For Wilma Abrams Swenson, 91 of Grantsville, her life’s work has encompassed four things — faith, heartache, family success and finding joy in playing softball. Last year, for her career 50 no-hitter games, she was named to the athlete hall of fame at Salt Lake’s Little America Hotel .
The Grantsville Softball League further honored legendary Swenson, allowing her to throw out last season’s first pitch. She did not disappoint. Swenson demonstrated her lifelong talent for pitching. Her ball hit the strike zone.
Of that pitch, she said she prayed to have one last wing cross the plate and wow the crowd. And it did.
Growing up in Cache Valley, Swenson learned early to work hard. The seventh of 10 children, she felt comfortable outdoors, working beside her father.
By age 13, Swenson was strong enough to lift heavy filled mesh bags and she would nail together 500 egg crates a week, further building her strength.
Swenson not only worked hard on the farm, but she also applied that work ethic to softball. She put a target on her back porch and would throw one ball, the only one she owned, over and over at that target.
Her mother hated the sound. In fact, she insisted instead that Swenson pitch at a haystack in the yard.
Softball was a family sport, but not everyone in the family excelled at it.
At one game, Swenson and two of her sisters were playing on the same team. Her least athletic sister played right field and hardly ever caught the ball. But, this game that sister’s luck turned with a little help from both Swenson and her mother.
It was the last out their team needed. When the batter hit the ball to right field, miraculously, Swenson’s sister snagged it. They won the game.
Swenson said, “My mom came up to me afterwards and asked if I had ‘prayed that my sister would catch the ball?’ I told her I had. Then I asked if she prayed that my sister would catch the ball? She had, [too].”
Although Swenson found success with softball, she said she never had a desire to switch to baseball..
During Swenson’s heyday, women’s softball took a prominent role. With WWII, men’s pro baseball league had come to a standstill. The movie “A League of Their Own” is based on these events, where a real-life All American girls pro baseball league grew. Like the women featured in this movie, Swenson was offered a contract to go and play, but she wasn’t interested.
“I wanted to play softball where you throw underneath, not play hardball,” explained Swenson.
She recalls that her career began at Hill Air Force Base in 1943, where she set a home run and strikeout record. They trained hard for games. They also sewed their own uniforms and played without helmets.
For years, her team’s rivals were the Salt Lake Shamrocks. Swenson would lead her Air Force team to defeat the Shamrocks. However, later, she actually joined the Shamrocks and, like the team’s mascot, they were lucky to have her.
In 1952, Swenson went to play pro for the Chicago Belles. There she was named Rookie of the Year and fans picked her to the All-Star team. That All-Star team battled out the championship game with the past year’s champions.
“I did pretty dang good. It sounds like I’m bragging, but I’m honestly telling the truth.” She exclaimed, “And, oh, it’s such a nice truth.”
Unfortunately, Swenson’s Belles would lose that All-Star Game, but not due to her pitching. The team’s success, however, would depend on her relationship with the coach. It turns out that her coach told her to walk the same batter all three times the batter was up to bat.
At this command, Swenson recalls that she shook her head and mumbled at him beneath her breath. She had never walked anyone on purpose. Nonetheless, she followed his order — the first two times.
After feeling upset and frustrated, Swenson decided not to listen to her coach the third time. Instead, she pitched a ball into the batter’s strike zone. With this mistake, the batter launched the ball into the bleachers.
“That taught me how to lose,” she said. “I didn’t lose very many ball games. I didn’t let the batter do that again because I was much more careful where to put the ball.”
Despite losing the All-Star Game, her season, as a whole, had been a success. Swenson did something nobody had accomplished in her sport — she had pitched a doubleheader and won both games.
And, after some rough years in Utah, Swenson found softball success in Chicago. Many people had told Swenson she was just a kid. Her mother leaned the other way and encouraged her to go. It paid off.
“Wilma, if you want to try it,” Nettie Swenson had said, “try it and give it your best.”
In Chicago, after pitching those back-to-back wins, Swenson was nicknamed “Iron Arm.” Following the All-Star game,she played in the world championship. There, she pitched nine games in seven days.
Though her pitching was stellar, her team lost the championship.
It was hard to come in second place. She said, many of the players cried on the bus ride home because the championship was so close.
Over the years, Swenson upped her pitching game, perfecting an arsenal of throws and learning to think like a pitcher.
“I found that no matter how fast you get, someone can always hit a fastball. If they hit a fast ball it will go farther than hitting a slow ball,” Swenson said.
For 11 years, Swenson pitched for the prestigious Salt Lake Shamrocks. Over time, though, pitching became trickier. One game, when Swenson was expecting her first child, a batter returned her pitch straight back to Swenson’s stomach. She snagged that bullet, but her outfielders were sure iit hit her stomach.
They were concerned for her. After telling them she was fine, she continued to pitch.
Eventually, Swenson retired. She said she knew it was time when her husband told her, “You can either play house or play ball.”
Then, Swenson shifted her focus to raising her five children, but dreams about her softball days were never far from her thoughts.
In 1999, Sports Illustrated honored Swenson, naming her as one of the 50 greatest sports figures from Utah. Since retiring, she has also been presented numerous other certificates of accomplishment for her play.
Because Swenson never played in the age of technology, we will never know just how fast she pitched. Swenson estimates her underhand throw was 85 mph.
Softball has always been so important to Swenson. She jokes that she’ll be buried with her glove and start a softball team in Heaven.
As important as this game has been, though, throughout her life she said she has also lived her LDS religion, especially while playing the game she loved. She believes her integrity radiated outward and contributed to her success both on and off the field.
“It pleases me that I went as far as I could go with softball,” Swenson said.
Swenson’s name will remembered both as one of the greatest women’s softball players who played not just in Utah, but in the U.S. She has proved that with hard work, perseverance and integrity, overcoming obstacles can create 90-plus-year life worth remembering. Her life goals definitely hit the strike zone.