Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Hill Sisters - Basketball Phenoms

Long before the passage of Title IX, girls on LI who wanted to participate in competitive sports in the '30s and '40s had little recourse. According to Paul Luchter who maintains a website of odd sports lists and other data, most public and private schools of LI had no varsity sports programs for girls, so those who wanted to play basketball competitively belonged to private clubs. Perhaps one of the most unique and successful of these clubs was the Hill Sisters - Marjorie, Isabel, Ruth, Betty, Helene & Kathleen, based out of West Hempstead. By 1940 it was reported that the Hill Sisters had won 80 out of 84 games.

Their success got to a point that they signed an ad deal with the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co. to advertise Chesterfield Cigarettes (seen below), a deal that's almost comical to imagine today. Like so many other cigarette ads of that era, this one aimed to soften the rough-edged perception of smokers and at the same time target the valuable female demographic. This clever ad feeds the perception that 1) cool, sporty women smoke Chesterfields; 2) cigarettes aren't bad for you since, after all, this group of healthy, young, successful girls smokes them. The ad ran in many newpapers throughout NY, including the Brooklyn Eagle.
At least the ad execs had the sense to leave out from the ad the youngest sister, Kathleen, who at the time was a mere 16 year-old attending Hempstead High.

The Hill Sisters were coached by their father Lawrence Wallace Hill, who worked as a foreman for the NY Telephone Company and played basketball in his high school days. His family consisted of a total of 9 children, two of whom, John Lawrence and Thomas, were the babies of the family and were probably spoiled silly by their older sisters [Update - Thanks to blogger comments, I learned that the Hill's later had a tenth child, Cynthia, who was actually the baby of the family]. Their mother Lillian, at one time was president of the Ladies Auxiliary of the WH Fire Dept., where the barn dances she organized no doubt served the dual purpose of raising money for the department and while helping to find suitors for her seven daughters.

So, where in WH did this burgeoning brood live? In a two-story dwelling built for them in 1913 as part of the Fairlawn Park tract at 35 (now 80) Walnut St., (photo shown below, taken from the Nassau County property survey. An addition was later built on the house in the '60s). Given the location, it's pretty fair to assume that the Hill Sisters practised and played many of their games at the George Washington Middle School gymnasium, right down the block.


Anonymous said...

This is my mother's family. They actually were 10 children. My mother, Cynthia, was the youngest. The oldest sister, Mary was not part of this team. Today 3 siblings are still living. My mother, Helene, and John Lawrence (known as Larry).

Anonymous said...

My mother was Betty Hill, one of the Hill Sisters. Mary was the oldest child but did not play basketball. My mom was the oldest of the sisters on the team. My mom married William N. Robertson from Uniondale and had 2 children: Barbara and then myself William N Roberston III. My mom continued to play on the team after getting married and for a while after having my sister. My mom was a very good golfer, with an accurate shot that enabled her to have 4 documented hole-in-ones during her lifetime. My dad worked for Gruman since he was 19 and loved the company. His badge was #67. My parents retired to Florida in 1976. My dad died in 1984 and mom passed away in 2006 in Georgia where my wife Joan and I live. My parents are buried in St. Charles Cemetary.
Helen is the only member of the Hill Sisters team that is still alive. She lives in California. The article mentions 9 children but Cynthia had not been born yet. Cynthia Lambert (Hill) lives in Melville.

Don Celenza said...

My parents (Frank & Sue Celenza) bought this house from the Hill family in 1956. The house in the picture has been extremly altered
by the present owner.

Anonymous said...

My mother, Helene Hill Carter, is the last surviving member of the Hill Sisters Basketball Team. She is 94 yrs old now, and has fond memories of playing competitive basketball with 4 of her sisters (Betty, Isabel, Marge, and Ruth) in the pre-war years, 1937 to 1941. (Kathleen was not part of the team, but there were two other unrelated regular members of the team.)
Helene would like to correct some of the statements in the newspaper article:
Her mother, Lillian Hill, was indeed active in the community, but Helene does not remember "barn dances." There were some social dances, but the Hill daughters were not allowed to attend them, as their father, Wally, was very strict about such things. Also, there was no lack of suitors for the Hill Sisters...
Incidentally, Ruth Hill was shooting accurate one-arm shots at the basket as early as 1937. Also, when they got possession of the ball, they could take only one step, and then had to pass the ball from player to player to get it down the court (when playing "boys' rules"). (In those days, college games were played using "girls' rules.)