Tom Archdeacon: Softball legend Ruby Wise ‘never knew a stranger’

As they prepare to lay Ruby Wise to rest Thursday, I find myself thinking back to the afternoon several years ago when I went to find out just what made Ruby run.

She already was into her 70s when we met in her small place in Kettering. Out back was her flower garden full of larkspur, buttercups, nasturtium and coral bells. Next to a chair in the living room was a plastic bag stuffed full of ribbons, pins and medals from the Senior Olympics.

On the table was her old fast pitch ball glove and a 1946 letter requesting her to come to Chicago to play professional ball.

“Truth is, I can’t knit. Can’t crochet and don’t bake much either,” Ruby chuckled. “And I sure don’t like to iron.

“The problem is that all that stuff requires you to sit or stand pretty still and I got to be on the move.”

And move she did, especially when she got on the base paths.

The day we talked Ruby still was an integral part of a local seniors team, the Ohio Cardinals, that regularly was winning games all across the United States and Canada. A part-time outfielder, she was often used as a pinch runner.

“She’s a real plus for us on the bases,” manager Cliff Gunter said at the time. “She’s still pretty quick and knows how to handle herself out there. Believe me, Ruby knows when to run.”

Ruby would go on to play well into her 80s and further cement her legend as the most decorated women’s softball player from the Miami Valley.

In 2006, she was inducted into the National Senior Softball Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. Prior to that she had been enshrined in several local and state softball and Senior Olympics Halls of Fame.

Her career had taken off 70 years before her national induction, in 1936, when she and her sister Louise were recruited to play for a women’s fast-pitch team that represented Westwood Park, which was near her Clarkston Street home in West Dayton.

The team was sponsored first by Utz’s Beauty Shop on Hoover and then Ray’s Clothiers, for whom she wore a blue gabardine uniform and white bucks she kept powdering so they stayed white.

Images like that and the old stories that accompanied them made her seem plucked straight out of the much-acclaimed movie “A League of Their Own,” which starred Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna and Lori Petty.

It told the story of a fictional women’s baseball team that drew big crowds throughout the Midwest during World War II.

Although the most famous line in that movie — said by manager Jimmy Dugan, played by Hanks — was “There’s no crying in baseball,” Ruby admitted the tears flowed when she watched and re-watched the movie:

“I cried. It shook me up, but it thrilled me, too. It brought everything back to life for me. Our park was wooden like that. The dugouts were the same. … I remember those war-time feelings. I remember everything from back then.

“All the guys were in the service and when it came to sports here, we were the stars of the show. People were interested in us. They paid 10 cents to get in to see us play at out ballpark on Western (Ave.)

“The local newspapers used to run big stories and pictures of us. They even had a reporter that traveled with us on the road. Our games were broadcast on the radio up in Lima and over in Peoria, Illinois.

“Although gas and tires were rationed back then, we could travel on the trains with the troops because we were considered entertainment.”

All those tales are part of the tapestry of one of the pioneer sportswomen of our area, but they don’t tell the whole story.

Bev Ishmael, Ruby’s longtime friend and recent caregiver, will tell another side of Ruby on Thursday when she delivers her eulogy. I know some of what she’s going to say because I heard her practice it the other evening.

It was heartfelt and it was perfect. And it presents a strong case for yet another Hall of Fame enshrinement for her.

Ruby died last Friday at age 95. She is survived by her son Gary and many nieces and nephews and other family members.

Her funeral service will be Thursday at 1 p.m. at the Tobias Funeral Home Belmont Chapel at 648 Watervliet Ave. It will be preceded by a two-hour viewing beginning at 11 a.m.

“Here are some of the things that impressed me the most about Ruby,” Ishmael began her reminiscence. “Here’s what I liked about her.

“She had a good heart and she showed me that in the ways she would reach out to people, especially people that were sick, lonely or needed a helping hand.

“She never knew a stranger. She had fun with people. When people came to visit the home here, they’d get ready to leave and she’d always want to give them something, if it be an apple, an orange, candy or even popcorn. She loved to pop popcorn.

“She loved to plant flowers. She loved the American flag. She loved to go to the cemeteries to pay respects to her family and to plant flowers.”

Ishmael then mentioned some of the associations Ruby had belonged to and said: “That told me what kind of person she was.

“Years ago there was one called The Sunshine Society, where they would send cards to the sick, lonely and depressed. And here is their motto:

“ ‘Have you had a kindness shone? Pass it on. Twas not given for you alone. Pass it on….”

Ishmael also remembered how Ruby “helped out at the (annual) Thanksgiving Dinner at the Downtown Dayton Convention (Center).

“She wanted to help people who could not afford a nice meal or had no family to be with. Her heart was there. She wanted to be a part of that.

“I’m sure, if they have a Hall of Fame in heaven, she will be inducted.”

Ishamel grew quiet a second as she settled her emotions and collected her thoughts.

“I hope that works,” she said quietly. “I hope I can relay to people just how good she was. I really hope I can get that across.”

She just did.

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