The Post-Journal

County's Only Female Team Pro

When Leda Peterson is inducted into the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame on Feb. 17, it won't be a first. The Falconer native was inducted into the Western New York Softball Hall of Fame last year. Peterson has taken part in a lot of firsts which is why she's being honored by the local hall.Peterson played on the first girls softball team at Falconer Central School which won a Chautauqua County title. She also played on the first women's basketball team at Jamestown Community College, which in its second season became the first and only to win an NJCAA Region 3 Championship and get a berth in the national tournament.

But it was in softball where Peterson stood out and that is how she became the county's first and only female professional team athlete.

Peterson had played plenty of softball before Chautauqua County made it a high school sport in 1974 and of course she starred on the Falconer team. Girls basketball was also introduced in 1974, Peterson's senior year, but she didn't play. Instead, she stuck to bowling, in which she had been a standout at the junior leagues.

"I was into bowling more than basketball," Peterson said. "I didn't want to try something new."

But when she graduated and went to JCC, there was no softball team. However, there was a newly-formed women's basketball team and Peterson became one of its very dedicated players.

They were dedicated because the first season there were only 10 games and the team finished 6-4, but they practiced from October to March, and often at 9 or 10 p.m. because the men's team had first choice of practice time in the small JCC gym.

"Who in their right mind would practice five or six days a week, sometimes at night?" was a question Peterson posed. But she answered it with, "For us, all we wanted to do was play ball. We didn't mind going to practice at 9 or 10."

She gives the team's first coach. Jack Titus, all the credit for their success, which in its second season had a 19-0 record, a regional title and a trip to the NJCAA Tournament in Overland Park, Kan. He was a former JCC basketball player and coached the same style as his coach, Nick Creola.

"We were a high-scoring, running team," she said about the women's team that resembled the men's team by averaging about 90 points per game while allowing 50. "We wanted to win and we did."

At the nationals, JCC ran into teams that had been established for years. Yet, JCC still managed to win its first two games, but then was forced to play two in one day and lost both to be eliminated.

Peterson recalls at the nationals telling one of her teammates, "There will never be another (JCC women's) team like this for 25 years."

She was right because the Lady Jayhawks haven't won a title since the 1975-76 season.

After Peterson returned from the nationals, she noticed a small story in The Post-Journal announcing that the Buffalo Breskis of the new National Women's Softball League would be holding a tryout in the spring.

"Do you think I can do this?" she asked her father.

"Let's try it," Peterson recalled was his reply and that's all she needed to hear.

She headed to the basement and began throwing a tennis ball against the wall to practice her fielding.

"It probably had to drive them crazy hearing that tennis ball bouncing for an hour, an hour and a half," Peterson said about her parents.

However, it paid off because Peterson went to the tryout and out of the 150 women there, she was the only one asked back. Later when a member of the team, Peterson learned the tryout was just a public relations gimmick and the Breskis didn't expect to sign any players because they had already filled their roster with mostly major college players and former players.

"They didn't think this little kid from Falconer could do anything," Peterson said. "I think I surprised them."

The Breskis, named after the team's owner, couldn't overlook Peterson's talents with the glove and the bat and signed her to a contract. How much did she get?

"No girl did it for the money," Peterson said, adding that she's never told anyone what she earned. But she did say the average pay was about $1,000 per month for the three-month season.

However, at that point the money didn't mean that much.

"It was a tremendous honor (to be signed)," Peterson said.

The league included teams from Connecticut, Arizona, Detroit, Chicago, Pennsylvania and three from California. However, the Breskis, who played in Eden, led the league in attendance with about 2,000 fans per game.

Peterson played 114 games, hit 16 doubles and was fourth on the team in runs scored with 28. One of those doubles was special because it broke up a no-hitter by the legendary Joan Joyce, who pitched for Connecticut.

When asked what it was like to bat against Joyce, who had 105 no-hitters and 33 perfect games in 26 years of pitching, Peterson responded: "She was intimidating as hell. You can't say enough about the woman. She had every pitch in the book."

But when Peterson hit the double to break up a no-hitter, she recalled, "I felt like it was the greatest feeling."

Peterson played second base and shortstop that season and added outfield to her duties the following season, but just after it opened pulled some muscles in her legs. The trainer recommended rest, but the coach continued to play Peterson until she finally tore the quadriceps in both legs. That would sideline her for at least six weeks, so the Breskis released her.

"You can't move, they don't need you," Peterson said about learning the realities of pro sports. "I was very disillusioned and very hurt."

The team did call six weeks later and asked her to come back, but still upset, Peterson turned down the offer. However, ending her pro career was a blessing in disguise.

One of Peterson's basketball teammates from JCC, Debbie Craig, was playing softball at Peru State College in Nebraska. Peterson had mentioned she wanted to go back to college, so Craig told the Peru State coach about her and he offered her a full scholarship.

"He never once saw me play," said Peterson, who added she might not have been able to continue her education without the scholarship. "That's because of Debbie Craig."

Peterson, who had fulfilled the eligibility requirements to regain her amateur status, led Peru State in batting in 1979 and was co-captain with Craig of the 1980 team that advanced to the NCAA Region 6 Division II Tournament.

Later that year, the Breskis were being revived under the name of Bisons and they contacted Peterson. She was ready for the chance to play pro softball again and show the former Breski coach he made a mistake by releasing her.

"This is my comeback; watch me now," was her attitude. But she never even got a chance to sign a contract because the league folded before the season started.

"It was a terrible letdown," she recalled.

Peterson's softball playing continued for the Shamrock's team in Tonawanda which place fifth at a national tournament. She also played on the Western Region softball team at the Empire State Games that won gold medals in 1987 and 1988 and the silver medal in 1989. There were also trips to national tournaments with the House That Jack Built team from Greenhurst. Peterson was named an All-American at one of those tournaments.

When asked if those honors made up for not playing pro softball, Peterson said, "Nothing came close."

She pointed out that when playing professionally, "You're talking about the best softball players in the United States."

The additional financial assistance of the community is critical to the success of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame.
We gratefully acknowledge these individuals and organizations for their generous support.