Tuesday, August 07, 2018
Patty Dyer name badge. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPatty Dyer name badge. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

“I am most interested to have you play for the Red Heads—send me a picture of yourself in basketball uniform or bathing suit at once.” This is one of several messages Orwell Moore sent to Patty Dyer, recruiting her to his all-women basketball team, the All-American Red Heads. The Schlesinger Library received Dyer’s papers in August 2017 and the collection provides an interesting look at the later years of one of the first women’s basketball teams.

1953-1954 page from Moore's All American Red Heads Memorial Edition booklet. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library1953-1954 page from Moore's All American Red Heads Memorial Edition booklet. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

The All-American Redheads originated in 1935 as an amateur team known as the Cassville Red Heads. The team, comprised of employees of Mrs. Doyle Olson, who ran a chain of beauty salons near Cassville, Missouri, became increasingly popular during the course of their first season. In 1936, Mrs. Olson’s husband, “Ole” Olson, himself a retired basketball player, put them on the road first as The Red Heads and then, as more members of the American Athletic Union joined the team, as the All-American Red Heads.

The Red Heads competed against local men’s teams in exhibition games throughout the United States and in Canada, Mexico, and the Philippines, using men’s rules and winning about 70 percent of their matches. While Coach Olson had a strict code of behavior for his players when off court, including no smoking or drinking, their on court strategy often included flirting or joking with spectators and referees, as well as with the opposing team. Their talent, energy, and barnstorming approach—they put on gymnastic displays while the men’s teams rested during halftime—drew comparisons with the Harlem Globetrotters and made them highly popular. They appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, as well as on other television programs. 

Image from Women's Basketball Hall of Fame pamphlet. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryImage from Women's Basketball Hall of Fame pamphlet. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

In 1948, Olson sold the team to Orwell Moore, a basketball coach whose wife played on the team for several years. The team became so successful that Moore hired additional players and for several years three separate teams of Red Heads toured the country.

As the team’s name indicates, all players had red hair; some, like Patty Dyer, were natural redheads, while others resorted to hair dye or wigs to achieve the required look. Dyer joined the team in 1977 and played with them for two seasons. Due to her comparatively short stature, she received the nicknames “Toy” and “Mighty Mite” and once succeeded in making a basket by climbing up a teammate’s body and dunking the ball. Later in life, Dyer earned a BA and an MSW in social work from the University of New England and worked at the Freeport Counseling Center in Maine. 

Apart from a final anniversary game in 1996, the Red Heads ceased playing in 1986. The team’s honors include induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (1999), the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame (2012), and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame (2017). In a 1974 article for Sports Illustrated, William Johnson said of the Red Heads, “This is the best women's basketball team in North America. . . . If they were men, they would be famous. They would be rich. . . . They would have played before hundreds of thousands in the Garden, the Spectrum, the Forum, the Astrodome—tens of millions on television.”

For more information on the Patty Dyer papers, see http://id.lib.harvard.edu/aleph/015129316/catalog

Susan Earle