“Betty the Bum” and the Belles

Racine Belles

When I was a kid in the Texas Panhandle we didn’t have “bag ladies,” primarily because the term hadn’t gotten that far west yet. The city fathers (and mothers) would tell you that the kind of riff raff that became “bag ladies” were simply “bums” and our town didn’t like them or want them around. Despite pronouncements like that, we had one. Ours was called “Betty the Bum.”

The last couple of years before I graduated from high school, I worked in the evenings in the tallest building in town (it had six floors). One of the companies in town controlled the top couple of floors in the building and hired high school kids (all boys) to serve as evening janitors. It was fairly typical janitorial work, sweeping floors, emptying trash, cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming the rooms that had carpets. All the corner offices were carpeted so I learned that “corner offices” were where the bigwigs hung out.

Betty hung out in the first floor lobby. It was a big open space with a pair of elevators, a barber shop, and a pharmacy. There was a set of stairs that ran up to the top floors, but most people took the elevators. Betty came in about 4pm and sat down on the floor opposite the elevators and just away from the pharmacy entrance. She stayed there overnight because it was warm in the winter and cool in the 100 degree West Texas summers. She didn’t actually beg, but simply sat there for the comfort of being out of the elements. Occasionally someone would flip her a quarter.

She was probably in her 40s, but looked 60. The hair was gray by this point. There was no makeup and the face was dirty. So were the hands and the fingernails were way too long. She tended to wear the same outfit for a few months, then wander into the local main street mission for a shower and a change of clothing. My folks knew the minister at the big Methodist church in town. There were about four Methodist churches in town and I never knew the differences (I don’t do theology), but the biggest ran the mission. He told them that Betty was a semi-regular who showed up for a meal, a cot, and a change of clothes every so often, but he knew nothing about her. He had no idea about her life story (and neither did I). He did say that she seemed nice.

Most of us working the janitorial shift agreed. She’d smile at us (for some reason she still had all her teeth) when we came down and we’d occasionally talk with her for a few minutes. We got paid twice a month and on payday we’d head over to the pharmacy (which was open until 10pm) to cash our checks. There was this good-looking girl who ran the cash register and most of us just wanted to see her and cashing the check there made that possible. Generally someone would buy a candy bar and hand it to Betty on the way out. She’d say thanks and start on it right away.

Sometimes we’d actually have something like a conversation. Generally they were simple things like the weather or sports. And then one day she told us she’d played professional baseball. Well, we all figured she was making that up. Heck, everybody knew girls didn’t play baseball, especially professional baseball. She’d even got specific, she’d played for something called the Racine Belles. We figured that had to be a softball team of some sort and none of us knew where Racine was. I found an encyclopedia and told the guys that Racine was in Wisconsin, but there was nothing about a baseball team, especially a baseball team for girls. Not a one of us had ever heard of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.

The Belles were really good. Formed in 1943 they lasted through the 1950 season before moving to Battle Creek. In 1943 they won the first ever AAGPBL championship and won again in 1946. In 1948 they won the Western Division championship, losing a first round playoff to the team from South Bend, Indiana (the Rockford, Illinois Peaches won the title in ’48). If she played for them at all, she played for a good team.

Betty was pretty non-specific about when she’d played or what position but she was adamant she had played. There were no long stories about what she’d done or who she’d played with. And she never mentioned a pennant. So adding that to the fact that we all just knew for sure that there were no girls in the big leagues we basically blew it off as some bum telling a tall tale.

I more or less dismissed Betty from my mind after I left to join the Army. I don’t recall ever seeing her again and I don’t know what happened to her. I’m not even sure “Betty” was her name, it was just what we called her. (It was good alliteration, but I’m not certain I knew what that was.) She would answer to it, but I’m not sure she wouldn’t have answered to about anything. I looked up the Belles roster and found one Elizabeth and two Bettys. All three are well enough attested that I’m certain they never were a “bag lady” in the Texas Panhandle. So I don’t know if she told the truth or not, but it was a good story that I hoped was true.


11 Responses to ““Betty the Bum” and the Belles”

  1. keithosaunders Says:

    I really enjoy your writing, V!

  2. Jackie, The Baseball Bloggess Says:

    Love this … and, of course, she told the truth. I’m just going to believe she played for Racine. I just know she did!

  3. Allan G. Smorra Says:

    “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” 
—Tim O’Brien

    Good story, V, no matter the facts.

  4. glen715 Says:

    V, THIS is an amazing story, and the way you wrote it makes it even more so.

    And I would tend to believe that she was telling the truth. How in the world could she have made up something like that?

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Your stories about your childhood or your experiences in the service are terrifically-written stories, and I, for one, wish you would write more of them.


  5. wkkortas Says:

    At some point, there needs to be a book of these stories.

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