Sporting life well lived

Editor’s note: This information comes from an article written by Charles F. Faber, who interviewed Karen Kunkel. It is used with the permission of Society for American Baseball Research which is housed at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

Karen Violetta was born in Negaunee in 1934, one of three children and the only daughter of Fannie Maki and Adolph Violetta. Her paternal grandparents had emigrated from Italy in 1906. Adolph’s father, Joseph, worked for an iron mine and later as a timberman. Karen’s maternal grandparents were born in Finland and were living in Butte, Montana, when Fannie was a child. When Fannie was 19 and Adolph was 20, they married and settled in Adolph’s hometown. The groom first worked as a janitor at a hotel; later he operated a gas station.

As a child Karen was a self-described tomboy who joined the neighborhood children in games of “work-up.” In those pre-Title IX days few high schools offered girls opportunities for athletic competition, so Karen took her talents to amateur teams in nearby Marquette. As a teenager she played for a club from Marquette that won the girls’ Class C crown at Flint in September 1951 by defeating Athens 8-6 for the first state softball championship ever won by a club from the Upper Peninsula.

The following September, Marquette won its second consecutive title by defeating Bay City 6-2. In this contest the big blow was Karen’s 3-run homer in the sixth inning.

After graduating from Negaunee High School, Karen attended Michigan State University, where she earned two degrees.

She got her master’s degree in physical education from MSU but had to take some of her course work at Northern Michigan University because of her mother’s illness.

During her years at MSU, Karen engaged in a number of athletic endeavors. She played in the NCAA lacrosse tournament in 1953. She also skied on the men’s ski team at MSU and qualified for the NCAA meet, but was not allowed to compete because she was female. For years she vowed she would get even for that slight — and she did. In 1976 she started the women’s national collegiate ski championships under the aegis of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.

She served as a director of the AIAW championships, as a member of the organization’s National Ski Board, and on the board of directors of the Midwest Collegiate Ski Association.

In 1953 Karen finished second in the women’s downhill at a meet in Cadillac, Michigan. In 1955 she won the women’s downhill skiing championship in a competition at Cadillac.

In the interval between those two events she played baseball for the Grand Rapids Chicks of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League as a utility infielder for the Chicks in 1953 and 1954 and later was one of the founders of the AAGPBL Players Association.