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In a League of Her Own

Matt Schudel

On Friday afternoon, we found out that Dorothy "Dottie" Kamenshek, one of the greatest female baseball players of all time, had died in California. It was a bit of a rush to get an obituary prepared for the Saturday paper (and online Friday night), but Dottie was a memorable figure who deserves to be remembered.

She played for the Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a World War II brainchild of Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley, who wanted to find a way to keep fans coming to the ballpark when male ballplayers were away at war. The women's league was concentrated in small Midwestern cities, such as Rockford, Ill., Kenosha, Wis., and Racine, Wis., and became quite popular in the late 1940s, sometimes drawing as many as 10,000 spectators to their games.

Dottie Kamenshek was, by all accounts, the finest all-around player in the league. She grew up outside Cincinnati and, after the early death of her father, was raised as an only child by her single mother. She played sports on neighborhood sandlots and signed her professional contract with the Peaches at age 17, making more money than she could have in most jobs available to women in those days.

She played 10 years in the All-American League had its highest all-time batting average (.292). In 1946, when she led the league in hitting with a .316 average, she also stole 109 bases in 107 games.Wally Pipp, the New York Yankees first baseman displaced by Lou Gehrig, called her "the fanciest fielding first baseman I've ever seen, man or woman" and predicted that she would be the first woman to play big-league baseball.

The All-American League was all but forgotten after it folded in 1954, but was resuscitated in memory by two things: an exhibition at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, which brought fresh attention to a remarkable episode in sports history; and, especially, a delightful 1992 movie directed by Penny Marshall called which gave us the memorable phrase, "There's no crying in baseball."

Dottie Kamenshek was a technical adviser on the movie and worked hard to teach the actresses how to swing a bat and turn a double play. The central character in the film, played by Geena Davis, is a composite of Dottie -- and even has her first name -- and another star of the women's league, Pepper Paire Davis.

I talked to a friend of Dottie Kamenshek's who said she was generally known as "Kammie" in her playing days and kept all her memorabilia from her days with the Rockford Peaches, including her glove and skirted uniform.

"Baseball was her life," her friend said. She lived in California for the balance of her life, working as a physical therapist for children, and becoming a devoted fan of the L.A. Angels.

Dottie was always reserved and preferred to let her play on the field do her talking. After the film came out, though, she traveled the country to talk about that remarkable time when women proved their ability on the diamond and truly did have a league of their own.

By Matt Schudel  |  May 22, 2010; 11:28 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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