Through changes, challenges, Stratford Brakettes have led softball world for 75 years

It was the recognition that Kathy Arendsen remembers.

People in Stratford knew her. During her pitching career and years later, they’d see her, recognize her, greet her fondly.

She was a pitcher from Michigan who played for an amateur softball team in Connecticut.

“In women’s sports, especially in team sports,” said Arendsen, a Brakette from 1978 to 1992, “that wasn’t exactly normal.”

Neither, really, are the Stratford Brakettes, who cap their 75th season this weekend at the Women’s Major Softball National Championship at DeLuca Field in Stratford. They’re seeking their 39th national title of one form or another since they won their first in 1958.

“To this area, (the team) meant a lot,” Brakettes legend Joan Joyce said. “Maybe not as much right now as it did years ago. It was the No. 1 attraction in the Stratford area. It was THE attraction, with the men’s and women’s teams here.”

Their story ranges from a time well before Title IX, a time when a team playing next door to a brake plant could become a powerhouse, and encompasses some of the best softball players — best athletes — ever. They have borne the stresses of changes to the landscape of sports, economics and culture over those 75 years, sometimes just barely. But they’re still going.

“I remember being in college, even in high school, and going from Long Island up to watch nationals in Stratford,” said former pitcher Danielle Henderson, whose first Brakette season was 1997. “You had the (California) Commotion, the Brakettes, the (Redding, Calif.) Rebels, all the best teams playing there, future Olympians.

“Then going into college, being able to play travel (ball), I started playing against the Brakettes. Johnny (Stratton, the team’s longtime manager) saw me and asked if I’d play for him. It meant a lot, being able to play for a program with such a great history.”

The Brakettes have given softball players all across the state of Connecticut and the country the chance to play the sport at one of its highest levels.

“It’s always been like a cool thing, if you’re from Connecticut you wanted to play on the Brakettes,” first-year Brakette Jana Sanden said. “It was always something like, ‘Oh my God, the Brakettes,’ and I always wanted to see them and then just to actually be able to be one, it’s like really amazing. I’m really honored.”

While professional outlets for softball remain limited, the Brakettes have created a summer outlet for players to continue their passion playing the sport after collegiate eligibility runs out and balancing year-round travel teams with full-time jobs becomes too much to manage.

However, being a Brakette has never just been about playing softball. It’s always been something more meaningful than winning national championships.

“I just feel like it’s like a family. All the people come back and once you’re a Brakette, you’re always a Brakette,” current Brakette pitcher Ali DuBois of Torrington said. “It’s just like I couldn’t imagine my life without softball right now. I’m not ready to give it up and I feel like this space is probably the best place to play. It’s just so much fun with everybody.”

The Brakettes boast an expected level of greatness through talent on the field and historic records. Whether a player is just starting their collegiate career and playing in Stratford during the summers or is a few years removed from playing year-round, the standard of greatness is consistent throughout each player at every position.

“I think it is the history, but when you play for this team, No. 1: You’re good or else you wouldn’t be on the team. So we try to gather up the best players around, and when you wear this jersey you should be performing at your best,” said current Brakette Valerie Suto, who’s played on the team for the past seven seasons.

“There’s an expectation that if you’re on this team, you play at a certain level. Just knowing that and also knowing for me that everyone on this team has the ability to do something great, it’s easier to play with a group like that.”

NATIONAL POWERS

The Raybestos Girls All-Stars debuted in 1947 and went 16-4, founded by Raybestos’ personnel director, Bill Simpson. A year later, the same year the Raybestos Cardinals men’s fastpitch team began and the Girls All-Stars became the Raybestos Brakettes, Joe Barber joined the company, soon beginning 50 years in softball.

Successful at several local levels for their first decade, the Brakettes picked up Joan Joyce, a teenager from Waterbury, in 1955. They had a new battery in 1956, veteran California pitcher Bertha Tickey and a catcher from the Wallingford Owlettes named Rosemary “Micki” Macchietto.

“Well, (Tickey) gave them legitimacy,” longtime Brakettes general manager Bob Baird said. “She was Ageless Wonder. She came out of retirement when she was 60-something,”

Two years later, they were national champions for the first time. A few years after that, the catcher, by then Micki Stratton, became the team’s first Hall of Famer. Joyce, a standout in several sports, became a softball legend and eventually a pro golfer.

