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New exhibit: Dieselettes get their turn to shine

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To Pepper Kerwin, her career in softball seemed like it was broken up into bits and pieces. Seeing it all brought together in one exhibit made it quite a different story.

“Oh, this is something. I am thrilled by it. We all are,” said Kerwin, whose given name is Irene. “I’m so glad Caterpillar did this.”

Kerwin, 89, was referring to the newest exhibit that opened Monday at the Caterpillar Visitors Center in downtown Peoria. Called “Caterpillar Dieselettes: The Girls of Summer,” the exhibit follows the women’s softball team the company established in 1936 and still exists today as the Pekin Lettes, though no longer sponsored by Caterpillar.

“It is the longest consecutively-running women’s softball team in the world,” declared Kathryn Karol, Caterpillar vice president for global governmental and corporate affairs.

The exhibit consists of seven display cases filled with memorabilia, including uniforms, mitts, balls, pennants and such, and more than 400 photographs. There also is a film that details the teams that won more than 12 state softball championships.

Kerwin, who played for the Dieselettes for 22 years, with a six-year stint as a professional player for the Peoria Redwings baseball team in the middle, was joined by many other former players, including local sports and coaching legend Lorene Ramsey, to open the exhibit during a ceremony Monday at the Visitors Center.

The exhibit was nearly a year in the making and will be open for six months, said Katheryn Spitznagle, manager of the Visitors Center. “What an honor it has been for us to get to know you and your families. We are so grateful to you for sharing your memories with us,” Spitznagle said in welcoming the former players to the exhibit.

The team started as the Caterpillar Girls before changing the name to the Dieselettes in 1940. That also was the year the company started recruiting players, much like it had with the Caterpillar Diesels mens basketball teams. These players, the youngest only 15, worked in different areas of the company during the day and played ball in the evening. After retiring from the game, they had long careers at Caterpillar.

That youngest player of 15, by the way, had a pretty well-known central Illinois name, as well. It was Carolyn Thome, who went on to be elected to the Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame.

“At a time when women weren’t always given the chance to play sports, Caterpillar offered them a great place to play softball and have a great career. These women were champions on and off the field,” Spitznagle said.

After Caterpillar’s sponsorship ended in 1956, the team continued on, first as the Sunnyland Lettes and then the Pekin Lettes, which they still go by today. They play at Mineral Springs Park in Pekin. In 2005 the team itself was inducted into the Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame.

The team played across the country and drew thousands of spectators during the later 1950s and early 1960s. In 1963 the team set an ASA attendance record that still stands, with 122,000 spectators for 21 games.

Besides Kerwin, Amy Applegren played professionally for the Rockford Peaches, a team made famous in the movie “A League of Their Own.”

The exhibit includes information about Chuck McCord, the legendary coach of the Dieselettes who vowed to stay one season when he was hired in 1947 and stayed 25 years. There are team jackets and trophies from various eras, including from the powerhouse teams of the 50s and 60s. The 1951 team, for example, won 29 consecutive games.

There is memorabilia from when the Pekin Lettes hosted the Japanese National team in 1962. Both games drew more than 10,000 fans and the Lettes won both. Other items from the Pekin teams include scrapbooks, a book about the game co-written by McCord, and Lorene Ramsey’s ASA Hall of Fame ring.

“The women who plated on the Caterpillar softball team laid the foundation for many women today in central Illinois,” Spitznagle said. “Caterpillar’s players inspired future generations of fast-pitch, competitive softball players. We’re thrilled to be able to honor their contributions to both the sports and their careers with this exhibit.”

The exhibit will be in place through the end of October. The Caterpillar Visitors Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is $7; $6 for seniors over 55, veterans and active military. Children under 12 are admitted free.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).