Faye Dancer - Classy Clown
By Lou Parrotta
When Faye Dancer succumbed to breast cancer on May 22, 2002, those who played with and against her fondly recalled her legacy in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). The first item to always be brought up was the dedication to the game that Dancer had throughout her career. "She was a great all-around ballplayer," Lavonne "Pepper" Paire Davis told the Associated Press upon hearing of Dancer's death. "She was a tough lady. She fought every step of the way to win in baseball and she went out that way, fighting every step of the way."
When the AAGPBL gained renewed celebrity in 1992 as a result of the blockbuster-hit movie A League of Their of Own, many of the real players began to earn a rebirth of fame. Dancer was no different, and in all actuality she earned more notoriety as a result of the actress who portrayed her in the movie - the superstar singer Madonna. "All the Way Mae," the character based on Dancer's career and life, was the one who gave all-out gutsy performances each and every game, and also had a great deal of enjoyment derived from the camaraderie of being on a team. Dancer was no different in real life. Known to many as a clown and rules-breaker, Dancer once told John B. Holway in an interview "...I was the original clown of the league. Rules were always made to be broken, and I think I broke every rule in the book."
Faye Dancer was born April 24, 1925 in Santa Monica, California. After developing an affinity for baseball, much like many of the other members of the AAGPBL, she went on to play softball in Beverly Hills, California. When the AAGPBL took off, their scouts scoured the nation looking for potential players, and when Minneapolis was searching for players for their expansion team, they signed Dancer and Paire to contracts. Just out of high school in 1944, Dancer signed a contract for $75.00 a week, which was a sizeable sum in those days and also the top salary for any player in the league. As an aside, when Dancer retired due to a back injury in 1950, she was earning $125.00 per week.
Her rookie year saw her smash two grand slams and steal 25 bases. She was definitely known for her speed. In 1948, her 5th year in the league, she amassed 108 stolen bases - then a league record and a terrific feat in women's or men's baseball. Dancer, who played center field and also pitched, was a versatile player. "She was that rare breed of ballplayer that could get up to bat, lay down a perfect bunt, then steal second base. Then, the next time up, she could hit the long ball and knock it out of the ballpark," Davis recalled.
Dancer was known for her superstitious ways. She was even benched for an entire game by manager Bill Wambsganns, who gained his notoriety in the 1920 World Series where he made an unassisted triple play. "Wamby," as the team called him, was not an ideal man to manage women. He was a budding minister who did not take kindly to women cussing, and if you took away his moment of fame in the 1920 World Series, he was not the most knowledgeable of managers in the league. "He didn't know too much about the game," Dancer said. As for her superstitious ways, Wamby benched her for being "overly superstitious." It was in response to a seven-to-eight game winning streak where the team did not change their uniforms, socks or anything. They were stinking up everything despite piling on cologne. Wamby truly benched Dancer for being too superstitious and for influencing others on the team to be.
Members of the AAGPBL were forced to take classes on how to be proper women in society. At charm school, which she considered a "big joke," Dancer was taught how to act in public, not to wear slacks in public, and overall how to be a lady. "We were in competition with women's softball, which was well organized in the Midwest," said Dancer. "A lot of the softball women were very mannish, had men's haircuts, and dressed like men. So... we had to go to 'charm school,' which was... more for publicity."
Dancer was the proverbial jokester on the teams she played for, which included Minneapolis, the Fort Wayne Daisies, and the Peoria Red Wings. In her interview with Holway, she recalled many instances when she drove the team chaperones crazy with her antics:
"Every team had a chaperone, and I was the one who always initiated them. I put Limburger cheese on their light bulbs, toothpaste in their Oreo cookies, and peanut butter on their toilet seats. Some of them just couldn't take it. Pepper and I did crazy things. We used to go out to the graveyards, take our beer with us, and drink out there. We were supposed to be in our rooms no later than ten. The coaches and chaperones would be down in the lobby, so Pepper and I used to go up the fire escapes. I'd stand on the car to pull the fire escape down, she'd hand me the beer, and we'd go through the window. I don't know how many times we did that. One night, we went back to the hotel, and we got on the service elevator, and for some unknown reason that damn thing stopped on the main floor, and Wamby got a look at us. All he said was, ŒYou'd better be able to play tomorrow.' And up we went. I tell you, we never played so hard in our lives as we did the next day. We not only won, but both of us got base hits. He never did say anything. But we knew not to do it again the next night, which we didn't."
That story sounds eerily similar to the ones always told about the great George Herman "Babe" Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Billy Martin, among numerous others of the era!
Just like in the movie with Madonna's "All the Way Mae" character, Dancer's fiance was killed in World War II. Dancer never remarried, instead dedicating herself to her work. After retiring from the AAGPBL in 1950, a result of an ill-timed slide that injured her back, Dancer went to work for Hughes Aircraft and then spent 35 years working for an electronics technician for a power generator manufacturing committee in Santa Monica. When she was laid off from her job in 2000, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which would eventually cost her her life.
Dancer is immortalized in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in the AAGPBL display whose unveiling was attended by 75 alumni of the AAGPBL in 1988 including Dancer. Her spikes and gloves are on display for all to see, and the most famous photo of her is also there - the one that depicts her hustle and all-out play in 1948 that shows her sliding into third base to avoid a tag.
"All the Way Faye" Dancer's career was certainly a memorable one. The impression she left on the league and her teammates was one of dedication, hustle and fun. Everyone should leave the sport with the same things said about them.
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