By Buddy Thomas
The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Great portrait of Gladys Patla, a relatively unknown female athlete from Massachusetts who made her mark on the sports world in the 1940’s.
The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass.
Her name never appeared on the list of iconic athletes until Gladys Patla officially became “one of the boys.” By the end of 1940, the young Polish girl from the South End of New Bedford ranked right up there among the chief honchos.
Back then, the world of sports in general and Greater New Bedford in particular was considered a male’s domain. And that bugged Gladys.
So, in May of 1940, the 19-year-old decided to make a statement. She was, by all printed accounts, an attractive young lady of petite stature with a big heart and big-time attitude. Gladys didn’t mind living in the male-dominated world of sports as long as she could be a participant.
Although she may have looked the part, Gladys wasn’t comfortable playing the role others of her gender were expected to play.
She enjoyed being a young lady, but envied the young men of her era and the status many seemed to enjoy in their world of sports.
Gladys enjoyed athletic competition as much as anyone and after being denied the chance to play in a neighborhood pickup game, she wouldn’t hesitate to literally fight for her chance to be chosen.
Gladys Patla reluctantly wore berets, because that’s what young girls were supposed to wear. She wore bruises like medals of honor.
Sports Clubs were big back then and, despite her gender, Gladys was a member of several. The Cleveland A.C., The Dr. Payne Memorial and The Perry A.C. were three. And, although she was an active participant in all three, Gladys gained most of her attention wearing the colors of Perry A,C, where she was a dominant pitcher in a women’s softball league. So dominant that she became bored and wound up pitching for and against some of the top men’s softball and baseball teams in Greater New Bedford.
Gladys was tired of seeing boys’ names dominate the headlines on the sports pages of the local newspaper. So, during a three-day span in May of 1940, she decided it was time to steal a few for herself.
On May 27, Gladys Patla became what was believed to be the first woman in Southern New England to pitch for and against a men’s softball team when she led Perry Bikes to a 5-3 victory over Mercer Sports. The achievement was recorded in a box at the top of the sports page in The Standard-Times under the headline: City’s Girl Athlete Wins Slab Duel in Men’s Loop. The game went 10 innings with Miss Patla going the distance. She allowed just two hits over the regulation seven innings and was touched for five hits overall. She helped her own cause with a pair of hits and drew a base on balls.
A few days later — on May 30 — Gladys made history again by announcing she would enter the 50-mile featured race in the city’s annual Memorial Day Bicycle Carnival around Cove Road in the South End of New Bedford. More than 20 men had registered for the event, which had been increased by 10 miles the previous year.
She was the only woman entered in the competition.
There was a one-mile race for women, a race Gladys probably could and would have won. But to her, it wasn’t about winning. She was more interested in trying to prove a point.
“What do I care if I don’t win?” she asked in a pre-race story that appeared in The Standard-Times. “I just want to race against men and show them I can ride 50 miles. I’ll finish all right and maybe in fairly good time at that.”
She had accepted her own personal challenge and a larger-than-average crowd turned out on a cool but comfortable day to provide plenty of vocal support. The race committee had looked for a female capable of providing Gladys with competition, but came up empty leaving the spunky young lady on her own.
She rode to the starting line wearing dark shorts and a light-colored top bearing the name Perry’s Bicycle Shop and for one full lap Gladys appeared to be cruising at a comfortable pace. But early in the second lap, she began to experience leg cramps and at the 6 1/2 -mile mark was forced to withdraw. Her teammate, Ted Roderique, won the race crossing the finish line in 2:24.08. Billy Vandal of New Bedford was third. Barbara McHugh captured the women’s one-mile race.
But the loudest applause went to Gladys Patla, the young lady who failed to finish, but succeeded in proving her point. A post-race story in The Standard-Times described Gladys this way:
“Despite her athletic tendencies, she possesses plenty of feminine charm and poise. She stands but 5 feet 4 1/2 inches tall, weighs only 120 pounds, has brown eyes, light brown hair and fills out the tape measure for a size 14. Her complexion, like most Polish girls of her age, is given a healthy atmosphere by a pair of naturally rose-red cheeks and offset by pearl white teeth. Her voice is soft and clear.”
But anyone who knew her then and may remember her today undoubtedly recalls her as a talented athlete who proved she could compete with anyone.