The All-American Red Heads: First Pro Women's BBall Team in the United States?

The All-American Red Heads: First Pro Women's BBall Team in the United States?
Members of the All-American Redheads professional traveling basketball team wave to the crowd at the WNBA World Champion Minnesota Lynx game on Saturday, June 23.

NOTE: On Saturday, the Minnesota Lynx honored the contributions of the All-American Red Heads women's pro basketball team, which traveled the country more than 40 years ago. While passing me at the press table, one of them looked at me and said, "Now there's a real redhead!" Though I thought I was pretty knowledgeable on most women's sports history, this part had eluded me. While perusing the Minnesota Lynx' Website, I found their story. In celebration of Title IX's passage 40 years ago, and for fellow redheads everywhere, I am forwarding this feature in its entirety to readers of Token Female: Thank you to  Mark Remme,  Lynx Editor/Writer, and to Alex King, Media Director, for a wonderful piece of history!

For the past 12 years Lynnette Sjoquist has traveled the country as the University of Minnesota women’s basketball color commentator, watching NCAA Division I college basketball in some of the game’s biggest venues featuring some of the game’s biggest stars.

She was in New Orleans in 2004, when Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen led the Gophers to an improbable Final Four berth. She’s called games across the Big Ten, at sold out contests in Williams Arena and, now, continues to watch as Minnesota attempts a resurgence led by last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year Rachel Banham.

Flash back to the 1970s, and Sjoquist had a different role on the court. The Cannon Falls native played four years for the All American Red Heads, a professional women’s traveling basketball team that played games against local men’s squads from coast to coast from 1936 to 1986. Sjoquist and her twin sister, Lynnea, saw the Red Heads play in their home town and after contacting the team’s management joined the club in 1973.

On Saturday, when the Lynx host the Mercury at Target Center on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, Sjoquist will be on hand and, undoubtedly, will have some fond memories of her days playing for the Red Heads in her mind. When she graduated high school in 1971, widespread girls’ athletic programs were non-existent and a female professional sports team was an anomaly. Today, with college basketball and the WNBA thriving, Sjoquist said Saturday will be a special day.

“Talk about a celebration,” Sjoquist said. “We should be screaming from the rooftops. This is a great day, not just in women’s sports history but also all of history.”

When Sjoquist graduated from high school in 1971, one year prior to Title IX passing into law, she didn’t have the opportunity to play competitive sports through a high school league. While at Golden Valley Lutheran College, she stumbled upon the Red Heads and made the most of a unique opportunity to travel the country and play basketball in front of crowds interested in watching women play professionally.

Seven months out of the year, the Red Heads played games seven nights a week. The organization had two teams for most of her four years on the roster—there was a brief stint with three squads—with each team having about seven girls on each roster. They’d play local men’s town teams and recreation league champions that sometimes included former high school state champions or professional football and hockey players.

Wearing their red and white striped uniforms, the Red Heads made a name for themselves through their niche product. There were upstart organizations along the way, but during a 50-year period no professional women’s basketball organization had the same success as the All American Red Heads.

“We were doing our part. It was enough of a novelty at that point,” Sjoquist said. “People came out to see women play basketball. We had standing room crowds only. Some of the gyms were 1,500 people, but we played some larger arenas.”

Sjoquist played in Madison Square Garden, among other historic venues, and gained notoriety along the way. She was on Red Heads teams that were featured in Sports Illustrated, got air time on NBC and ABC as part of news features and had a teammate who appeared on the game show “I’ve Got A Secret.”

Her time on the team was at an important juncture of female athletics in America. When Title IX was signed into law in 1972, it was the beginning of an ongoing journey of equity among boys and girls on the field, in the classroom and in other extracurricular activities.

The All American Red Heads were traveling the country long before Title IX opened the door for widespread female athletic programs, and they were front and center during some of those pivotal early years when girls began playing sports at a much more frequent rate.

In 1971, 1 in 27 girls participated in high school sports. By 2008, that number changed to 1 in 2.4. Women’s college basketball is as popular as it’s ever been, and the level of excitement surrounding the Lynx as they chase their second consecutive WNBA title is palpable around Minnesota.

The Red Heads were well ahead of the times in that regard. As a result, they played a role in piquing the country’s interest in a new wave of sports entertainment. This September, the Red Heads will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“I think we were very much in a position in the early days to certainly introduce people to the idea that women could play sports,” Sjoquist said.

In the end, that widespread interest in female athletics ultimately undid the All American Red Heads’ program. With girls teams gaining prominence at the high school and collegiate level, the novelty of watching the Red Heads compete across the country decreased. The franchise folded in 1986.

It was a bittersweet end to a longtime organization, but it in part symbolized the progress being made.

“I perhaps have a slanted view of what it is, but I think we were definitely there at a critical time,” Sjoquist said. “When I started playing it was 1973-77, so it was right in the midst of [Title IX’s] beginning and its launch. Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs [Battle of the Sexes tennis match]. I remember watching it on the road.”

Today, women’s sports are so prevalent that at times education about the origins of athletic equity. During the Red Heads’ prime years, that was more of a dream than a reality.

Sjoquist said she doesn’t always speak to current Gophers players about her own athletic career, but from time to time there is a place for giving a little historical perspective.

“I don’t always bring it up because I think sometimes they may tire of hearing what it was like in the old days,” Sjoquist said. “But I do think it’s important that young women understand the history of women’s athletics and women’s basketball. It’s important to me.”

Saturday’s 40th anniversary is a prime stage to celebrate just that. Sjoquist will be on hand to take part in the festivities.

“It was one of those red letter days in history,” Sjoquist said. “I’ll be excited.”

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