Whitney Woodburn had been to a few Delhi Skirt Games when she was a child, but she never imagined a cross-dressing softball game would be the event that, for her and her family, would be the key to overcoming a series of obstacles that nearly destroyed her family’s livelihood.
And she certainly wasn’t expecting the Skirt Game Committee would be the driving force in recovering her family’s health and financial stability two years in a row.
Woodburn, 25, went into relapse in 2012 with late-stage Lyme disease; when she learned that the medical treatment she needed would cost more than $1,000 a month, she and her husband began to worry about how they’d pay their mortgage and support their young daughter.
That year, the Delhi Skirt Game Committee paid for two months of treatment for Woodburn; this year, when her husband Paul nearly died from his years-long battle with Crohn’s disease and colitis, the Skirt Game helped Woodburn’s family again, this time covering months of their mortgage, electricity and water bills while they concentrated on her husband’s recovery.
A friend of Woodburn’s mother had covertly sent a letter to the committee, nominating Woodburn and her family to be one of that year’s Skirt Game Committee donation recipients. The Skirt Game Committee is a not-for-profit community organization of dedicated Delhi residents who volunteer year-round to raise thousands of dollars to help Delhi families like the Woodburns deal with unexpected crises or look out for those who are just down on their luck.
Instead of bake sales or car washes, however, the close-knit community of Delhi has developed its own unique, colorful brand of philanthropy — arisen from what was originally just an informal weekly Sunday pick-up softball game among bar buddies — that now nets an average of $55,000 per year to help needy Delhi families, a safety net held in place for the neighborhood ecosystem that keeps the township thriving and proud.
FROM BOYS TO GIRLS CLUB
In 1976, Delhi resident Tom Malone, now 78, remembers spending Sunday evenings meeting up with other bar-goers for “beer games” on the ball fields near now-defunct Clearview Tavern and Hauck’s Café, where Malone and several of his friends would often come for drinks after coaching kids’ teams.
And one day, he says, someone in the group threw out the idea of trying a Sunday game dressed in women’s clothes, although he swears it wasn’t the result of a beer or two too many.
“It was just in conversation and somebody came up with the idea, and word got around and everybody just decided to dress up like that. We weren’t even in the bar,” he says, chuckling. “It was just a makeup softball game with a few guys. No intention, no charity, no notice to anybody.”
Something in that equation clicked, though, when passersby saw the spectacle and took an interest. “No sooner did we start the game and it started to drizzle and it started to rain and then it poured like mad. And all of the sudden people driving through the park got out of their cars with umbrellas and tons of people were standing there watching us in these crazy outfits playing softball.”
The cause snowballed when a few of the guys started talking about the attention they’d attracted, wondering if there might be a way to make something good come of their spiced-up boys’ nights out.
From there, the concept “grew like Topsy,” Malone says, when the guys got the local police and fire departments and Delhi Athletic Association involved and decided to turn their gender-bending into a way to raise money for needy Delhi residents; the first game raised medical funds for Jeff Zurlinden, a neighborhood boy left paraplegic after a traumatic bike accident.
Zurlinden and his family came to the game almost every year until he passed away in 2011, says Malone, a common practice among past recipients.
A WEST SIDE TRADITION
In the self-described conservative bedroom community of Delhi, you probably won’t find many bars with special drag queen shows on Friday night. In fact, the Skirt Game might be the only night of the year where you’ll see men — or women — publicly defying gender normatives.
Though it’s just minutes from downtown, Delhi distinctly embodies that traditional “West Side” feel; it’s home, of course, to its own namesake Cincinnati chili restaurant, a creamy whip, a barber shop, the neighborhood Frisch’s, a few pubs, a small, Catholic liberal arts college and, of course, Delhi Township Park, where the game has been held since its first incarnation in 1977. But other than that, it’s just a community of proudly conservative, largely blue-collar and friendly, close-knit people.
“You’ve got people who’ve lived here forever,” says Clyde Kober, vice president of the Skirt Game Committee, the philanthropic arm created to manage all the altruism from the game and those efforts spawned from it. “They’ve got kids who live here. They got their grandkids who live here and they don’t move out. I don’t really know why.”
Perhaps that’s why there’s been such renown developed around the Skirt Game, the closest thing to a Delhi neighborhood festival; every year park is so packed that players only use the infield for their games — lawnchairs, blankets and booths pack the outfield.
Calling the extravaganza a “game” has evolved into something of a misnomer; the players only last about three innings, scrambling from base to base in everything from high heels to wigs to tutus and, one year, barbed wire, laughs Malone, when a player dressed up as an Olympian fencer in honor of that year’s “Women in the Olympics” theme.
The annual Skirt Game, which always takes place on the first Friday in August — right in the dog days of summer — attracts about one-third of Delhi’s population of 30,000. That’s because, Kober explains, it’s practically impossible to avoid.
“I can virtually guarantee that if you talk to anybody in Delhi, they’ll know what the Skirt Game is,” Kober says. “Because you can’t hardly miss it.”
Although the annual Skirt Game is the symbolic embodiment of the cause, the committee has translated its mission of helping neighbors into several other year-round events. Today, there’s the Skirt Game’s annual golf outing and steak dinner, which fundraises for the hugely popular Kids, Cops and Firefighters program, a Christmas event which selects about 155 children from needy Delhi families and pairs them up with a local cop or firefighter for a $100 shopping spree at Target.
There’s also the fairly new Tailgate Party the night before the game, when the community gathers — this year at Delhi’s Remke Biggs — to share food and drinks (and beer) while the players showcase their costumes and the finals are held for the Delhi Rising Star Singing Competition, the neighborhood’s mini-American Idol, says Kober. Funds from that night also benefit the committee.
Private and corporate donations, though, are what make up the bulk of the Skirt Game’s funds; all committee volunteers are unpaid, he says, and, while a small portion of profits are used for overhead costs, the rest goes exlusively to the donation fund.
The committee holds monthly meetings year-round at the Shiloh Methodist Church, where Kober and other trustees plan for the annual events and go over letters submitted either by or in honor of a Delhi resident or family in need of a helping hand.
While many of the letters, he says, come in as first person asking for help, there are almost as many in third person, like in Woodburn’s case, in which a friend, relative or just a concerned neighbor will write in on behalf of someone they notice could use some help.
“If we think that they’re legitimate, then we send a three-person team out to interview the person that needs help. In that interview, we try to determine why they’re there and whether or not it’s legitimate, and what we can do to help them,” Kober explains.
The Skirt Game has given funds to help a cornucopia of problems, says Kober, from those with medical ailments, like Woodburn, to single mothers, laid-off construction workers, disabled people and children.
It’s just a softball game, but it’s developed into this neighborhood’s own distinct, unassuming way of “loving thy neighbor,” one that’s been so successful it’s left a mark on the entire community. And some people, like Malone, stick with it for life. Today, he’s still involved with the committee, although he laughs, saying he stopped dressing for the game when he turned his ankle running in heels to first base one year. His wife, children and grandchildren work within the committee today.
Although it’s earned its fair share of press over the years — the flamboyance and wave of energy at the Skirt Game itself is infectious once you’ve been to a game, says Kober — the mission and the game itself has remained largely unchanged. And even though each year brings in new sponsors, bigger crowds, more press and crazier costumes, behind the glitz it’s still about one simple thing: Delhi people helping other Delhi people.
“It’s really amazing to see people come together and help normal people like us, you know, trying to live day-to-day life,” says Woodburn. “We don’t live in a big house, or have fancy cars. We’re just normal, everyday people and they were willing to help us.” ©