The City of Burbank may have recently lost a true pioneer in the fight for gender equality in sports in Barbara Rownd. But Rownd has certainly not been and will not be forgotten.
That was made evident Friday night when there was standing room only at softball diamond number four at George Izay Park, which is named for her, in a first pitch tribute that included her family.
Rownd died last month. She was 98.
A member of the Burbank Parks and Recreation department from 1950 to 1983 and a member of the Burbank Athletics Walk of Fame, Rownd will now have an award given to a seventh or eighth-grade softball player named in her honor at the Burbank Civitan Jamboree later this month.
“Well in advance of legislative measures, which now ensure equal opportunities for girls and women in sports, Barbara advocated for the creation of a new position within the department dedicated to the development of girls and women’s sports in the City of Burbank,” Parks and Recreation Supervisor Christine Rumfola told the crowd from the pitcher’s mound of the field named for Rownd in 1997. “Barbara’s impact on our community is immeasurable giving thousands of girls and women the opportunity to participate in competitive sports.”
Burbank Athletic Foundation Board Member Karen Sartoris also spoke of Rownd’s distinguished career.
In 1957, she founded the Ponytail Softball league, which was to become the national model for girls fastpitch softball programs. The first year she had six teams. The second year it moved up to 22 teams,” Sartoris said. “By 1980 when Barbara left the program, there were nearly 100 teams participating in the sport.”
Several players from the 1957 Braves, which featured future Olympic volleyball player Linda Murphy, as well as Jane Widdershiem, Diana Hoffman and Lorraine Faiola were on hand for the ceremony.
“She put people on teams and sent us a schedule and it said at the top what team we were on and our name and then we got together and we played,” Widdersheim recalled. “There really wasn’t anything for us (girls). Summer came along and even during the school year there was nothing at school. One picture of our team when we took our team picture we had our gym t-shirts on that had our name embroidered and that was the uniform. It has changed so much. When we talk to people now, after Title IX and everything girls don’t understand that there weren’t any opportunities at that time.”
Maggie Dreyer Hall said she was too old to play in the league, but she still came to support friends and was later recruited by Rownd.
“She came up to me one night after a game and said ‘We’ve got a really good man that is coaching this team but senior management is concerned that there should be a female presence in the dugout, so would you be the manager of this team,’” said Dreyer Hall, who would later spend many years coaching.
Bunki Lego, Rownd’s daughter, traveled from Texas with her husband for the event.
“This is so beautiful what they are doing here. I grew up with the first team. I grew up here, so I’ve known all along that she’s been special to a lot of people,” Lego said. “I’ve gotten a lot of calls and a lot of messages and texts. It is very comforting to feel that so many people loved her so much.”
Rownd’s granddaughter Erika Wunch, who threw out the first pitch, lived with her grandmother in her final years.
“This would make her so happy and so honored. The city has taken as good of care of her as she did of the city,” Wunch said. “It’s really nice to see. It’s like that small-town feel and family-style feel that is just wonderful. I can’t tell you how many times she said to me ‘I’m so happy they did that while I was alive so I could enjoy it’. We used to take her here all the time and take pictures with her in front of the field and every time she was beaming like the first time she had ever seen it. She was an incredible lady. I feel very proud to be her granddaughter. At the end of the day, it is part of life which is a very sad part of it, but she went out with honor.”
In addition to being part of the inaugural class of the Burbank Athletics Walk of Fame in 2004, Rownd was also honored in 1977 by receiving the Merit Award from the Southern California Municipal Athletic Federation.