguished alumnus of SUNY Fredonia.

Skeeter Tower is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments on this column to lifestyles@observertoday.com