Flashback: Remembering the Silver Bullets

Silver BulletsTwenty years ago (May 8, 1994 – Mother’s Day), the last all-women’s professional baseball team took the field for the first time. You may or may not remember the Colorado Silver Bullets, but they were quite serious about attempting to compete with men’s professional teams (not the major leagues, but lower independent leagues). Serious enough, in fact, to be officially sanctioned by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. That meant that they were more than a sideshow act or publicity stunt. They were playing to win.

 

The team was founded by a fellow named Bob Hope. No, not THAT Bob Hope. This gentleman was a former executive with the Atlanta Braves who allegedly organized promotions such as “Headlock and Wedlock Night” – an event in which wedding ceremonies on the field were followed by a pro wrestling exhibition. After much effort, Hope garnered financial backing in 1993 from the Coors Brewing Company. Looking back now, one wonders if Coors was hoping to piggyback off the massive interest in baseball resulting from the Colorado Rockies beginning play as a major-league franchise that year. In any case, it was shrewd of Hope to look to the Mountain Time zone (an area long starved for baseball) for financial backing.

The team hired former major-league knuckleballer Phil Niekro as manager, hoping his name would afford the team additional credibility. Niekro hedged at first, afraid that he would look like Jimmy Dugan (the character played by Tom Hanks in the film A League of Their Own). He was later quoted as being impressed with the quality of play he saw during the tryouts and agreed to manage the team.

Various descriptions of those tryouts liken the process to the scenes from that same film, where women from all over the country assembled a fictitious knockoff of Wrigley Field to compete for spots on the team. The Silver Bullets sent invitations to nearly 3,000 women across the nation to attend one of 11 tryout locations. Many were college softball players who had been recommended by their coaches or scouts. However, there were reports of teachers, nurses, waitresses, even a Sports Illustrated reporter (Amy Nutt) competing for a spot on the team, so it was difficult to shake the initial impression that the team was little more than an elaborate promotion for a light beer.

The most bizarre player story involved one Geri Fritz, who was one of the final cuts. After being let go, Fritz revealed that she was actually Gerald Fritz, a man who played college baseball. She (he?) was claiming to be female and had been planning to use the $20,000 salary to pay for a sex-change operation. After being cut, Fritz was never heard from again publicly.

Following the tryouts, 48 players were selected to attend a spring training camp in Orlando. From there, the final roster of 24 was chosen by Niekro and other coaches with major-league experience, including his younger brother Joe, Paul Blair and Tommy Jones. Niekro raved about his team’s pitching and fielding abilities and vowed to surprise people with how competitive his team would be.

The team set out with an ambitious schedule, taking on the Class AA Northern League. Their first game was against a team of Northern League All-Stars, led by former major leaguers Leon Durham and Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd. To say it didn’t go well would be an understatement. The Northern Leaguers crushed the Silver Bullets, 19-0.  After the game, the ever-quotable Boyd said of the Silver Bullets: “They could give a good high school team a hard time” and claimed he meant it as a compliment. Ouch.

The next few games didn’t go much better, as the ladies were outscored in their initial six games by a total of 57-1. The ghastly start prompted them to cancel the remaining games against the Northern League and schedule semi-pro and amateur teams instead. The results improved, but only slightly. The Silver Bullets finished its inaugural season with a record of 6-38. While Niekro may have been correct about his team’s ability to pitch and field comparatively well, it was their complete inability to hit that caused the most trouble.

The team’s top hitter, Stacy Sunny (which is a great name for a player, incidentally), batted .200, and her season totals of 23 hits, 11 RBI and 11 runs scored also were tops on the team. The team hit .141 as a whole and scored 83 runs (an average of 1.9 runs per game). The fact that they managed to win six games is quite an accomplishment, actually.

Their biggest success that first season was at the box office. Playing in big stadiums in Denver and San Diego, the team drew crowds in excess of 30,000 people. Average attendance for Silver Bullets games throughout the season was nearly 8,000 per game, which outdrew many minor-league teams. Souvenirs sales were plentiful, as was media coverage.

Opinions were divided about the effect the Silver Bullets were having on women’s sports. Dr. Donna Lopiano, then-president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said: “It is important not only for women to see women play baseball against men, but it is also important for men to see both women and men competing as equals on the sports field.” However, a sports columnist for the New York Times named Barbara Walder wrote: “This sad, slightly embarrassing stunt is just another way women have dropped the ball in their sporting quests over the last 20 years.”

For fans, interest was already starting to dwindle after that first season. Attendance in 1995 dropped to less than half of what it was during the first season as the Silver Bullets continued to struggle for victories. They would finish the 1995 season 11-33. Sunny again posted the top batting average on the team (.246) and led the team with 32 hits and 17 RBI.

In 1996, after starting the season 4-19, the Silver Bullets took the then-radical step of switching to aluminum bats. It paid off, as the team won 14 of their final 30 games. Perhaps emboldened by this improvement, which included the first three home runs in team history, the team headed to Taiwan to take on major league teams from that country. They lost all six exhibition games by a combined 69-18.

The Silver Bullets’ progress continued in 1997. It wasn’t their improved play, however, that drew the attention of ESPN that year. A game on June 11, 1997, against an 18-and-under state champion team from Georgia did.

Game stories indicate that Silver Bullets’ Kim Braatz-Voisard (who had hit the first home run in franchise history the prior season) was frustrated as she stepped into the batter’s box. She was quoted as being “frustrated” because her team had just blown a lead, plus she was angered by the heckling of the opposing catcher and voiced her displeasure. The next pitch hit her squarely in the back. The young pitcher laughed at her as she headed to first base and she charged the mound, resulting in a bench-clearing brawl between the women and high-school boys. The resulting publicity was mostly negative, although Hope (still the Silver Bullets’ owner) tried to spin it to his team’s benefit, saying “if you’re willing to brawl, you care about what you’re doing.”

The team would end 1997 on a high note, rallying to win its season finale and compile the only winning record in its brief history (23-22). The hitting, once so abysmal, was more respectable (thanks in no small part to the aluminum bats). Toni Heisler paced the Silver Bullets with a .333 average, 13 doubles and 26 RBI. Two other hitters notched averages near .300. Their top pitcher that year, Lee Anne Ketcham, finished the season with a record of 6-1, with a 3.32 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 43 innings.

It would be the final season in the team’s history, though. Following the season, Coors withdrew its sponsorship of the team and the team was unable to find new sponsorship. The brewery never commented publicly, but could the brawl have played a factor in its decision? Hard to say. More likely, it was the $8 million Coors claimed it had invested in the team since its inception in 1993. Further, the team could not find anyone to televise its games, which severely limited its revenue stream. Without a major sponsor willing to fund its operations, the team had no choice but to cease operations.

The Silver Bullets’ history was short but significant, as they have been recognized by the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. One of their players, Julie Croteau, went on to become the first woman to coach college baseball (at UMass-Amherst). Before she made the Silver Bullets, she made the men’s baseball team as a walk-on as St. Mary’s College of MD, a Division III school. She and Ketcham both signed with the men’s Hawaii Winter Baseball League. Another pitcher, Pam Davis, pitched in a “guest appearance” with the Class AA Jacksonville Suns and tossed a scoreless inning of relief against the Australia men’s Olympic team in 1996.

Author: Chris Caylor

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