As avid fans of all the sports that men and women play, and regular readers of the obituary columns, we couldn’t help noticing the passing of Marilynn Smith at the age of 89. Although you might not have ever heard of her, she was a far better golfer than you’re likely to ever be, one of the barrier-crashing pioneers of women sports, and a fellow Wichitan as well, so we mourn her passing.
While growing up in Wichita, where local sports culture has long celebrated and cultivated the athletic talents of both of its boys and girls, Smith became known as the most fearsome pitcher in an otherwise all-boy Little League. By the time she was 12 she had an ambition to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals, then the closest Major League franchise to Wichita, but after a bad game she was forced to switch sports.
“I had taken off my mitt, thrown it against the wall and said a four-letter word beginning with ‘S’,” she recalled to the hometown paper back in 2006. “My mother marched me right into the lavatory and washed my mouth out with Lifebuoy soap, and my dad said they had better take me to Wichita Country Club and teach me a more ladylike sport.”
Smith didn’t immediately take to the sport of golf, as she considered it too sissified, but she had a knack for it. After a short while her father gave her a bicycle as a reward for playing the front nine in less than 40 strokes, and she then pedaled her way to enough lessons to win three state titles before she went off to the University of Kansas. KU didn’t have a women’s golf team back then, and despite its lucrative basketball business the sports department declined to pay for her travel to the collegiate championships, but in ’49 her dad drove her to the tournament and she won first place, a national championship which KU still probably brags about.
After that Smith turned pro, which turned out surprisingly well for her. There was no organized professional women’s golf at the time, just the occasional prize money tournament and stakes matches, but by the summer of 1950 Smith and a dozen of the other top women golfers joined together for the inaugural tournament of the Ladies Professional Golf Association right here in Wichita.
The first several seasons of the LPGA tour were dominated by Babe Didrikson Zaharias, who had previously been the best woman basketball player and track-and-field competitor and baseball pitcher and all-around greatest female athlete on the planet, and is still the most barrier-breaking sportswoman of them all, but Smith got her licks in. She won 21 times on the tour, shot a then-record 66 on a tough course, and in 1973 she became the first woman to do televised commentary on a men’s professional golf tournament. Way back in ’50 she was making $5,000 a year from the Spalding sporting goods company, those 21 tournament wins and numerous top-five finishes also paid off pretty well by the standards of the day, and she had a founder’s stake in in theLPGA, and was the longtime commissioner of it during its formative years, and it’s still a worth-watching and very prosperous sports league.
Smith somehow made a pretty good living for herself from the sissified game of golf for 89 years, most of it right here in surprisingly pleasant Wichita, and we’re glad she did. These days all sorts of interesting women are making a living and a cultural mark in American sports, and our homegirl Marilynn Smith surely had something to do with that.
— Bud Norman