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#Spotlight - Women's History Month - Doris Sams

This week as part of Women's History Month, we introduce you to Doris Sams, who was an AAGPBL legend.

From AAGPBL Website:

Sammye was Player of the Year in 1947 and 1949, won the batting championship in 1949, and was home run champion in 1952 with 12 homers. She was the type of player that was always calm, cool and collected, even when the going got tough. Not only did Sammye do a good job on the mound but she was a force at the plate with the bat. She pitched a perfect game against Ft. Wayne in front of 6,000 fans.

Sams, Doris "Sammye" By Jim Sargent

For eight years after World War II, Doris Jane “Sammye” Sams, an excellent fast-pitch softball player from Knoxville, Tennessee, enjoyed an outstanding career in the pro All-American Girls Baseball League (now known as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League). By the time her final season ended in 1953, Sammye, as friends called the right-handed batter, had fashioned a career average of .290, the league’s sixth highest lifetime mark. She also set a new league home run mark, hitting 12 four-baggers in 1952. Following the 1947 season, Sammye’s second year, she was selected as the league’s Player of the Year. A pitcher turned outfielder, she was named to the All-Star team at both positions. No other player in the twelve-year history of the AAGPBL accomplished that feat. Sams was a gifted all-around athlete. Not only did the tall right-hander pitch a perfect game for the Muskegon Lassies on August 18, 1947, defeating the Fort Wayne Daisies, 2-0, but she batted .280, the third highest average among the league’s regulars, plus she contributed 41 RBIs. After three seasons of using underhand hurling, the All-American (as players often called the league) shifted to a modified underhand delivery in 1946. In 1947, the league switched to a sidearm pitching delivery, and on August 18, Doris, a natural sidearmer, hurled a perfect game and won, 2-0, finishing the season with an 11-4 record. Further demonstrating her strong arm, the Tennessee native tied Rose Gacioch’s record of 31 outfield assists in a season.

Sams was such an outstanding performer that she won the Player of the Year award again in 1949. The only other player in the All-American League who twice won that honor was Jean Faut, the greatest overhand pitcher in league history. Jean was selected Player of the Year in 1951 and 1953.

A five-time All-Star during her eight-year pro career, Sams made the circuit’s honor team in 1947 and from 1949 through 1952. One of the league’s best hitters, she averaged more than .300 during each of her last four seasons. A fine defender and a gazelle in the outfield, Sammye often took away extra-base hits from opponents with a variety of excellent catches over the years.

The only daughter of R.J. and Pauline Sams, Doris was born in Knoxville on February 2, 1927. She grew up with two sports-minded older brothers. “I feel like I’ve played ball since day one out here on the fields with my brothers, Paul and Bob, Jr,” Doris reminisced in a 1997 interview in Knoxville.

“I loved to play football, too. I played football with the whole group out here in the fields, but when I got to be about twelve years old, I quit that,” she added, with a chuckle.

Friendly, witty, and outgoing, the 5’9” Sammye, who wore glasses, excelled in almost every sport as a youth. Reflecting on her early influences, she explained her grandfather was a semiprofessional hurler who helped her learn to pitch. Also, her father, an outfielder, played semipro ball until he got married. Thus, she soon acquired the baseball dream.

An attractive brunette, Sams remembered her softball playing days started in 1938 when a fellow who organized the girls’ teams told her to go and sign up with the city’s recreation department: “Sure enough, one of those fast-pitch teams picked me up when I was eleven years old, and I started pitching for them. Most of the girls were a good five, six, or seven years older than I was. We ended up winning six or seven state championships.

“I started out with Nelson’s Cafe. The Pepsi Cola Company bought it. They took over the team after we won two or three championships. I played for Pepsi Cola until 1946, and that’s when I got into pro ball.”

Doris attended Knoxville High, graduating in January 1945. However, she didn’t play school sports because she was involved in city softball. In fact, before she became known as a softball star, Doris had already achieved local notoriety. In 1938 she won the regional Southern Appalachian Marbles Tournament, becoming the first girl to qualify for the National Marbles Championship in Chicago. She didn’t win in Chicago, but later the versatile young woman began playing badminton. In 1942 she won the Knoxville Badminton Championship. She also won the women’s badminton doubles title with Emily Hartman, and she captured the mixed title with Willard Martin, two friends who were also accomplished athletes.

