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'Aunt Mary' Dobkin Dies; Advocate for Poor Children

August 25, 1987|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Mary Dobkin, the crippled woman who coached and guided thousands of Baltimore's poorest children both on and off the baseball field and whose extraordinary exploits resulted in a national television tribute in 1979, has died.

She was 84 and had recently suffered a stroke. She died Saturday at a Baltimore nursing home.

Long a folk heroine in her adopted city, she became known to the rest of America after Jean Stapleton portrayed her in the television film "Aunt Mary."

The tough-talking Ms. Dobkin had lost both her feet and half of one leg as a young woman and spent most of her life either in hospitals or housing projects. Despite those abject surroundings, she managed to become Baltimore's first woman municipal baseball manager in 1941 and in the ensuing years organized and coached sandlot baseball teams and later formed an athletic club for children who were as impoverished as she was.

Ms. Dobkin also was known for her annual Christmas parties where she dispensed toys and affection to those same needy children.

"You be good to kids and most of 'em will come out on top," she once said.

"She was one of the hardest workers we had for kids," said City Councilman Dominic DiPietro. "She kept them kids moving. She saved all of them kids. She kept them playing ball."

She was a a native of Russia who left in 1905 at the age of 3 and came to live with an aunt and uncle after her father died and her mother abandoned her. They settled in Baltimore with Mary and their five children, but in those deprived days the family often went without food and the children were sent on the streets to forage. One cold winter night when she was 6 she was found on the street suffering severe frostbite.

Never Found by Family

She was taken to a hospital but could not speak English and was never found by her aunt and uncle.

She spent most of her younger years in hospital welfare wards and underwent more than 100 operations to try to repair the damage to her feet and legs. But the final result was amputation.

She learned English by listening to a radio in her hospital room and, because that room fronted on the stadium where the Baltimore Orioles played, became fascinated by the screaming crowds. She eventually taught herself to read by combing the sports pages for baseball news.

At a therapy camp she learned to catch and hit a baseball from a wheelchair, and the experience transformed her into a person interested not only in America's national pastime but in teaching it to other unfortunates.

In a trip to Los Angeles in 1979 to promote the film about her life, she told The Times that when she finally left the hospital she was in her late 30s and vowed, "If God was good enough to let me live . . . I would work with children for the rest of my life."

In 1941 she began keeping that vow, starting with the children in her housing project. She persuaded her young charges to raffle tickets to raise money for equipment and told a neighborhood merchant she would keep the kids from stealing from his store if he would buy uniforms for her new team. That was a pact that remained in force until shortly before her death.

From there she organized teams across the city. She started the Mary Dobkin Athletic Club, always volunteering her time so she could remain on welfare. Ellis Cohen, one of her former Dobkin Dynamites--whose biography formed the basis for the TV movie--said, "The kids can't say to her, you don't know where I'm coming from."

Over the years she raised funds to provide hooks for a handless boy and then trained him to catch a baseball. When Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey threw out the first ball at a 1965 Major League All-Star game, that youngster was a bat boy for the game. Another boy, born without a hand and foot, learned to kick a football and became a water boy for the old Baltimore Colts.

Ms. Dobkin became known to most of the famous major leaguers of the era, and her athletic club office was adorned with autographed photos of many of them.

Until just recently she continued to appear regularly on the practice field, using crutches to move from child to child, alternately yelling and cajoling them to try harder.

"We've had kids on my teams become doctors and lawyers," she said in 1979. "And 35 police. Imagine 35 police. You should have seen what cop-haters a lot of them were. . . . But my greatest joy is the boys who are now grown up and are bringing their own kids to practice. Some of them are my best coaches."

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