Beth Marquardt Calderone learned softball pitching at age eight by trying to hit the broad side of the barn in her backyard in Emporia, Kansas. She would go on to become one of the top players in University of Chicago softball history and record one of the first dominating performances in the UAA Softball Championship.
"My mom coached me to just throw it as hard as I could at first and that the control would come later," Calderone recalls. "The control came eventually, but we had to start traveling 100 miles round trip to play in a Topeka league a couple of times a week because my small town recreation softball league's parents didn't look too kindly on that philosophy. I famously hit a friend who was batting against me three times in a single game."
Calderone's grandfather coached basketball and baseball at Concordia Lutheran college system and her mother wanted to play any sport she could, but there were few opportunities for girls and women at that time. "Finally, she joined a summer fast-pitch softball team out of Utah (The Shamrocks) that traveled all over the country in the early 1970's to play tournaments," Calderone said. "She played with the best players every year in the nationals and I grew up hearing stories of the Raybestos Brakettes like they were the "evil empire" akin to the New York Yankees. She battled against Joan Joyce, who was a household name and feminist hero to me growing up." Joyce finished her amateur career with a won-loss record of 753-42 with 150 no-hit, no-run games and 50 perfect games. She is currently the head softball coach at Florida Atlantic University and has been inducted into 11 halls of fame.
Those experiences helped Calderone's mother become a coach at Fort Hayes State in Kansas in 1975 just as women's sports were beginning to explode at the collegiate level and played for one year in the new professional softball league in San Diego. She eventually started the local high school varsity softball program in the late 1980s.
Calderone did not limit herself to softball as she started swimming competitively at age 10, played basketball from the fourth grade through high school, ran cross country, and played volleyball in middle and high school. "I started college thinking I would compete in swimming and softball, but the logistics of 5 a.m. practices and bussing to other pools around Chicago wasn't going to jibe with a year-round pitching schedule," she remembered.
L: Beth Maquardt in high school; R: Marquardt at University of Chicago
The choice to attend Chicago was not an easy one as Calderone was also looking at a Division III school in the upper northeast. "I have more of an 'outdoorsy backpacker' personality and I knew this was a life-changing choice between the city and nature," Calderone recalled. "I remember having this existential crisis about how my choice would shape my decisions about who I was going to become, what I would major in, and what career was ahead for me."
One thing that did not influence her decision originally was softball. "Sports had driven so much of who I was in my first 17 years that I just really wanted to be a scholar more than anything else," she stated. "I wasn't even sure I wanted to play in college. I had been recruited by local Kansas teams, but I was a little burned out and knew academics had to come first."
In the end, location won out. "As I hemmed and hawed on the eve of the deadline, ultimately the one thing that persuaded me was a simple fact of geography," Calderone said. "If I was going to play softball, by nature of the playing seasons, Chicago would play 35-40 games compared to 12 for the other school. Also, I visited Chicago on a gloomy, dripping October day, and the gargoyles and gothic buildings couldn't have been more magical."
Magical certainly described the beginning of Calderone's career at the 1997 UAA Softball Championship in Cape Coral, Florida, both at the plate and on the mound. In just her second game, she equaled the then-UAA single-game record with six runs batted in and led all players in the tournament with 10 hits in six contests. On the mound, she shattered the UAA single-game record for strikeouts by fanning 19 batters (a record that still stands) in an extra-inning game against Case Western Reserve University. Marquardt posted a 1.50 earned run average in 14 innings, yielding just three earned runs and nine hits while walking four and striking out 25.
Calderone remembers all too clearly what she refers to as "battle wounds" from that first UAA tournament. She ended up with a bad sunburn, a terrible blister on the middle finger of her pitching hand that didn't heal until after the week was over, and a gash on her elbow from a headfirst slide into third base. She still has a visible scar on her elbow from that injury.
"I remember not having any clue about what kind of competition I was going to find," she said. "I had been playing with, and against, some of the elite players in Kansas for years, many of whom went on to play at top Division I schools. I had always been more of a change-up pitcher and opposite field contact hitter, but nothing really special in the larger Kansas context. I remember being a little floored by how much slower the pitching was than I was used to. Everything just came more easily for me that week. I was pretty successful for the next three years, but I never really topped those first week numbers."
The "pretty successful" description of her career understates her actual success. She ranks third all-time in the program in strikeouts (535), third in shutouts (17), fourth in wins (47), and seventh in earned run average (1.96). Her 18 wins in 1998 are just one shy of the single-season program record. At the plate, Calderone ranks first in doubles (42), second in hits (173) and triples (11), third in runs scored (95), and fifth in career batting average (.397) and runs batted in (77). She earned third team all-region accolades in 1998 and first team honors in 1999 and 2000.
"I was really blessed with amazing coaching, starting first and most importantly with my mom," she stated. "Michele Hawkins was my coach for my first three years, fresh off a dominating career as pitcher and coach in the Big 10. She shaped me into the pitcher I became. She was relentless with regular season pitching practices."
"I also had great teammates, particularly my junior and senior years when Kelly Ostler, a standout Chicago high school pitcher, joined the team," Calderone recalled. "My catchers, Dani Hari, Jen Wu, and Erin Slone were great. We called our own games. I prided myself on the mind game of pitching. I guess I approached hitting the same way. I just tried to stay one step ahead of what I thought the pitcher would do. I also really practiced and honed my ability to hit situationally and was often a late, opposite field hitter. I love softball primarily for the strategy and execution that let's you truly outwit your opponents, not just crush them physically. You can see UC was a good cultural fit for that - my teammates were brilliant young women who relished the same thing."
After graduating from Chicago, Calderone earned her masters in theological studies at Harvard Divinity School and her education certification in a program for integrating religious literacy into public school curriculum through the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She was a founding faculty member in a charter school in Fitchburg, Massachusetts and later joined another charter school in South Boston. She taught high school social studies for six years, coached some softball, and ended up playing and pitching on a summer women's fast-pitch league.
"The league had fantastic competition, much to my delight," she said. "I befriended a 45-year-old catcher from Dorchester, who was an all-star athlete, but didn't play at all in college. She reminded me of my mom and her missed opportunities and how only a few years separated me from the sexism in sports that I mostly escaped by being born in the 1970s and not the '50s or '60s. I think of that often now that I have a three-year-old daughter and I see her athletic prowess already far exceeding that of her six-year-old brother on the playground. I am so grateful for the opportunities I had."
Photo: Beth Marquardt and then future husband Chris Calderone
She and her husband moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2008 and she continues to teach high school social studies, now at The Blake School, an independent school. Although her playing career ended, she did coach the softball team her first two years there. "I coached even nine months pregnant and went right to the hospital from a game," she laughed. "After the kids came though, I had to give up coaching."
Although she doesn't get back to Chicago very often, Calderone follows the team and her former teammate and long-time assistant coach Kelly Ostler closely. "I love how the program has grown under (head coach) Ruth Kmak's leadership and is attracting top talent these days," Calderone said. "I like to think that those teams I played on in the late '90s were a great turning point for the program, sort of the tipping point to keep recruiting even better players, far better than I was!"
With all her personal success and playing on the first Maroon softball team to earn a bid to the NCAA Division III Softball Championship in 2000, Calderone remembers those she played with the most. "I love my teammates," she recollects. "They were my family in college and continue to be my lifelong best friends."