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Sams, Doris (2/2/1927 - 6/28/12)

By John Shearer

Doris SamsGordon Sams has not forgotten the Depression-era days of his youth, when neighborhood youngsters would gather to play football or baseball in a pasture at Avenue A and Immanuel Street in South Knoxville. The same child would always be picked first to be on a team, the 88-year-old Sams remembered. And that person was a girl,  Doris "Sammye" Sams. "Everybody chose Doris because she was the fastest in the neighborhood and nobody could catch her," he said Friday of his first cousin. "She could run 40 to 50 yards and catch a football just like she was a boy."

Doris Sams, who went from a local athlete who was in a class of her own to starring in the women's professional baseball league that became the subject of the movie, "A League of Their Own'', died on Thursday. She was 85.Close friend Frances Rader, who had known Ms. Sams since childhood, said the former star athlete had battled Alzheimer's for about the last three years.

From 1946-53, Ms. Sams played in the league that became known as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. There, Ms. Sams left the same sort of athletic mark she did on her Vestal neighborhood, where she lived most of her life.

She had a career batting average of .290, sixth highest all time in the league, while playing for the Muskegon (Mich.) Lassies and later the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Lassies after the financially strapped team was sold in 1950.

Ms. Sams, who was 5-foot-9 and wore eyeglasses, also had several other noteworthy accomplishments in the league. She was player of the year in 1947 while also reportedly making the all-star team as both a pitcher and an outfielder. She threw a perfect game that year using a sidearm pitching style. Ms. Sams also was named player of the year in 1949, and set the league home run mark of 12 in 1952.

She had become involved in the league after playing on a softball team that won several Tennessee state championships and featured much-older players. One teammate was Mildred Doyle, who was the first woman superintendent of Knox County Schools.

Ms. Sams said in a 1997 interview with Jim Sargent that a young friend of her family stopped by the house in 1946 and told her that two women's professional teams were passing through town after spring training. So she went to the hotel where the Racine, Wisc., team was staying. Because of rain, she later went with the team on a bus to Chattanooga for a tryout after talking with the manager.She made the squad, although she was soon allocated to the expansion team in Muskegon. "Of course, I was homesick, like the other girls," she said about her first year. "But I thoroughly enjoyed every blame day of playing ball."

Prior to that, she already had carved out a pretty impressive athletic resume in other sports. In 1938, she won a regional marbles tournament and became the first girl to qualify for the national marbles championship in Chicago. She also won the 1942 Knoxville badminton championship. Ms. Sams was inducted into Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 1970 and later te Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame in 1982.

After her playing career, Ms. Sams did clerical work for the Knoxville Utilities Board, Rader said. While the 1945 Knoxville High graduate was known for being competitive on the field, off it she was considered very compassionate. "She was very giving," said Rader, who helped oversee some of Sams' care after most of her immediate family had died. "If you needed a ride to a doctor, or needed a ride to the store, she was always there."

Jack Marshall, another cousin, also was full of praise. "She was probably the best person I've ever known," he said. "She was just a good all-around girl and a wonderful gal." Rader also called Ms. Sams about the funniest person she has ever known, although she did say that Ms. Sams also was very shy. Rader said that the producers of the movie, "A League of Their Own," wanted Ms. Sams to go on the road to help promote it, but she declined because she did not want to be in the spotlight.

But Sams' career and legacy are still front and center locally and nationally. "She made women more a part of public sports," said Gordon Sams. "She was an interesting lady and I hope she will never be forgotten."

The funeral service for Ms. Sams was held Sunday at Stevens Mortuary in Knoxville.

Contributed by: Joan Holderness
Submitted on: 07/04/2012
Copyright: Knoxville News Sentinel

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