Women's baseball pioneer Sams passes away
World War II era star helped inspire 'A League of Their Own'
The woman whose exploits on baseball fields during the World War II era made her image somewhat comparable to that of Babe Ruth has died. An accomplished hitter and a pitcher with a no-hitter and a perfect game on her resumé, Doris Sams was a principle figure in a well-known women's baseball league and, as that, one of the inspirations for the movie "A League of Their Own."
She died Thursday in Knoxville, Tenn., some four months after her 85th birthday and some 60 years after the end of her baseball career. Complications of Alzheimer's disease were said to have played a role in Sams' death.
In general ways, Sams' career path mimicked Ruth's. She began her professional career as a successful pitcher, but her offensive skills were above average and prompted a position change that allowed her to play -- and hit -- regularly. She continued pitching, though not so often, and played right field as Ruth had.
Sams was born in 1927, the year Ruth set his single-season home run record, 60.
She twice was recognized as the outstanding player in the All-American Girls Baseball League and established single-season and career records in pitching and hitting. She once made the league all-star team at two positions, pitcher and right field. Doris Jane Sams -- she was known as Sammy to her teammates and friends -- played in the league, beginning in 1946 and through 1953, the year before the league disbanded.
A right-handed hitter and pitcher -- Ruth pitched and batted left-handed -- Sams played with the Muskegon (Mich.) Lassies and the team that replaced them in the league, the Kalamazoo Lassies. She was born in Knoxville and spent most of her life there before and after her career. Her father and grandfather played semipro baseball, and she played sandlot ball with two older brothers. Before she reached her teens, she had played fast-pitch softball against significantly older girls and women and excelled.
She participated in track and field, badminton, basketball, bowling, horseshoes, softball, table tennis, tennis and volleyball, winning the Knoxville city championship in badminton and regional marbles tournaments all before 1946, when she tried out for the baseball league at age 19. After she retired from baseball, she considered playing professional golf.
She began her professional pitching career throwing underhand. She later threw sidearm and overhand as the rules of the league were modified. When she began playing the outfield, she used a 35-inch bat. No other player in the league used so much wood. Sams was listed at 5-foot-9 and 145 pounds.
The All-American Girls Baseball League was a by-product of Cubs owner Phil Wrigley's efforts to keep baseball in the public's consciousness while the war effort stripped big league teams of personnel. The women's game gained popularity, particularly in the Midwest. When Sams pitched the perfect game, Aug. 19, 1947 against Fort Wayne, the attendance was estimated at 6,000. The crowd that witnessed her no-hitter against the Springfield Sallies on opening day the following season was 3,390. Her home run hitting later in her career enhanced attendance.
The Kalamazoo franchise once offered a $50 bonus for any home run hit over a sign in left field in 1950. Sams earned $100 that night.
One night after her no-hitter, she contributed a two-run home run, a single and a run-scoring triple to a victory. That was followed by her one-hitter a day later. She had two hits and an RBI in that game. She scored 105 runs and produced 59 RBIs, six doubles, seven triples and three home runs in 117 games in 1948.
Sams was a draw without question and, remarkably, she was paid for her gate appeal. She was reported to have earned as much as $4,000 for a season. The big league minimum salary in 1966, before Marvin Miller began to revolutionize the business, was $6,600. Sams and Ted Williams appeared, respectively, on the back and front covers of the Dell Major League Yearbook in 1948.
She had been her league's player of the year in 1947. She won the award in 1949 as well. Her Muskegon teams won league championships in 1948 and '49.
League records show her throwing out 31 baserunners from right field in a 109-game season in 1947. She established a single-season home run record, 12 in 1950. The league records for doubles (25), triples (seven), RBIs (59) and batting average (.314) are hers as well. He batting average was higher than .300 in each of her last four seasons.
Her induction into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame happened in 1970. Twelve years later, she was voted into the Knoxville Hall of Fame. And she remains a primary character in the permanent display, honoring her league at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.