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Marge Free will be missed on the local links

At age 69 and by then a multiple Springfield City Amateur champion, Marge Free played the tournament again, just because she thought she should.

She shot a 78 on Snyder Park June 24, 1995, remarkable for a woman of her age.

More remarkable were her 19 putts on 18 greens, evidence not only of a great putter that day but of the quality of the short game.

Free, who last played golf in September of 2011, died Jan. 24 in her Springfield home, two months after getting an official diagnosis of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The confirmation of her illness came at the end of a time in which Free and her husband of 61 years had chased around to specialists’ offices.

“We went to 15 doctors,” said Dick Free. “It’s rare, and it’s more rare for somebody her age. They don’t know what causes it, and there’s no cure. It’s just a matter of your muscles all over your body declining slowly.”

Those muscles had made Free an outstanding athlete, beginning in her days growing up in Springfield’s west end, following in the trail of another outstanding woman athlete, Betty Dillahunt.

“I lived on West North Street, and she lived on the corner of Cedar and Jackson,” said Dillahunt from her winter home in Largo, Fla.

She first remembers playing softball with her on the BICO team, sponsored by Springfield’s Buckeye Incubator Co., then with the team sponsored by Fink & Heine Meat Co.

Both got special mention in promotion for a July 25, 1939, game played under the lights at Mount Sterling. Fink & Heine squared off against R. Wilke Meats of Columbus.

Although the Columbus team featured what the playbill called “the speed ball pitching of Mae Hayman … and such outstanding stars as Catcher Ethel Sonders … left fielder Ruth Harmon and the heavy hitting Sarah Fuller,” Fink & Heine showed up to the contest unbeaten.

Pitcher Betty Doughman (Dillahunt) had two no-hit, no-run games to her credit, and was joined by “such stars as left-handed first-sacker “Lefty Hohlmayer, the sensational 14-year-old “Pud” Ridenour (Free) at shortstop, together with the hard hitting ‘Honey Trohler in left field and Louise Schlecher at third.”

Family legend has it that Free got the nickname “Pud” (as in pudding) from her grandfather as he and the rest of the family doted on her during an infancy she almost didn’t survive.

Dillahunt said Free usually held down third base. She also recalls “Hank” Warren holding down shortstop and lefty at first for the team’s strong showing in 1939.

“We won the state, and then we got to go to the world’s tournament in Cleveland. That was a big thing,” Dillahunt said. “We won a couple games.”

And that landed them a game against Cincinnati’s Meyer Partridge team at Municipal Stadium before the Springfield Indians played a Mid-Atlantic league tilt against Youngstown on Clauer Brothers Store Night.

Joann Snarr, a longtime golfing partner who presented Free with the plaque accompanying Free’s induction into the Springfield Ladies Golf Hall of Fame, remembers being invited to a softball practice at Roosevelt Junior High School.

“The first couple balls those gals threw me just about went through my glove,” Snarr said. She appreciated the invitation but decided it was out of her league.

Free and Dillahunt also had success with the Fink & Heine-sponsored YWCA basketball team, which was able to maintain a schedule during times of gasoline rationing during the war because Lefty Hohlmayer’s father worked for the Long Branch Dairy and had enough gasoline coupons to transport them in his milk truck.

Free’s scrapbook mentions a big game in which the Fink & Heine five “undisputed leaders of the YWCA Girls Basketball League” were “out to even the count with the New York Central Bellefontaine Branch 5, which has already downed the the local outfit.”

In 1944, “Pud” was one of four Springfield girls who made the trip to Pascagoula, Miss., to try out for the women’s baseball leagues that flourished during World War II when men were off to war.

“She was picked” to play on a team, her husband said, but decided against being part of the circuit that was the basis for the movie “A League of Their Own” when she decided the bus travel and the schedule “wasn’t her cup of tea.”

“After she was home for a while, she got a telegram to talk her into going back,” Mr. Free said.

But she didn’t go back.

Mrs. Free did play some softball with NCR teams in Dayton as an adult, then later, like so many athletes, made golf her main pursuit as she turned to her role as mother for Dan, Anna and Beth.

When the first Reid Park Golf Course was established near what is now the beach at the Clarence J. Brown Reservoir, Free was a charter members.

Her husband said she also was a game traveler. The two visited 42 countries in all, and among their favorite trips was one in 1954 along the Al-Can (Alaska Canada) highway.

“It was an all gravel road, and there was a 750-mile detour when we got up there,” Mr. Free said. “But it was the best part of the trip.”

“Anything sport-wise or traveling, she was in for it,” he said.

Including the Frees’ annual migration to the Kentucky Derby.

For years owning their own horse farm west of Springfield, they started making the trip to Churchill Downs before they were married. The image they’ll have with her remains at Glen Haven Memorial Gardens shows Mrs. Free holding a winning betting slip from the Derby.

Were it not for the disease’s cruelty, Free’s succumbing to an affliction named for an athlete might seem appropriate.

Still, the body that failed her after 87 years had served her well, and those accustomed to seeing it on local golf courses will miss its presence and hers for years to come.

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