November 27: The First Female Pro Basketball Player

PennyAnnEarlyWho was the first woman to play professional basketball? Her name was Penny Ann Early, and she was also the first woman to become licensed in the United States as a horse racing jockey. It was exactly 45 years ago today that Early took the court.

It all began when Early became an officially licensed jockey in 1968. Early on in her career, she was scheduled to ride in three races at Churchill Downs. However, the male jockeys who were supposed to compete against Early unanimously voted to not participate in those races. Preumably, these jockeys thought that they might get cooties form racing against a girl.

This injustice caught the attention of the press, and so the the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association decided to jump on the opportunity for some publicity. The young ABA was struggling for attention, so what better way to draw eyeballs to to the league than by announcing that the Colonels had signed the first woman to play professional basketball? Yes, the Colonels ownership not only signed Early to a contract,  but also ordered coach Gene Rhodes to play Early in a game.

On November, 27, 1968, Early joined her fellow Colonels on the court as they prepared to take on the Los Angeles Stars. Early was instantly recognizable when standing next to her teammates. For one thing, at 5′ 3″ she was the shortest person to ever play professional basketball. Second, she wore a uniform that was quite different. While the other players wore a standard basketball uniform, Early sported a miniskirt and a turtleneck sweater with the number 3 (a reference to the three races at Churchill Downs) on the back. During a time out in the early minutes of the match, Coach Rhodes put Early into the game so she could inbound the ball to one of her teammates. Soon after, Rhodes called another time out and pulled Early from the game, earning her a standing ovation and a lifetime membership to Club Tril. Early would sign many autographs after the game, and would continue to try to make it as a jockey. Unfortunately, her career was cut short in 1974 when she fell off her horse during a race and broke many bones. Today, she continues to work with horses as a trainer.

So, Penny Ann Early was the first woman to get paid to appear in a professional basketball game, although not exactly the first woman to actively play professionally. Let’s toast the team that is responsible for this little nugget of trivia with a Kentucky Colonel cocktail. It’s a nice, strong cocktail and a simple blend of bourbon and Benedictine.

Kentucky Colonel

  • 2 ounces Bourbon
  • 1/2 ounce Benedictine

Shake with ice and strain into an Old Fashioned glass with ice. Garnish with a lemon peel.

Tomorrow: “Hello USA. Call Vanderbilt 7200.”

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