I wish Hazel Walker’s Arkansas Travelers had come to my corner of New England to play when I was a kid. Some say that Walker, who grew up in Oak Hill, Arkansas, was the best female basketball player there ever was. She was as accurate shooting free throws from a sitting position, or while kneeling, as she was standing up. She played for AAU teams for 14 years in the 1930s and early 1940s, and the barnstorming All American Red Heads in the mid-1940s. She started her own team, the Arkansas Travelers, in 1949, a group of women who barnstormed around the country until 1965, playing 200 games a year — and winning about 85% of them.
Hazel began playing basketball in the late 1920s at the age of 14. As a senior in high school, she led her team to Arkansas’s first state championship for girls, which was sponsored by the AAU, not the state high school association. Walker’s team lost the championship game by a point, but Hazel was named to the All-Star team. A tall, striking young woman of part-Cherokee descent, Hazel also was voted most beautiful girl in the tournament.
Hazel received a full scholarship to play for Tulsa Business College after high school. She led the Tulsa “Stenos” to a national championship and proceeded to play on three more championship teams during her 14 years of AAU competition. She won six national free-throw contests and was named to 11 All-America teams. In 1946 Ole Olson lured Hazel away from the amateur ranks onto the All-American Red Heads, the professional team he had started in 1936. Hazel didn’t want to dye her hair red, so she wore a red wig instead. She found that she liked making money playing basketball and she didn’t mind all the traveling the Red Heads did as they challenged different men’s team in a different town or city every night. But Hazel didn’t like the fact that the Red Heads sometimes tried to get their opponents and the referees to take it easy on them. “The thing that bothered me was they wanted a set up,” she said before her death in 1990. “They didn’t want the men to call fouls too closely on us.”
In 1949, Hazel decided to start her own team, Hazel Walker’s Arkansas Travelers, who played a more serious brand of basketball while still entertaining the fans. Hazel held tryouts and chose the seven players who she felt exhibited the best combination of good character, neatness, attractiveness, and ability.
While society had accepted women as construction workers, shipbuilders, pilots, and athletes during the war years, the 1950s saw a change in attitude toward women workers and athletes. As in the 1930s, the ability to adhere to ideals of womanly attractiveness and nurturing qualities again became more prized than the can-do spirit of the war years. Hazel felt that accentuating feminine qualities while still playing hard would earn her players more acceptance. Frances “Gus” Garroute, one of the original travelers, recalled how Hazel warned players to dress nicely and to act like ladies when they were in public to counter the idea that they were “trash.”
“The fans expected a bunch of rough looking women and they were always surprised,” said Garroute. “We helped people understand that you can look like a lady, act like a lady, and still play ball.”
With money she’d saved from her three-year stint with the Red Heads, Hazel bought a station wagon with a luggage rack on top and started scheduling games. Wherever they went, the Arkansas Travelers challenged the best male athletes in town to games and played by men’s rules. They played six nights a week and often drove to the next stop after they’d split the gate receipts with the home team. To ward off robbery attempts, the travelers carried a gun with them, “and we weren’t afraid to use it,” said Garroute.
The Travelers showed a generation of little girls in the 1950s and early 1960s that women could lead independent lives and be as good at basketball as any man. In 16 seasons of play, the Travelers won 85% of their games. Hazel was said to have won every halftime free-throw shooting contest during those 16 years.
“To see her play, to see that women could be that good, it changed me forever,” said Elva Bishop, a documentary filmmaker for North Carolina public television. She saw Walker play in her hometown of Aberdeen North Carolina and went on to make a documentary film about the pioneers of the women’s game. Walker retired at the age of 51 in 1965. The Arkansas Travelers retired with her.
Walker was the antithesis of Babe Didrikson in terms of the image she conveyed of what a female athlete should act and look like. But she also was a smart business woman, certainly, the first to own and operate her own team. She was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1959 and into the National Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001. I sure wish I’d had the chance to see her play. If you, or anyone you know had the chance to see Walker play, leave a comment here or email me at email@example.com.