Published: April 13, 2012 at 9:06 am
Dot Wilkinson was a well known catcher for the Phoenix Ramblers, a professional women’s softball team that won national championships in 1940, 1948 and 1949. She is considered the greatest female athlete in Arizona history and is a member of two amateur Halls of Fame (softball and bowling).
Dot was born in a Phoenix rural neighborhood near South Mountain in 1922. Her mother’s brother, Henry Austin, left England for Arizona in
1911 hoping to find relief for a lung ailment. The following year, Dot’s mother and father, Alice and Allan, followed Henry’s lead, and moved to America.
Once in Arizona, Alice and Allan bought 10 acres at Seventh Avenue and Highland and built a farmhouse, where three of their four children were born. They raised chickens, eggs, alfalfa, cotton, corn, horses and a cow.
However, times were not good for farming. A depressed farm market followed the collapse of the cotton market in the early 1920s and the arrival of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Although they kept their heads above water, Dot’s family lived a Spartan life.
It was especially difficult living in Phoenix during the summer. There was absolutely no cooling system, so Dot’s mother made ice cream by hand every day to help them cool down. They also swam in the canal near their farm, and if it got too hot at night, they would run to the canal and dip their sheets in it. Baths were taken in a galvanized tub by the stove, and because there was no running water, they had to use a pump for all their water needs.
One of Dot’s childhood memories is of walking up and down a long country road selling ears of corn by the dozen. The family needed the money so they could go to the store and buy meat. They raised their own fowl but, as Dot says, “You can get tired of eating chicken all the time.”
Another childhood memory was when Dot’s older sister, Joan, secretly ran off with a group of Salt River Indians. They used to come by the farm on their way to Phoenix to sell wood. They fascinated her, and her red hair fascinated them. One day, when no one was looking, Joan climbed on the back of their wagon. By the time her parents realized she was missing, she was on her way to the Salt River Indian Reservation. Her father figured out what must have happened and went there to retrieve his daughter.
Dot’s interest in sports was probably inherited from her parents. When they weren’t working on the farm, they used to go out to a local grocery store on Central Avenue to play tennis on the store’s dirt court. One of Dot’s earliest recollections is of being placed on an apple box to watch her parents play. Her father eventually became a senior state tennis champion, and in her time, Dot became a tennis champion too.
She attended Roosevelt Elementary School, where teachers recognized her athletic talents and recruited her at the age of 10 for a new softball team called the Ramblers.
Softball was sweeping the nation with close to a million participants by the mid-’30s and was destined to keep growing in importance. Dot settled into softball as a hard-as-nails catcher who could also hit with power. She played the sport for nearly 30 years.
The Ramblers became perennial fast-pitch champions of Arizona and won three world championships throughout the 1940s. They were so popular that in 1950 they built their own ballpark at 37th Street and Washington. It held 2,500 spectators and was usually full, especially when the Ramblers played their archrivals, the A-1 Queens. The area was still rural; once Dot hit a home run that sailed into a neighboring field and killed a farmer’s rooster.
After spending World War II working in war industries, Dot went to work for Ford Hoffman, her much-admired coach, at his insurance and realty company. The experience served her well, because after her retirement in 1964, she started a venture with Ricki Caito, a teammate and fellow Hall of Famer, purchasing dilapidated buildings on the outskirts of town and renovating them with ingenuity and hard work.
The business flourished and provided both Dot and Ricki with healthy retirements.
Dot still lives near South Mountain. She is past 80 but looks and acts like a very healthy 60-year-old. She still has strong friendships from her softball days and is proud to say that she could travel anywhere in the country and be able to stay with a friend.
— Gary Weiand. Photos courtesy Dot Wilkinson.