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OBITUARIES / Dottie Wiltse Collins, 1923 - 2008

Star pitcher in women's baseball league in '40s

August 24, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Dottie Wiltse Collins, a top pitcher in the women's professional baseball league in the 1940s who was instrumental in pulling together the Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit that led to the film "A League of Their Own," has died. She was 84.

Collins, who was a star softball player while growing up in Los Angeles, died Aug. 12 of a stroke at Regency Place, a nursing center in Fort Wayne, Ind., said Laura Knox, a supervisor at the center.

Between 1944 and 1950, Collins pitched mainly for the Fort Wayne Daisies, a team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, established in 1943 by Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley to keep ballparks busy while men were away at war.

"We had no idea we were making history," Collins often said. "We were just doing what we loved -- playin' ball."

In six seasons, she pitched 17 shutouts and won more than 20 games in each of her first four years. When the league switched from underhand to overhand pitching, she easily adapted and ended her career with a lifetime ERA of 1.83.

She also may have been the only professional ballplayer to cut a season short due to pregnancy. Still, she pitched until she was several months pregnant with her first child in 1948.

Decades after Collins had last officially worn her baseball uniform -- a one-piece tunic dress with shorts underneath -- she reunited many of the players for the league's first exhibition game, in 1981 in Fort Wayne.

The gathering helped renew interest in the league that folded in 1954. It also led Collins to help found the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Players Assn., which is dedicated to preserving their history. She served as the group's primary spokeswoman and longtime treasurer.

For a 1987 feature, Los Angeles Times reporter Janice Mall called the Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., to ask if there were plans for an exhibit about the All-American Girls League. Ted Spencer, now chief curator of the museum, responded "absolutely," but he told The Times last week "that was stretching the truth a bit."

"All I had was a pack of baseball cards" from the women's league, Spencer said, but he asked the reporter to encourage readers to contact him if they could provide memorabilia or information about women in baseball.

"Within two weeks, I got a letter from Dottie, and I recognized her name right away," he said. " 'Let's start talking,' she wrote. . . . She was very self-effacing. This was never about her. She had the respect of all the other ladies in the group, and they went along with what she wanted to do."

Artifacts began pouring into the museum's mailbox, and the exhibit honoring women in baseball debuted on Nov. 5, 1988. Collins pulled the curtain to officially unveil the display, which included a plaque with the names of 555 women who played in the league.

Actor-director Penny Marshall attended the opening and "left realizing that it was more than an exhibit. There was also a story to be told on the silver screen," according to a Baseball Hall of Fame history.

Marshall had become aware of the league through the 1987 documentary "A League of Their Own" that had aired on public television and was coproduced by Kelly Candaele, a son of one of the league's players.

In the documentary, Collins "was very observant about sports and reflective about how the culture changed," Candaele told The Times last week. "When television came into being, people had more things to do, and she thought it played a part in the league ending."

Released in 1992, the movie "A League of Their Own" brought the women more attention, and Collins often found herself being asked if the Dottie played by Geena Davis was based on her. The character was a composite of women in the league, according to the 2005 biography "Dottie Wiltse Collins: Strikeout Queen of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League."

Collins liked the film but criticized such dramatic flourishes as Madonna catching a ball with her hat and Davis doing a split as she nabs a pop fly.

Those scenes were "a little bit stupid," Collins told the Associated Press in 1992. "We were very serious in what we did. We think of ourselves as a third major league."

Dorothy Wiltse was born Sept. 23, 1923, in Inglewood to Daniel and Eleanor Wiltse. Her father played second base in the semi-professional National Niteball Baseball League in Inglewood and coached his daughter from an early age to play baseball.

At Wrigley Field in South Los Angeles in 1936, a 12-year-old Collins led her team to the Southern California girls softball championship before a crowd of more than 25,000. Most of her teammates were reportedly in their late teens and early 20s.

After graduating from high school in 1941, she worked for Payne Furnace and played for the company's semi-pro team. Through a former team manager, she won a tryout in 1944 with the All-American League and joined the Minneapolis Millerettes, a team that lasted one season.

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