Editor's Note: This story is part of a weekly summer series recycling of "Curt's Replays" column by longtime IR sports writer Curt Synness. The article on the beginnings of local women's slowpitch softball was first published on August 7, 2001.
HELENA — When Violet Smith, Sharon Sargeson and Jan Hamer helped organize the precursor of Helena Women’s slowpitch softball league in 1965, their goal was simply to “play for the love of the game.” But Violet had an additional motive…to keep a certain high-energy adolescent female occupied.
After the 1940 Helena Boosters won the State Womens Fastpitch championship, the Capital City captured no fewer than nine state fastpitch titles during the 1940s and ‘50s. But after Day’s Plasterers won the crown in 1957, interest in the sport faded, and the local league expired.
In 1956, a city recreational fastpitch league was formed for school girls aged 8-13. The girls were divided into two age groups in the early ‘60s, and when Shari Smith of East Helena became close to being over the rec league’s age limit, her mother wanted her to continue playing.
“Mom wanted to keep me out of trouble,” Smith said with a laugh.
So Violet Smith, who was coaching her daughter’s team in the girls league, made some calls and put together two teams — East Helena and Helena — of older girls and women.
“We played one game a week that summer,” said Sharon (Thrailkill) Sargeson, who had also coached the younger girls and played on the 1965 Helena team. “One week we’d play behind the Helena Junior High, and the next week at the old Smelterite Field in Moontown by East Helena.
“There were no umpires, and we didn’t even keep score. We just loved to play softball.”
Tracy’s wins 1966 city crown
In 1966, the women's slowpitch league consisted of four teams — Tracy’s Lounge, Red Meadow-O’Tooles, First National Bank and Union Bank — and joined the Bozeman slowpitch district.
The very first president of the Helena Women’s Softball Association was Nora Lanning. They passed the hat and hired Fred McDermott, Hank Flatow and Pat LaSalle to umpire the games.
“We paid them $2 for behind the plate, and $1 for the bases,” Sargeson recounted.
They diamonded at Smelterite Park, and shared the field behind the National Guard Armory (the current YMCA location) with the men’s fastpitch league.
Tracy’s Lounge captured the 1966 City Championship in 1966, finishing with a sparkling 18-1 record and defeated Red Meadow-O’Tooles 12-8 in the finals.
This qualified the squad for the district tourney in Bozeman, where “we got wiped out,” Sargeson said.
In 1967, the league expanded to six teams, with First National Bank edging Tracy’s for the city title. Rounding out the final standings were East Helena, Red Meadow-O’Tooles, Western Drug and Bob’s Fine Cars.
Sponsors Bill O’Toole and Dan Cloninger (Tracy’s) paid to have two of their games broadcast over the radio. The two bar owners traditionally wagered a keg of beer with each other on each contest.
Fred McDermott was elected the league’s first District Commissioner.
Playing the jockeys
Sharon Sargeson said in the late 1960s, when horse racing was in town, they’d play a benefit game between the Old-Timers (from the men’s and women’s league) and the jockeys.
“Some of the jockeys would play on stilts,” Sargeson said. “Mr. Tintinger from Ting’s Bar would give the old-timers a ride to their positions on his Cushman motorcycle.”
During the exhibition the hat was passed to help fund the softball leagues.
“They were a pleasure to work with. They just had a lot of fun,” said former ump Hank Flatow.
Jan Hamer recalled a humorous incident when Sargeson was knocked down by a baserunner at third base.
“One of her glasses lenses was gouged so bad she couldn’t see,” Hamer said. “When it came her turn to bat, Sharon was frantic that she wouldn’t be able to see to hit. So I loaned her my glasses, which were like Coke bottle bottoms.
“She was still blind, but they walked her on four pitches. We still laugh about that every time we meet.”
Another comical episode occurred when they tricked the competitive Sargeson, who was racing home to score, into sliding on a drenched, mucky, muddy field when the ball was still in the outfield.
Danita Welch’s daughters Jamey and Jari both played city softball in the 1980s. Hamer, who had been the second baseman with Day’s Plasterers’ 1957 championship, played with her three daughters (Reene, Laurie and Valerie) for the House of Wong in the late 1970s.
The five Trankel sisters — MaryAnn, Crystal, Suzie, Nancy and Diane — at one time or another all played on the same team with their mother Sally.
So was Violet Smith’s softball league successful in keeping her daughter, Shari, out of trouble?
Well, Shari (Smith) Briggeman went on to play in the Helena Women’s Softball League (which has grown to 39 co-ed and 17 women’s teams) for a record 35 years, finally retiring and the end of last summer.
And although she never had any daughters, Shari used her mom’s trick and kept her sons — Trevor and Tim Briggeman — busy by playing Legion baseball for the Senators in the 1990s.