In her 50s, Katharine “Kotch” Kowell fought off a robber who probably didn’t know he was trying to yank a purse from a woman who’d once played pro ball.
“She wouldn’t let go, and she wound up punching the guy,” said her nephew Mike Kollman.
In her late 40s, she could out-arm wrestle high school football players from her nephew’s school. “She’d humor us for 30 seconds — and then she’d pin ’em,” Kollman said.
With the same booming voice that hollered out signals when she was catching for the National Girls Baseball League, she’d greet family and friends with “Hey, Baby!” “Aunt Kotch” would tell them, “You’re the greatest.” It made her little nieces and nephews feel they really were great.
Ms. Kowell — who sometimes bowled 300 and also was a gifted golfer — died March 30 at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates. She was 91.
She played for the Parichy Bloomer Girls in the National Girls Baseball League, founded in Chicago in 1944. Even though its players used 12-inch softballs and threw underhand, the NGBL was a tough, fast league that feuded with — and stole players from — the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League immortalized in the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own.”
The National Girls Baseball League lasted for 11 seasons and drew as many as 500,000 a year to see its games, according to Cassidy Lent, a reference librarian with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
“They packed the place,” said Al Maag, a founder of the Chicago 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame.
Fans flocked to see evening double-headers featuring Ms. Kowell’s Bloomer Girls, the Bluebirds, the Cardinals, the Checashers, the Chicks, the Kandy Kids, the Music Maids, the Queens and Rockolas. They played at Lane Tech’s stadium, Thillens Stadium at Devon and Kedzie, Admiral Stadium in Des Plaines, Shewbridge field at 74th and Aberdeen, Sparta Stadium at 21st and Kostner and Parichy Stadium at Harrison and Harlem in Forest Park.
“The best softball was played in leagues like the National Girls Baseball League,” said Tim Wiles, former director of research for the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.
One star, Freda Savona, was said to earn $500 a week, Maag said.
Ms. Kowell’s league was founded by Forest Park contractor Emery Parichy and Charles Bidwill, owner of the Chicago Cardinals football team. The NGBL was centered in Chicago, while the AAGPBL had teams in several Midwestern states, said Bill Francis of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
Harold “Red” Grange, who was football’s “galloping ghost, ” was hired to be the NGBL’s commissioner.
In the late 1940s, the AAGPBL sued the National Girls Baseball team for luring players with “outlandish” salaries.
While AAGPBL players received instruction on makeup, hair and wardrobe, the National Girls Baseball League focused on the game, said filmmaker Adam Chu, who is working on a documentary on the league, “Their Turn at Bat.”
“They didn’t have to have chaperones, and they didn’t have to wear skirts,” Chu said. “They just let the players be however the players wanted to be.”
By the standard of the times, NGBL teams were diverse, Chu said. Its players included an African-American, Betty Chapman; a Chinese-American, Gwen Wong; and Nancy Ito, a Japanese-American.
Young Katharine grew up in Massillon, Ohio, one of six children born to immigrants from Chernigov, Russia.
In 1947, at 21, she was recruited for Chicago’s Bloomer Girls. Shortly after, she tried out for the U.S. Olympic team in the shot put and discus, Kollman said.
Ms. Kowell played in the league until about 1954, then became a professional massage therapist at the Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein salons, said her friend Mary Ann Estacion. She also worked as a nursing assistant and did occupational therapy work with patients at the mental health center at Irving and Narragansett that used to be known as Dunning, Estacion said.
She coached many youth baseball and basketball teams and played golf at Sunset Valley Golf Course in Highland Park, where she’s still remembered.
“She was a great athlete,” said Rob Saunders, manager of golf operations there.
For many years, she attended Chicago’s Cuyler Covenant Church. If she saw someone looking overwhelmed, Estacion said she’d stop and ask, “Are you having trouble? Let me pray with you.”
She is survived by two sisters, Mildred Ivan and Olga Kollman. A celebration of her life was planned for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Covenant Church of Schaumburg.