Dottie Kamenshek: In a league of her own

In A League of Their Own, one of the most entertaining — and least believable — moments was when, as the Rockford Peaches were trying to gain an audience, Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) did a split to catch a foul ball.

But the woman who was partial inspiration for Hinson, Dorothy Kamenshek, actually did splits frequently when she played first base for the real-life Peaches. She did it not to show off, however, but so she could catch the ball a fraction of a second sooner. At times, she would jump three feet in the air to snag a throw.

Kamenshek, who was called both “Dottie” and “Kammie,” died last week at age 84.

Originally, Kamenshek wanted to join the Army to become a nurse, but her mother wouldn’t let her enlist. That’s why she happened to be around when a baseball scout came to Cincinnati and spotted her. Her mom, who was a widow and worked long hours to support the family, encouraged her daughter to play sports so she wouldn’t be at home alone so much. And Kammie was a natural.

When the scout came through town and invited Kamenshek to try out, her mom let her go because she didn’t think Kammie had a chance to actually make it. But she not only won a spot in the All-American Girls Baseball League, she went on to become the best player in women’s professional baseball. Sports Illustrated named her one of the top female athletes of the 20th century.

She also is one of the few women sports heroes to have an action figure, which gives her a permanent place in my office.

As A League of Their Own portrayed, the AGBL focused on the players’ femininity, giving them belted tunics to wear for uniforms. The league mandated attendance at charm school and banned unladylike conduct like drinking, smoking and cussing. But, as Kamenshek told Marquette magazine earlier this year, “Eventually, we won [the fans] over. At first they just came to see the skirts, and then we showed them we could play.”

Kammie took her role seriously, studying the moves of baseball heroes like Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio. “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 earned the highest batting average in the league (.292 lifetime) and stole 657 bases in her 10-year career. She played in seven All-Star games.

In fact, a minor league men’s team in Ft. Lauderdale offered her a contract in 1947. But Kamenshek declined. “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.”

Still, Yankee first baseman Wally Pipp, who watched her play in the ’40s, said he’d never seen a better first base player in his life, man or woman. And Pipp saw the likes of Lou Gehrig, George Sisler and Hal Chase.

After a bad back forced Kamenshek to retire from baseball — even though she batted .345 and stole 63 bases her last year of play while wearing a back brace — she graduated from Marquette and because a physical therapist, a career she loved as much as baseball, eventually heading the Los Angeles County Crippled Children’s Services Department.

Not surprisingly, given her generation, we have no word on Kamenshek’s sexual orientation. But she never married, was a great athlete with a nickname and was an all-around awesome woman. And that’s something to celebrate. Rest in peace, Kammie.