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“Fanciest-fielding first baseman ever”

By Nicole Sweeney Etter

Growing up in Cincinnati, Dorothy “Kammie” Kamenshek dreamed of becoming a nurse. She thought the Army might be her ticket to a nursing career, but her mother, a widow who worked long hours to keep the family afloat, was not about to give her only child permission to enlist when the nation was at war.

Then a baseball scout spotted 17-year-old Kamenshek — and everything changed. Kamenshek couldn’t know that she would become the best player in professional women’s baseball, that she would slug her way to a career immortalized in the movie A League of Her Own and that Sports Illustrated would call her one of the top 100 female athletes of the century. When Kamenshek stepped onto the diamond at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, she thought she was just playing some ball.

***

It was 1943. Young men were shipping overseas to fight in World War II, and chewing gum mogul Phillip Wrigley was looking for a way to keep America’s beloved pastime alive. With the help of other Midwestern investors, he created the All-American Girls Baseball League.

Three hundred miles away from Chicago, in a Cincinnati suburb, a young southpaw played softball in an industrial league. After losing her father to pneumonia when she was 9, Kamenshek grew up a latch-key kid. Her mother encouraged her to stay busy by playing sports at the neighborhood playgrounds. Strong at the plate and quick in the outfield, Kamenshek loved the game. She played in a local league from ages 12–17.

When a baseball scout visited Cincinnati, Kamenshek was one of 30 girls invited for tryouts. She and five others won a chance to show their stuff at Wrigley Field. Kamenshek’s mother let her go because she was sure she wouldn’t actually be one of 60 chosen from the field of 250 hopeful girls from across the United States and Canada.

“I just competed like the rest of them,” Kamenshek says. “I had no idea if it was going to be good enough or not.”

Decades later, Kamenshek remembers only two things from that fateful, nerve-wracking day: Someone stole her baseball glove. And she made it onto the Rockford (Ill.) Peaches team.

***

The league emphasized the players’ femininity. Team names were girlie — the Milwaukee Chicks, the Racine Belles, the Fort Wayne Daisies, the Muskegon Lassies. The uniforms were belted tunics. “We didn’t like it at first, but we had to wear them,” Kamenshek says. “When you stooped to catch a ground ball, the ball would get caught in your skirt, so eventually they modified it and allowed us to wear it shorter.”

The league required attendance at evening “charm school” and banned drinking, smoking, cussing and unchaperoned dates.

For all its novelty, fans did not immediately embrace the new sport, and players faced heckling and sparse crowds. “We started getting only 500 people in the stands, and then it got up to 10,000, which is good for a town that supports minor league baseball,” she says. “Eventually, we won them over. At first they just came to see the skirts, and then we showed them we could play.”

Kamenshek shined on the diamond. She started in the outfield and then moved to first base. Former New York Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp called her the “fanciest-fielding first baseman I’ve ever seen, man or woman.” Kamenshek would do the splits at first so she could catch the ball a fraction of a second sooner. She played by what would become her lifelong philosophy: “Anything less than my best is failure.”

She studied the moves of her baseball heroes, such as Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio. During the offseason, she practiced by bouncing the ball off her chimney. “I practiced backhanded stabs and that kind of stuff because I had to play first base on a regular basis, and I had to get my footwork down. Kind of crazy, huh?”

She also loved to hit. In 3,736 at-bats, she struck out a mere 81 times. Her lifetime batting average was .292, the highest in the league, and she stole 657 bases. She was unruffled even when the league switched from underhand to overhand pitching in 1948. “My motto was see the ball, hit the ball,” she says. Defensively, she held league records for double plays and putouts. She was named to All-Star teams seven out of her 10 years in the league.

“I never considered myself the best player in the league,” she says. “Other people did. I just went out and played every game to the best of my ability.”

***

Kamenshek made $50–$100 a week. “We did pretty good for the times. That was a lot of money back then,” she says. But it wasn’t enough to finance Kamenshek’s dream of going to college. Then in 1950, fans held “Kammie Night.” More than 3,000 fans, her teammates and even her mother gave more than $800 in cash and war bonds, as well as hundreds of other gifts, to their beloved first baseman. It took a truck to haul the gifts away. She cried. “It was really an honor,” says Kamenshek, who still has the souvenir piggy bank that fans filled that night.

