The boys were off at war when Doris Terry came into her prime. She was an unabashed tomboy with an easy smile, a crown of curls and a throwing arm that could cock and fire with bullet speed and precision. In the Midwest, the fighting overseas was many things to many people during the early 1940s, but to a teenager like Terry, it meant possibilities as much as sacrifice, especially when it came to that diamond of dirt and grass where magic happened.
"I had a very, very fast windmill pitch," she says, "but I had a slow ball that was a killer. I'd come around fast, and just as I let go, I'd just stop the momentum and that thing would just take off. It would float in."
It floated in at ballfields in Indiana and Kentucky. It floated in on game trips clear across the country and north into Canada. It floated in during championship games for the Beechmont Belles, the Dairy Maids, the Marion Queens -- amateur and semiprofessional girls' baseball teams that flourished decades before Title IX.
Then one day, a friend from back home in Louisville called. The pitcher for this team in Wisconsin had gotten pregnant, she told Terry, and the team was looking for a replacement. Why not come and try out, she suggested. Terry went.
If this were another Hollywood story, it would have a greatly revised ending. The team, of course, was the Racine Belles, one of the four founding teams of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and one of those highlighted so affectionately in the 1992 hit movie "A League of Their Own." A perfect tale would have Terry joining up and throwing to great success, maybe even in the pennant playoff that Racine won in 1946.
Instead, for six memorable weeks that year, "I stayed, I played, I never got paid," as she recalls nearly half a century later. "My mother took a dim view of my running off. I listened to her, thank God." What made more sense than turning pro, in her parents' mind, was taking the college athletic scholarship Terry had been offered -- not for baseball, but for golf.
Yet therein lies the story, one that caps the sports achievements of a young woman with the warm celebration of a 77-year-old woman by her peers.
"Terry," they cheered last month at the Riderwood retirement community in Silver Spring, where the former ballplayer and retired health educator lives. And for nearly two hours under a cloudless blue sky, Terry reciprocated, pitching to fellow residents in what Riderwood billed with much humor as a "home run derby."
It was all fun, it was fond reminiscence, but it was also a subtle declaration by the graying men and women who took part that pastimes of youth and age are not always so different, that things like the swing of a bat, the crack as it connects for a solid line drive, are pleasures not dimmed by time.
"If I had the strength in this leg," said Terry, pitching despite a year-old hip replacement, pitching for the first time since, well, maybe Racine, "I wouldn't throw like I used to, but I could get a fastball off."
Raised to Take the Mound
For as long as she can remember, she had a ball in her hand. A baseball, to be precise. Her father put it there when she was barely past her toddling days. He was a big sports fan, and as she grew, he measured off their back yard in Louisville so she could work on pitching. By the time she was 12 or 13, Terry's accuracy and distance were good enough that a coach for a local girls' team started asking her "to warm up the gals." Her days at shortstop were numbered.
The federal Title IX law, which forced open the doors to college sports for women, was not even a hint of a dream back then. The concept of parity, in support and dollars, between men's and women's sports would have been laughed right out of the ballpark. But there were far more women's opportunities than history usually recognizes.
Girls and young women found play through recreation departments. At women's colleges, they played each other. "In certain sports, there were more opportunities because there were facilities," said Ernestine Miller, a sports historian and author of "Making Her Mark: Firsts and Milestones in Women's Sports." But always, "the interest was there, the ability was there."
But so, too, was the counterbalance, "the social mores, the attitude of the time. Women weren't supposed to be aggressive, weren't supposed to be competitive," Miller said. Nor were they supposed to show speed, strength, skill or sweat -- "the 4 S's." The ones who aspired to real achievement did so despite their times. "They endured ridicule, they endured whatever they had to, and they played their sport because they loved it," Miller said.
Terry's memories highlight the positive: games in ballparks where families laden with picnic baskets would come to eat and applaud; pitching -- and winning -- in city and state championships; the traveling team that took her all the way to California in the summer of '47. She remembers the friend who called her from Racine, Anna Mae Hutchison, "Hutch," a catcher who had been snapped up the minute the girls' professional league began in 1943.
"When I look back now, it was exciting," Terry mused before the home run derby, for which the Riderwood fitness director had put her in special training. "I got to do a lot of things."
It was another friend, Verna Lee Stone, who introduced her to golf, and once she took it up, she never went back to baseball. She is in awe these days of the women now playing the game, who hit 250 yards down the fairway. "I was the 170 to 190 type," Terry said, although just six years ago, playing on the Leisure World links, she made her first hole in one on a 173-yard par-3.
Still, those same women might be in awe of Terry's accomplishment of a college scholarship, circa '47. She competed at then-Western Kentucky State College, earning a bachelor's degree in health education. After progressing through her master's, she came east to the Washington area and taught in Arlington County. A job offer from the University of Maryland put her in the classroom there for 12 years before she moved to the Maryland State Department of Education.
She retired as supervisor of health education in 1985 because she wanted to travel and, naturally, to play golf.
Somehow, after she arrived at Riderwood, word of her past got out.
And suddenly, as the 2004 baseball season opened, talk of her throwing a ball again spread throughout the community, and neighbors were getting ready to take a swing. She tried to play down expectations -- "Honey, I'm not going to pitch fast" -- and actively recruited women to step up.
"All the men were signing up," she said. "I said, 'Come on, you can do it.' "
In the Spirit of the Majors
The morning was about as perfect for baseball as the Babe himself could have imagined. But what would he have thought of the venue, a narrow, pie-shaped wedge of slightly uphill turf, foul lines chalked just like in a regular park but orange netting marking the outfield with completely unbelievable numbers signaling the distance from home.
On the mound, resplendent in Baltimore Orioles orange, Doris Terry.
Behind home plate, and all around it, a team of 29 septuagenarians and octogenarians, a few in wheelchairs or scooters. And just beyond that, a medic, on vigilant alert.
"Now, Terry, I want to tell you," bellowed ump-for-the-day Jeff Watson, "no beanballs, no brushbacks, no screwballs."
To the others he warned, in equally good-natured fun: "No throwing the bat. No spitting on the catcher."
Terry began warming up. Her windup was still there.
"She's got a good arm," one woman murmured appreciatively.
James Horkan, 82, was dressed for play, in real baseball pants and cleats from his tenure with Montgomery County's 70-plus league.
He hit a hard drive that sounded as good as it looked. Maybe his ball days weren't behind him, he allowed.
Gloria Laura followed in the lineup. She swung and connected and exulted as she stepped away. How long since she'd held a bat?
"Let's see, when I was 10 years old," she calculated, meaning 67 years ago. "That was fun," she said. "It felt good to make contact. Maybe I'll join a team."
Batter after batter came up, most not very successfully.
Eighty-seven pitches later, the derby was over amid much clapping and cheering.
Terry was her harshest critic.
"It felt strange," she said. "The top part of me felt great, but when I started forward, that's when I knew."