“I love badminton,” Sammy reminisced. “If you get somebody who can play badminton, you’ve got somebody who can move. That’s the fastest game I’ve ever played.”

Further, Sams was adept as a swimmer and a diver. No matter the sport, she excelled, but her greatest sport turned out to be baseball. In 1946, after World War II ended, Doris needed a job. One day she stopped by Manzer’s Studio to have her picture taken. When she entered, she saw a woman working in the back, trying to get a baby to stop crying long enough to take pictures. Seeing the photographer’s dilemma, Doris started crying like a baby, causing the infant to hush. After taking the pictures, the manager asked if she wanted a job, and Sams ended up working there. Later, when she returned from playing ball in Michigan, she worked several off seasons for Manzer’s, and the lady operating the business nicknamed her Sammye.

“The way I got involved with the All-American League,” Sams recounted in 1997, “is that a kid who was fourteen, and who used to go fishing with my Dad, came over here in the spring of 1946. He said, ‘Doris, I heard on the radio that there’s going to be two professional girls baseball teams pass through here.’”

Her friend explained the teams were playing exhibition games on their way to the Midwest from spring training in Mississippi. Though she was reluctant, another friend finally convinced Sammye to go to the team’s hotel and talk to the manager.

Doris recalled, “I went over there and knocked on that door, you know, and took a big, deep breath. This guy came to the door, and I introduced myself and said, ‘I play softball around here, and I want a tryout.’

“He said, ‘Well, are you any good?’

“Now he swears that I said this, but I don’t remember it. I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘Well, I hit a home run about every time I get up!’” Sammye laughed, adding, “That was the Racine manager, Leo Murphy. It was raining cats and dogs that day. I knew there wasn’t any way I could try out for them here.”

Murphy took Sams on the team bus to Chattanooga, where she tried out and made the club. The manager instructed her to go home, pack her bags, and meet them in Michigan. Doris had not been away from home in her life. “I still can’t figure out how I went right through it,” she recalled, “Of course, I was homesick, like the other girls, the whole first year. But I thoroughly enjoyed every blame day of playing ball.”

A few days later, Sams traveled to Michigan by airplane, a “first” for her. Allocated to Muskegon, an expansion team, Sammye played her entire All-American career with the Lassies. Financially strapped by mid-1950, the franchise was sold to Kalamazoo. A modest, likeable, multi-talented ballplayer, she became as popular in Kazoo as she was in Muskegon.

In Muskegon, Sams lived with a local family. Two other Lassies lived in the home where Doris lodged. Each year she and two teammates had one room and kitchen privileges in the same private home. She remembered paying $5 a week for the room. Also, she started her pro career by earning $65 or $70 a week, double the salary she earned with Manzer’s Studio.

Sams played for several managers, beginning in 1946 with Ralph “Buzz” Boyle, a former Brooklyn Dodger outfielder who hit .290 lifetime in five big league seasons, ending in 1935. Bill Wamby (born Wambsganss), an infielder with Cleveland for thirteen years, managed the Lassies in 1947 and 1948. Later Lassies’ pilots included Carson Bigbee, Mitch Skupien, and, for a time in 1952, Mary “Bonnie” Baker, who served as player/manager for part of the season.

Reflecting on the 1946 season, Sammye explained her delivery: “I had three different ways of pitching underhand. I pitched a figure-eight, and then the submarine because I was a natural sidearmer, and then I had the windmill. Today the biggest part of the fast-pitch softball players are pitching the windmill.

“We were playing Grand Rapids one day. When I first hit that league, all I heard was ‘Connie Wisniewski, Connie Wisniewski.’ So I thought, ‘If you can beat that team, You’ve got it made.’

“We were leading Grand Rapids and Wisniewski by one run. I walked somebody, and the runner stole second. Anyway, the runner ended up on third with two outs. We were about to get beat. That was the last inning.

“I said, ‘Well, nobody’s ever seen me pitch this windmill. I’m going to try it on this gal.’

“I had two strikes on Doris Tetzlaff, and I went around about six times, and I released it, and the ball just happened to hit the heart of the plate. She’s still standing there!”

Sams recalled throwing mostly the figure-eight, which gave the ball a crazy spin and often caused the batter to hit a pop fly.