By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010; B04
Dorothy "Dottie" Kamenshek, 84, often considered the finest female baseball player ever and whose exploits with the Rockford Peaches in the 1940s helped inspire the movie "A League of Their Own," died May 17 at her home in Palm Desert, Calif. A family friend said she had lingering complications from a stroke suffered nine years ago.
Ms. Kamenshek was only 17 when she joined the Rockford, Ill., team in 1943, the first year of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Chicago Cubs owner and chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley established the league to keep baseball before the public eye when male ballplayers were drafted into the military during World War II.
The women's league became a popular attraction in the 1940s and early '50s, and Ms. Kamenshek was acknowledged as its greatest all-around player. She twice won the league's batting title, was named to seven all-star teams and was once recruited to play for a men's professional team.
In 1999, Sports Illustrated named her one of the 100 greatest female athletes of all time.
Wally Pipp, a onetime New York Yankee who lost his job at first base to Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig, called Ms. Kamenshek "the fanciest fielding first baseman I've ever seen, man or woman."
In the 1992 film "A League of Their Own," Geena Davis played a character named Dottie Hinson that was said to be based on Ms. Kamenshek and another star player, Pepper Paire Davis. Ms. Kamenshek, who was often known as "Kammie" during her playing days, was a consultant for the movie and spent two days teaching the actresses how to turn a double play.
"Our skills were as good as the men's," she told baseball historian John B. Holway for an article in Baseball Research Journal. "We just weren't strong enough to compete with them."
Ms. Kamenshek, who was 5-feet-6 and 135 pounds, was playing for a softball team near Cincinnati when she tried out for the fledgling women's baseball league. She was signed as an outfielder before making the transition to first base.
The Rockford Peaches were one of the four original teams of the All-American League, as it became known, along with teams in South Bend, Ind., Racine, Wis., and Kenosha, Wis.. By 1948, the league had expanded to 10 teams across the Midwest and drew almost 1 million fans to its games.
The women's rules evolved from a modified form of softball to an almost exact duplicate of men's baseball -- except that its players wore above-the-knee skirts. The women played up to 120 games in a four-month season. Each team had only 15 players, which meant that they often played with serious injuries as well as constant abrasions, or "strawberries," from sliding into bases on their bare legs.
The players were expected to follow one simple rule: "Look like women. Play like men."
They had to keep their hair at shoulder length and wear makeup even while playing and were required to attend a charm school run by cosmetics doyenne Helena Rubenstein. Chaperones traveled with the teams, and drinking, smoking and unauthorized dating were forbidden. Still, some of the ladies of the diamond managed to have colorful escapades, as recounted in "A League of Their Own."
They even had male groupies, whom they called "Clubhouse Clydes" or "Locker Room Leonards."
Ms. Kamenshek seldom got into trouble off the field because, by all accounts, she was fanatical about practicing. She batted and threw left-handed and spent hours in front of hotel-room mirrors working on her fielding and batting swing.
In 1946 and 1947, she led the league in hitting with averages of .316 and .306. Her lifetime batting average of .292 was the highest ever in the women's league. She stole 657 bases during her 10-year career, including 109 in 1946. In 3,736 career at-bats, she struck out only 81 times.
When a men's team in Florida offered her a contract in 1947, she turned it down because she thought it would turn into a publicity stunt.
Ms. Kamenshek led her Rockford team -- which she called "the New York Yankees of the All-American League" -- to four league titles. In the final game of the 1950 championship series, she drove in five runs to propel the Peaches to victory.
In 1951, she hit .345 and stole 63 bases, and after sitting out the 1952 season, she returned for a final year in 1953. With dwindling attendance and competition from television, the All-American League disbanded in 1954.
"All the girls were there because they loved playing," she recalled of her career, "but we were also here to keep baseball going during the war."
Dorothy Mary Kamenshek was born Dec. 21, 1925, in Norwood, Ohio. She was an only child and grew up playing sports on sandlots.
After retiring from baseball, she received a bachelor's degree in physical therapy from Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1958. She worked as a physical therapist in Ohio before moving to Los Angeles, where she became chief of therapy services of a Los Angeles County children's services agency. She retired in 1980 and had no survivors.
Ms. Kamenshek and the All-American League were all but forgotten until a 1988 exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Years later, people who saw her play still marveled at her ability.
"Kammie had no weakness," Pepper Davis once said. "She hit left-handed line drives and was a complete ballplayer, the Pete Rose of our league."