And the team’s mystique grew. Beginning with the ‘58 title, they won 23 of 35 ASA women’s majors fastpitch championships. Four times in that stretch they represented the United States at ISF Worlds, and three times they won. Over 10,000 people might attend the national or world tournaments on a given day at Raybestos Memorial Field.

“I saw the Brakettes play when I was 12,” Arendsen said, “and it was the first time I went ‘oh my God, there’s something girls can do.’ I always looked at Major League Baseball. ‘I’ve somehow got to be in baseball if I want to be an athlete.’

“Then I spent 15 years in Stratford with some of the greatest players and coaches of all time.”

Raybestos’ financial support ended, the first time, in 1985 after the plant closed. Baird said his first decision as general manager, taking over from Barber in 1988, was to move from Raybestos Memorial Field, at least part of which at the time might’ve been developed into a shopping center, to the field that’s now known as Frank DeLuca Hall of Fame Field.

“So, automatically I do it, I’m a bum because, knock off the history,” said Baird, whose sarcasm is almost as legendary as the team. “A lot of people didn’t come down here. I guess they’re afraid of the South End or something, you know, guys like me down here.”

(As it turned out, the Raybestos legacy includes contaminants at several sites through town, including the field, which sat overgrown with trees and plants for decades before recent cleanup work began to clear the site.)

With Francis D’Addario as a new sponsor, the team became the Hi-Ho Brakettes. But D’Addario died in a plane crash in 1986, and the family dropped the team’s sponsorship during the 1990 season; Raybestos stepped back in to get the team to nationals in California.

“We couldn’t even go out on the same flight together because it was so late,” Baird said.

Raybestos’ second sponsorship ended in 1995. David Carpenter of Westport — “great human being. There wasn’t a nasty bone in his body,” Baird said — sponsored the team quietly until he died in 2007. Then Pat Sanders, father of Brakettes pitcher Bailey, even more quietly was a major sponsor for several years after that. They’ve made it work without a major sponsor since.

“There’s so many times I didn’t think it was going to make it through there,” Baird said.

“And then we found out that there’s so much support. We have so many friends out there, softball people … different people every year step up, we never know from year to year. We’ve had some wonderful people this year.”

CHANGING SCENE

Majors fastpitch softball might’ve been the top of the pyramid in the 1960s, but more opportunities changed the shape of the game in countless ways the next few decades.

Pro leagues siphoned top talent. (The Brakettes dabbled in one such league in 2006, but only for that year.) College softball got NCAA sanction and improved in leaps.

And when softball got into the Olympic Games in time for 1996, a national team took even more of the time of the top players and more resources from USA Softball.

“Those people that represent a team, that was the most important thing,” Baird said. “There were people that led the team, the (Barbara) Reinaldas, they were not gonna let anybody get out of line and do anything to diminish the game, tarnish the reputation of ‘Raybestos’ across that jersey. That meant everything to them. A lot of those kids deserved to be in the Olympics, but they’re just born too (early).”

Fed up with ASA decisions up to and including the 2008 national tournament, Baird and the Brakettes began the WMS tournament in 2009. There hasn’t been an ASA majors fastpitch championship since.

The year Arendsen debuted in Stratford, the ASA tournament included 21 teams from 19 different states. In Henderson’s first tournament, 23 teams took part from 12 states. By 2008, the tournament was down to 13 teams from six states.

“Even when I started playing there were still more teams at Nationals,” said Henderson, recently named softball coach at her alma mater, UMass, after a stint at UMass Lowell.

“There were teams from Pennsylvania, Illinois, California, a lot of teams all over. I’m not sure why you don’t see as many people playing in college as you used to. I thought it was great, going up against great players.”

This year’s WMS tournament has 11 teams, only three of them from outside Connecticut. Three are under the Brakettes’ own umbrella.

“I would love to see amateur fastpitch grow,” Arendsen said. “Many of us had multiple options. I could’ve played in Michigan, California. But I got to play for the best.

“I’ll take any chance to say to the community, thank you,” Arendsen added, for “the support they gave to each of us and what that meant.”