Doris “Sammye” Sams, one of the best all-around athletes in the women’s baseball league that kept the American pastime alive during World War II and later inspired the film “A League of Their Own,” died June 28 at a nursing home in Knoxville, Tenn.
She was 85 and had complications from Alzheimer’s disease, her cousin Gordon Sams said.
A bespectacled dynamo sometimes known as “Dauntless Doris,” Miss Sams was one of the toughest pitchers, batters and outfielders in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which Chicago Cubs owner Phil Wrigley founded in 1943.
For more than a decade, hundreds of thousands of fans packed into stadiums across the Midwest to cheer for such teams as the Fort Wayne Daisies, the Grand Rapids Chicks, the Racine Belles and the Rockford Peaches. Miss Sams played for a Michigan team known as the Lassies, first based in Muskegon and later in Kalamazoo.
She and her colleagues faded from memory after the league closed down in 1954. But their popularity returned almost four decades later with the release of “A League of Their Own” (1992), starring Geena Davis, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell. Tom Hanks played the crusty manager who memorably barked at one tearful player, “There’s no crying in baseball!”
The movie recalled a moment in the United States during the war years, when baseball teams, like factories across the country, emptied out as men were drafted into the armed forces and shipped off to battle. Women stepped in to do the riveting and, thanks to Wrigley, the batting, pitching and fielding.
“Enjoy America’s Big New Sporting Thrills” — ballpark posters announced — “Girls Baseball.”
Miss Sams joined the league just after the end of the war in 1946 and stayed for eight years. She was twice named the player of the year, first in 1947 when she pitched a perfect game.
“That last pitch, a girl just about drove down my throat, it ricocheted off my knee, almost tore off my kneecap, and the shortstop made a great stop and threw her out,” Miss Sams told the New York Times in 1988, when the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., honored the women with an exhibit.
She was player of the year again in 1949, when she won the batting title with a .301 average, according to the Associated Press. In 1952, she set a single-
season record by hitting 12 home runs.
Miss Sams made the all-star team five times, four times as both a pitcher and outfielder — the only player in the league’s history to do so. Playing for the Lassies, she had been a pitcher and centerfielder until she demanded two salaries. At that point, the team limited her to centerfield.
She once pitched a 22-inning game, carrying her team to a 1-0 victory. “I was not going to throw my glove in until I won that game,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In her biography on the league’s official Web site, she is described as a “gazelle in the outfield.”
Per league regulations, Miss Sams wore makeup on the field and off. Players were expected to play with manly grit but feminine grace — and attire. Their short skirts seemed better suited to cheerleading and offered no protection against abrasions, or “strawberries,” as the girls called them.
“Believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve slid on skin,” Miss Sams told the Associated Press in 1988. “You talk about ‘strawberries.’ One of the girls dated a Triple-A player who used to say there wasn’t enough money to get him to slide on skin, and he was right.”
The women’s male coaches, many of them ex-major leaguers, had to adjust to working with the opposite sex, Miss Sams told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Women, the coaches learned, did not appreciate being patted on the derriere as they rounded third base on the way to home plate.
Doris Jane Sams was born Feb. 2, 1927, in Knoxville. Her father and grandfather played semi-professional baseball. Miss Sams’s own competitive days began early. As a young girl, she qualified for a national marbles competition, her cousin said. She also won a Knoxville badminton championship and was routinely the first pick in neighborhood football and softball games.
“She could outrun any boy or a girl in our neighborhood up to 16, 17 years old when she was 9,” her cousin said in an interview. “That’s true. Nobody in the neighborhood could outrun her.”
In 1946, Miss Sams learned from a friend that two baseball teams for girls had come to Tennessee for an exhibition game. Somewhat reluctantly, she visited the hotel where one team was staying and asked the manager for a tryout.
“Well, are you any good?” he asked, according to Miss Sams’s league biography.
“Now he swears that I said this, but I don’t remember it,” Miss Sams said. “I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘Well, I hit a home run about every time I get up!’ ”
After her baseball-playing days, Miss Sams worked for the Knoxville Utilities Board for more than two decades until her retirement in 1979.
She was single and had no immediate survivors.
As for her fans, she once said she understood why they went back to men’s baseball at the end of the war. “But,” she added, “we entertained them for a while.”