She was the only woman to be recruited by a men’s team — a minor league team from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., wanted to buy her contract. She wasn’t interested. “I thought at that time it would just be a publicity stunt, and they wouldn’t let me play,” she says. “So I stayed where I was happy, in Rockford.”

Women’s baseball stayed strong in the years immediately after the war, and attendance peaked in 1948. But then the league decentralized and started to flounder. Television began airing Major League Baseball, families found entertainment outside of the local ballpark and attendance dwindled. The last season was 1954.

Kamenshek had no regrets when she hung up her Peaches uniform the year before. “I had a back injury, and I just couldn’t keep going. I was physically hurting — it wasn’t any fun anymore,” she says. She had begun attending the University of Cincinnati during the offseason. After a physical therapist helped her recover from a knee injury, Kamenshek decided she’d found her post-baseball career. She debated between the physical therapy programs at Marquette and Ohio State University. Ohio State required chemistry; Marquette required physics. “I wasn’t any good at chemistry, so I went to Marquette,” she says with a laugh.

Her baseball savings and scholarships weren’t enough to finance her education, so she worked at a bakery until midnight every night and awoke at 4 a.m. to study. She didn’t tell any of her classmates or professors about her pro ball days. “I always thought what’s in the past is in the past. In order to move forward, you need to forget what’s behind,” she says.

***

Kamenshek eventually settled in California, where she became chief of the Los Angeles County Crippled Children’s Services Department and supervised 100 physical therapists.

When the movie A League of Their Own came out in 1992, it renewed interest in the ladies who inspired the tale. Although Sports Illustrated and other sources have said that Geena Davis’ character is loosely based on Kamenshek, there is some dispute over whether any character is based on a single player.

These days, 83-year-old Kamenshek lives outside Palm Springs, Calif. She keeps a wall of framed photos and a bronzed glove and ball as mementos of her time on the diamond. She still gets letters and phone calls from fans. She used to go to league reunions, but it’s been too tough in recent years. She had a stroke in 2001 and uses a wheelchair. “We stay in touch via the phone,” she says of her old teammates. “We made friendships that we never forgot.”

Ask her what she’s most proud of, and she’s not sure. She’s proud of the professional heights she reached in L.A. She’s proud that she put herself through school at Marquette.

“Baseball was just natural,” she says. “I didn’t have to work at it too hard. School was hard.”

Still, she admits that baseball opened doors. As she once explained in the book Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, “It gave a lot of us the courage to go on to professional careers at a time when women didn’t do things like that.”


Comments


Comment by Judy Harlow at Jan 28 2010 11:14 am
Nicole,
Thanks for the inspiring story about Kammie and the Rockford Peaches. When my husband was a little boy growing up in Beloit, his older sister took him to one of their games. After seeing League of Their Own, he remembered that experience. It was great to hear the players who are alive keep in contact with each other. I shows how a team experience helps to bond a group of individuals. Sure wish they would have still had professional women's baseball when I was growing up. Still I was happy to have had the chance to play softball with the CYO team at my Church on the north side of Milwaukee.
Comment by MARK DEMOS at Jan 28 2010 01:29 pm
Yes, Nicole great story! I always wondered if the character of 'Dottie Hinson', as portrayed by actress Geena Davis in the 1992 movie "A League of Their Own", was based on a real person. Glad to now know that the character was indeed loosely based on Dorothy Kamenshek (Little known movie fact: Geena Davis was a late replacement for Debra Winger, who ended up bowing out of the movie at the last minute, due to a back injury. Though Davis never participated in the sport, her natural athletic ability (and a crash course in all things baseball prior to filming) allowed her to believably pull off the role).

Though I realize your space is very limited in the print edition of the magazine, it would have been great if you could have included the touching (current) photo of "Kammie" with her Marquette pennant. Hopefully others will visit this site to see all of the great photos of Dorothy and her Rockford Peaches teammates!

Again, thanks for the great story of this fascinating Marquette alum........
Comment by David Kujawa at Feb 09 2010 11:01 am
Nicole, what a nice story! As an MU PT grad (1980), I enjoyed reading about "Kammie" and her experiences.
Thank you!
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