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Texas USA

Undisputed Champions

Photo heralds Mingus girls’ prowess, but details have been lost to time

For most of its history, the North Texas town of Mingus in Palo Pinto County was famous, or infamous, for bare-fisted barroom brawls in its cluster of whisky joints that were the only establishments of their kind within an hour’s drive in any direction. In some cases, that hour’s drive was a pedal-to-the-metal escape in full flight. As one Texas newspaper suggested in 1975, “Mingus holds a place dear to the hearts of cowboys with broken noses and oil field roughnecks with missing teeth.”

In those days it was an ill-advised stop to wet your whistle if you weren’t a bona fide scrapper, and many of the scrappiest bona fides got broken-bone humbled. The population of the small town increased dramatically with the population in the bars every Saturday night. And the local jail, located in nearby Strawn, filled to capacity almost as quickly. Mingus was known far and wide and across the country as one of the meanest towns in Texas, and, like Luckenbach or Gruene, it enjoyed mythical allure in long-neck-bottled Lone Star lore.

But fisticuffs weren’t the only game in Mingus, and cowboys and roughnecks weren’t the only scrappers.

The community no longer supports a school—local children attend the Gordon Independent School District, located just five minutes east on State Highway 193—but if you walk through the Mingus City Hall or Gordon High School gymnasium, an 89-year-old photograph of the 1926 Mingus girls basketball squad is likely to draw your attention. The image features seven teenage girls with flapper haircuts, knee socks and uniforms with bloomers. One holds a basketball with “M.H.S. 26” written on it, and three others hold up a pennant.

The caption below the photograph reads “1926 State Championship Mingus Girls Basketball Team” and features Marie Biondini Scopel, Delores Krajcar Raffaele, Vera Kenney Hanks, Eda Tiblets Bertino, Juanita Viean Green, Elizabeth Hare Jackson and Dottie Marine Shultz. Cursory literature on the team indicates that, at a time when public high school athletic competition classifications were not based on the size of the school’s enrollment, this Mingus team beat a Houston squad to claim the state crown.

Nonagenarian Leo S. Bielinski, a passionate proponent for the creation of Tarleton State University’s W.K. Gordon Center for Industrial History of Texas and an acknowledged expert on area history, says that during those years, the Mingus girls contested all takers, playing local high school, college and semipro teams. Their opponents often were sponsored by commercial enterprises such as Nehi Bottling Company. “They played against legends like Babe Didrikson [Zaharias],” Bielinski says, “but local townsfolk drove [the basketball team] around for the games.”

Though the members of the 1926 team have all passed on, Bielinski knew a few of them and noted their modesty. “They didn’t brag about it or anything,” he says. “It was just something they did.” Some of the girls on the 1926 Mingus team were recruited to play at bigger high schools, and some went on to play on semipro teams.

The University Interscholastic League (formed to provide leadership and guidance to public school academic and athletic competitions) began organizing boys athletic championships at the state level in 1921 but didn’t get involved in girls sports until 1951. During the 1920s, the high school girls basketball competition was loosely organized and generally unofficial, but the American Athletic Union did hold state high school basketball tournaments dating back to 1925.

In the AAU’s 1926 tournament (in which the Mingus High School girls team might not have participated), Breckenridge won the championship, and Cisco was named runner-up. In 1927, the Mingus girls finished in the top five in the AAU tourney. In 1929, they placed third behind Breckenridge and Cisco (cities many times larger than Mingus at the time); and, in 1931, they were runners-up to Dimmitt.

Seventy years after the 1926 Mingus girls won their state championship in basketball, the 1996 Gordon boys won a state championship in six-man football and then repeated the feat again in 1999.

“Folks around here still have a deep-rooted competitive spirit,” says Gordon High School principal (and alumna) Holly Campbell. “We’re aware of who came before us and what they accomplished, and we try to remember that when we compete. And like that 1926 girls team, we still look at ourselves as underdogs.”

There are no records left to verify the 1926 Mingus girls’ high school basketball state championship in another league or tournament, so official recognition of their championship basketball season cannot be substantiated; but it’s clear the community was home to a 1920s-era, girls hoops dynasty, and the 1926 squad presumably started the trend.

And considering Mingus’ fabled reputation for melees, attempts at disputing the accomplishments of the teenage basketball stars in the 1926 photograph might get you a knuckle sandwich.

E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo.