The crowd stared down at the field, silent with anticipation. Pepper Kerwin had just slid to the base, and after the dust had settled a white diamond was revealed, directly under her feet. The umpire spread his arms out straight at his sides, hollered “Safe!” and the crowd roared. The Caterpillar Dieselettes had won their fifth Illinois State Softball Tournament in a row.
The Caterpillar Dieselettes are the oldest Amateur Softball Association team, and despite several changes in name, uniform and sponsorship, the spirit of the players remained unwavering. The Caterpillar Visitors Center launched a new exhibit on April 13, 2015—continuing through October 31—devoted to telling these women’s story of success in engaging a community around one of American’s favorite pastimes, exceeding everyone’s expectations along the way.
In 1936, the team was called the Caterpillar Girls in accordance with its sponsor, the Caterpillar Tractor Co. In their first game the Farrow Chix beat the Caterpillar Girls 10-12. It might not have seemed like a promising start; however, the Caterpillar Girls’ own Faye Heppard had hit the first homerun of the season.
A year later, the girls began to step up their game. They let their sliding bruises heal under their work dresses and headed to the field every Monday and Friday for practice. After two seasons of growing success and traveling with the men’s team, their prominence began to rise.
The Caterpillar Girls finished the 1939 season with a record of 11-6 and were defeated by the Farrow Chix in the regional tournament. It was their first glimpse of success, and they didn’t forget it.
The Caterpillar Girls transitioned into the Caterpillar Dieselettes in the middle of the 1940 season, mirroring the men’s team name, the Caterpillar Diesels. After they won their first Illinois State Softball Championship, their team song rang through the bus. Curious about the tune and the trophy? They’re displayed at the exhibit, along with gloves, warm-up jackets and signed team balls.
The Caterpillar Dieselettes continued to excel through their 1955 season. Then, their manager, Chuck McCord, called a team meeting at Pepper Kerwin’s mother’s house. The Dieselettes listened intently as McCord shared some disappointing news: Caterpillar had discontinued its sponsorship of the team. The good news? He was willing to continue with the team if that’s what they wanted. They were all good ball players, he insisted.
While hesitant at first but with McCord’s leadership, the team became the Sunnyland Lettes. As you walk through the Caterpillar Visitors Center exhibit, you can see the faded letters of “Caterpillar” and “Diesel” removed from their uniforms and jackets.
With the sponsorship gone, times became difficult for the Sunnyland Lettes. Their field needed attention; the Lettes were forced to remove rocks before practice and paint field signs. The ladies found, though, that once they were on the field and got back to practice everything went back to normal—including their propensity to win.
1956 was still a fairly successful season. Their record was 35-4, and they finished second in the West Central Regional in Indianapolis.
1958 was the last season for the Sunnyland Lettes. Their record was 26-10 and they captured the West Central Regional Title in Watseka, Illinois; their eighth Regional Championship in 12 years.
With the help of McCord, support from the Pekin mayor and encouragement from a local sports editor, the team moved to Pekin for a better facility and even more fan and community support.
In 1962, the Lettes had a rare opportunity to play the Japanese National Team. More than 10,000 spectators attended each night. The Lettes won both games, but the real victory came at a picnic afterward, where the players of both teams became fast friends.
1972 proved to be Chuck McCord’s last year as manager of the Pekin Lettes. As State Softball Commissioner, McCord simply had too many obligations. The Lettes continued as a strong team, but many of the players retired at the end of this season, marking the end of an era.
By providing the same opportunities to women as men through its athletic programs, Caterpillar proved that it was one of the most progressive companies of its time. These young ladies spent their early adulthood with a sponsor and a crowd cheering for them—on and off the field.