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Last week, as most women in the United States turned to Thanksgiving Day dishes, a small band of dedicated females wielding large wooden sticks chased up and down the green athletic fields of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, busily engaged in what, by anybody's standards, must be judged a strange competition. Grouped in teams of 11, they played in a tournament that had no winner and no championship.
There were other anomalies. The women were dressed in blouses, short, colored tunics and ankle-length socks and looked for all the world like school girls. They weren't. Many of them were past 30. Some worked in offices, some were housewives with children. Most of them, had they not discovered field hockey, might earlier have settled for more sedentary ways of life. Instead they galloped with abandon between goal posts 100 yards apart, maneuvered a hard, white, leather-covered ball deftly at the curved end of their sticks and now and then met the ball solidly sending loud, satisfying thwacks ringing across the crisp fall air.
The occasion was the annual United States Field Hockey Tournament and the players were the best in the country. They had come to Michigan from as far west as California and as far south as Richmond at their own expense to play before almost empty sidelines, a fact they hardly seemed to notice. The practitioners of one of the country's least-publicized and most-amateur sports were used to being ignored.
But glory might eventually be theirs too. The 11 best players in the tournament (and to pick the best is the only reason for holding the tournament; that's why there are no team championships) are hockey's All-America. From its ranks, provided they have the time and the money, come the players of the U.S. Touring Team who, in most years, would travel to Europe to pit the best in American hockey against international teams before crowds upwards of 10,000. It is doubtful they will go this year, however, because the women are hoarding up their cash for a trip to Australia in 1956.
It is in soccer-conscious countries outside the United States that field hockey is appreciated for what it is: a fast, exciting sport, requiring great skill, a deep reservoir of stamina and courage?about equal parts of each. The physical facts of the game require as much.
A LOT OF RUNNING
The one object is to get the ball past the goal posts, but under conditions that would warp most football players. The field generally is 100 yards by 50. The players are allowed to play in any section, which means they do a lot of running, there are two 30-minute periods, no time-outs and no substitutes. In the U.S., substitutions may be made when a woman is hurt, but in Britain, where the game is really rough, the periods are five minutes longer and when a woman has to leave the field because of injuries her team must resume with one less player. The British like their style of play so much that a game scheduled for next March in Wembley Stadium between an English all-star team and an as yet unnamed opponent has already sold 23,000 tickets.
The enthusiasm of one Britisher was responsible for planting the game in the United States. Various forms of field hockey have been played by men since early Greek history, and the sport had been seen on rare occasions in the U.S., where it was considered a man's game and not a very interesting one at that. But in 1887, women in Europe turned their hand to the game and then in 1901, Constance M. K. Applebee, of the British College of Physical Education, came to study at the Harvard summer school. "The Apple," as Miss Applebee came to be called, was persuaded to put on a demonstration on a concrete "pitch," (we call it a field) at Harvard. The sticks and balls were improvised and crude, and the players wild and unskillful. Their enthusiasm, though, made up for whatever ability they lacked and a demonstration soon followed at Vassar. The game caught on rapidly and it wasn't long before it had become a regular fall sport at many of the leading Eastern women's colleges.
Shortly thereafter the center of American field hockey migrated south to Philadelphia where it remains today. In any year, as many as three-quarters of the women selected on the U.S. team come from around Philadelphia. The reason is clear enough. More people there play field hockey than in any other sector, but why that should be is something of a mystery. It has been said that some Philadelphians will go to any lengths to out-tweed the British. The view in other quarters is that Philadelphians generally guard jealously a tradition of rugged independence, and if in other communities young ladies deem it socially awkward to be seen vigorously pounding the greensward, the Philadelphia lady shall carry on regardless. Whatever, on any Saturday morning of the fall in towns like Germantown, Bryn Mawr and Haverford on the Main Line, it is not at all unusual to see mother park junior by the side of a field and go dashing off gayly into the heat of battle. With some natives, a "flick," a soft pop of the ball over the goalie's stick, regarded as the game's neatest play, is held in as high esteem as Fishhouse Punch or classes at Agnes Irwin.
It was a Philadelphia player, Charlotte Cheston, who first applied to the Olympic Games Committee in 1920 for permission to enter a ladies team in the games to be held in Antwerp. The emphatic turndown from the committee ended with the line, "certainly not women's hockey." The committee had sufficient gallantry, however, to forward Miss Cheston's letter to the English Hockey Association which responded immediately by inviting the ladies to tour England that fall. The Americans, amazed at the talent of the English players, saw for the first time how field hockey should be played. They have been in a race ever since to catch up. Meanwhile, women's teams are still not recognized by the Olympic Committee, although the men are.