She was a six-time National All-Star and won recognition as her team’s most valuable player. Softball Hall of Famer Kay Rich, who played shortstop on The Fresno Rockets softball team in the late 1940s and ’50s, was a superstar in the eyes of her former teammates.
The adoration goes beyond Ms. Rich’s athleticism.
“She was just a very fine person, well-liked by all, easy to be around,” said Jeanne Contel, 89. “But she was a tremendous athlete – a superstar – and I know that my teammates would agree with that statement, all of them, you bet.”
Ms. Rich died July 1. She was 93.
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Contel recounted Ms. Rich’s softball career at her Clovis home recently, where she was immersed in trophies, plaques and softball-related newspaper clips. And there were scrapbooks containing proof of Ms. Rich’s accomplishments next to a Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame book. Ms. Rich is honored on page 72.
Contel said that Ms. Rich was “probably the best athlete playing softball.” Ms. Rich “just had it all,” she added.
“She just literally would glide for the ball,” Contel remembers. Ms. Rich moved gracefully on the field, and it inspired her teammates. Everyone wanted to play like her.
Ms. Rich’s softball career lasted 20 years, including about 14 playing for the undefeated, three-time world champion Rockets.
She was just a very fine person, well-liked by all, easy to be around. But she was a tremendous athlete – a superstar.
Jeanne Contel, friend and former softball teammate of Hall of Famer Kay Rich
Ms. Rich was inducted into the national amateur softball Hall of Fame in 1963. At a surprise celebration dinner organized in 1963 by Contel, Ms. Rich claimed she had not seen or played a softball game since 1959, the year she retired, and that she wanted to make sure it was fully out of her system before she watched another game. It didn’t mean she didn’t love the sport.
“I loved it so much, I (didn’t) want to get the bug to return,” she later explained.
The Rockets opened doors for women to play softball when their options were limited, and Ms. Rich pioneered excellence for the team. She was the first member of The Rockets and the sixth woman to be nationally recognized in the Hall of Fame.
“We were thrilled to death for her,” Contel said.
When she was celebrated at the dinner on March 23, 1963, Ms. Rich stated, “I have been Rich all my life, and softball has given me most of my wealth.”
That same day, Contel on behalf of the Fresno mayor gave Ms. Rich a proclamation that named March 22 “Kay Rich Day” in the city. She also got a framed letter of appreciation from then-governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown. Two years later, Ms. Rich was inducted into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame.
To stay on the national Hall of Fame, inductees were not allowed to play the game for five years after they were honored. Ms. Rich kept that promise and focused on teaching physical education, which she had taught even during her softball career.
Ms. Rich became director of girls’ athletics for the Catholic Youth Organization in September 1947. Her job was to handle all girls’ sporting activities at Fresno Catholic schools. When an opportunity arose to act in Hollywood, Ms. Rich turned it down to continue her teaching job.
Fresno Bee archives report Ms. Rich was asked to play the role of Babe Didrikson Zaharias in a motion picture biography. Didrikson won two gold medals in track and field at the 1932 Olympics and returned to become a world champion golfer. Ms. Rich told The Bee in 1956 that she’d be “thrilled to play in a movie of ‘The Babe’ because of my admiration for her.”
But she didn’t. The reason could best be described as classic Ms. Rich.
“She would have been a good match,” Contel said. But, “I don’t think that was important to her. She put teaching before anything.”
Ms. Rich continued to coordinate girls’ recreation programs for Fresno’s Catholic schools.
Her students appreciated her. Some later would visit her when she moved to Volcano, a Sierra hamlet east of Sacramento, where she lived more than 30 years.
“The kids adored her,” Contel said. “They really appreciated her.”
Laura Randall, Ms. Rich’s niece, said her aunt loved children. If there were children near her, Ms. Rich always took time to be with them.
Ms. Rich, who never married, had no children of her own.
“It was always fun with Aunt Kay,” Randall said. “She was an aunt, I think aunts do that.”
Like the “star” of the family, Randall said Ms. Rich taught everyone the value of being the best person possible – even on the field. Randall said she knew her aunt “brought fair play and good manners.”
“As a teacher, she carried that model to her students,” Randall added. Ms. Rich stopped teaching after 34 years. She also taught at Clovis Unified School District and at Fresno State.
“She was, among other things, a modest person,” Randall said. “We’re all feeling the loss. She was such an amazing human being.”
Ms. Rich never liked to talk about herself. Although it was evident she was a good player, she wasn’t a “showboat,” Contel said. Instead, her devotion was always to helping others.
Contel last saw Ms. Rich at The Rockets’ 70th reunion in 2016 at the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame. And for nearly the last 10 years, some of the women players would meet the day after the annual Hall of Fame dinner at the home of former player Rose Williamson. By all reports, every reunion the team held was a fun time – no matter how many or few of them could be there.
“She was one of the best players. Or in my words, she was the best,” Williamson said. She said some of the teammates are planning another reunion in Fresno soon to remember the Hall of Famer.
Most recently, Ms. Rich’s friends would visit her at a rehab center in Lodi. Early dementia challenged Ms. Rich, who could recognize faces but not recall names, her niece said. The team worked around it, and still had good laughs.
“There was a lot of reminiscing,” Randall said. And a lot of “laughing about old times” too.
Born: Jan. 31, 1924
Died: July 1, 2017
Hometown: Volcano, California
Occupation: Softball Hall of Famer; former shortstop on The Fresno Rockets softball team; physical education teacher for Fresno Catholic schools and Clovis Unified
Survivors: Nieces Laura Randall and Barbara Pugh and nephew Ken Kunaniec
Services: Private family services were held. A public celebration of life is planned for a later date in Fresno. For details, contact JoAnne McLachlan, 209-781-5652.