Florence Papke’s nickname aptly carried Ruthian clout.
“Babe” excelled athletically in an era when federal equality mandates for women’s sports were still 20 years hence and when newspapers referred to adult competitors as “girls” and routinely attached “Mrs.” to their names.
“She always said she was ahead of her time. They didn’t have women’s athletics in school, but she found a way,” said her daughter Leatha Norman.
Papke, 84, who died Saturday of cancer, loomed large over the Southern Minnesota women’s fastpitch softball scene from the late 1940s to the early 1960s.
She was a formidable hitter as a shortstop but even better as a pitcher who propelled the Mankato Aces to state championships in 1956 and 1958.
She also played volleyball and later became so accomplished as a bowler and advocate for the sport that she was named to the Minnesota Womens Bowling Hall of Fame.
But it was her talent and steely resolve on the softball diamond that shaped much of her legacy — and intimidated opponents.
“She had a solid-stare look at batters,” said Joyce Nelson of Owatonna, an Aces teammate and prior to that an opponent.
Nelson recalls her first game against Papke:
“I had a twin sister who played and she came up to hit a few batters after me. Babe didn’t know I had a twin and she started yelling, ‘Hey, she can’t come up again!’”
Nelson said that showed how perceptive Papke was about the game. Other pitchers likely wouldn’t have noticed.
“She had a little bit of an attitude,” said Papke’s son Jeff, who served as batboy for the Aces, which recruited players from throughout the area and traveled a three-state circuit for tournament play.
He said his mother’s attitude manifested itself during a state tournament game in which the Aces built a 7-0 lead.
Papke’s manager brought in a younger pitcher and sent Papke to shortstop.
The new pitcher promptly gave up 7 runs and the manager asked Papke to resume pitching.
“She told him, ‘Nope, I’ve already won this game.’ It was kind of like, you made your bed, go lie in it,” her son said.
Papke had a chance to go pro early in her softball career when a traveling women’s team offered her $75 a week. No thanks, she said.
In a 1980 Free Press interview Papke explained:
“I would have been on dirty trains most of the summer. I got married instead.”
In the 1980 interview she also was ambivalent about the surging popularity of women’s slowpitch softball. It gratified her that so many women were becoming active in sport but she rued the players’ lack of athleticism.
To illustrate, she flicked her arm and wrist weakly to illustrate a girlish throwing motion.
In the 1950s there also was a general ambivalence about females participating in sports. Although the Aces would draw up to 1,000 fans for games at Mankato’s Tourtellotte Park, some people decried the notion of women engaging in sweaty pursuits.
“At the time it was not looked on favorably by everyone,” said Pat Panzram of St. Clair, who was Papke’s catcher. “They just didn’t think it was ladylike.”
Papke hung up her spikes in 1962 when Leatha was born, having helped bring women’s athletics all that much closer to the societal forefront.
It could be said that she and other female athletes of that period were accidental trailblazers.
“I thought it was just plain fun,” said Nelson of her stint with the Aces, a team in which each player’s expenses were underwritten by individual local sponsors.
Nelson said the financial help was nice but ultimately unnecessary.
“We would have played even if we had to pay for it.”
And no, Papke’s “Babe” nickname wasn’t a nod to the legendary baseball player, as she explained in that 1980 interview:
“My brother couldn’t pronounce my name when I was born so he just called me ‘the babe.’ It stuck.”