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'She was the best catcher in the history of Arizona Softball': The story of athlete Dot Wilkinson

Dot Wilkinson, the catcher for the Phoenix Rambler’s softball team, waited for the play to begin.

Carol Spanks, a player for the Orange Lionettes, stood at third base when she ambitiously looked at home plate. She was determined to reach it.

A pitch was thrown to the batter. Spanks started bolting. 

She attempted to jump over Wilkinson, but found herself flying into the fence before she could reach home plate. 

Wilkinson walked over to Spanks and stood over her. 

“Don’t ever do that again,” Wilkinson said.  

This is just one example of Wilkinson’s toughness on the field. Wilkinson began her softball career in 1933 and played her first game for the Ramblers at just 11 years old. She became a catcher for the team when she was just 16 years old and became known for her arm, her catching skills and her left-handed hitting.  

Lynn Ames, author of the biography “Out at the Plate: The Dot Wilkinson Story,” and a close friend of Wilkinson’s, recalls one of Wilkinson's other memorable traits on the field. 

“You couldn’t tell Dot ‘no,’” Ames said. “If she had it in her mind that she was going to do something, she was by-golly going to do it.” 

Ames described Wilkinson as a “tiger” on the field – a true competitor with a feisty and pugnacious nature. Ames recalled an instance where Wilkinson picked up a bottle of coke, shook it and sprayed it in an umpire’s face. 

“I’d think ‘Oh my God, what were you thinking?’” Ames said. 

Phoenix Ramblers pitcher and Wilkinson’s close friend Billie Harris is described as the opposite of Wilkinson in terms of personality. Ames called Harris “the kindest human being you’d ever want to meet” – someone who always had a smile and something nice to say. 

“She’s a fierce athlete, still, yet her demeanor was sweet,” Harris’ friend Andrea Martinez said of Harris.

In Ames’ biography about Wilkinson, Wilkinson said that Harris “ran like the wind,” and could “beat out just about any ball she got her bat on.” Her competitiveness on the field is something she shared with Wilkinson throughout their years on the team. 

Wilkinson and Harris became so close they were considered sisters during their time on the Ramblers. Their bond lasted over 70 years until Wilkinson passed away in March 2023 at the age of 101. 

“They were both extraordinary women in their own ways and as different temperament as you can possibly imagine,” Ames said. “But it didn’t matter. You know, maybe that’s part of what made them such great friends.”

Harris, Wilkinson and their teammates experienced the thrill of the sport they loved at the cost of going through the struggle of being women in the sports industry. 

While it was a challenging time to be a woman due to struggles in voting rights, abortion rights and more, it was particularly difficult to be a woman of color. As an African-American female softball player and the first Black player in the amateur softball league, Harris experienced many instances of poor treatment, as she was breaking the color barrier.  

“To be Billie was hard,” Ames said. “She couldn't often stay in the same hotels with the players. She'd be put up by Black families.”

Harris would often have to eat in the kitchen while her other teammates ate out front, and sometimes was refused service. While most of her teammates were accepting of her joining the team, some of Harris’ teammates were “less than welcoming,” according to Ames. 

Wilkinson, who identified as lesbian, also experienced struggles throughout her softball career. A romance blossomed from a rivalry she shared with softball team Orange Lionettes’ player Estelle “Ricki” Caito.  

“It wasn’t just about softball for them, it was about life,” Ames said. 

Their romance was kept secret until Caito passed away in 2011 when Wilkinson opened up about their relationship. Keeping their relationship secret was something Wilkinson regretted, said Wilkinson’s friend Nona Lee.  

“They didn’t have the ability to be authentic,” Lee said. “It’s really hard to hide any part of yourself and have to live two different lives... and they had to do that.” 

While the prejudice that Harris, Wilkinson and their teammates faced in the 1940s has slightly faded, many of their struggles are still prominent in the sports world today.  

According to Martinez, the root of the problem lies in the people in power, who are often white, cisgender, straight and able-bodied men. 

“[If] the sports team is owned, say, by a white male and run by a white male, then there are going to be very few women roles in the upper levels,” Martinez said. “Then there are going to be even fewer who are women of color and probably even fewer who are openly gay.” 

Filling positions of power with people who are a part of underserved and underrepresented communities is a step in the right direction of equality, Martinez said. 

“History is written by those in power, and so typically the history that we learn is the perspective of those physically oppressing other groups who are disenfranchised, marginalized, and individual and invisible,” Martinez said. 

“It helps to share a narrative that perhaps could be erased.” 

In a study conducted by OutSport and Out on the Fields, 80% of study participants who play sports have either witnessed or experienced homophobia in their sport. Despite women of color having more opportunities in sport, 73% of professional softball players in the U.S. are white, according to Zippia.

Ames said the next step in creating safer spaces for marginalized groups in the sports industry and society lies in not “othering” people. 

“[Dot] didn’t want to be a queer ballplayer. She just wanted to be a ball player,” Ames said. “Straight people don’t walk around announcing that they’re straight. Queer people should not walk around announcing that they’re queer. They just are."  

The fight for equality may be arduous, but Ames believes that society is on its way to creating inclusive spaces where everyone is treated equally, regardless of their identity. 

“We’re getting closer to equal pay for women and men athletes,” Ames said. “We’re getting closer to recognition that, you know, that athletes of all stripes and sizes and gender identities exist and that’s okay.” 

Despite the hardships they faced, or perhaps because of those hardships, both women were incredible trailblazers. Throughout their careers, they continued to break the boundaries and standards set by the world around them. Harris was the first African American woman to be inducted into the Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame in 1982. Wilkinson and Harris were both inducted into the National Softball Hall of Fame for their achievements in the sport. 

In a Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board meeting in August, a group of friends and fans of Wilkinson’s waited anxiously in Phoenix City Council Chambers.  

Their proposal to the board? Bringing the story, the struggles and the legacy of Wilkinson, Harris, and their teammates to light as soon as possible. 

In Arizona, one cannot name a location after someone who passed away until a 5 year grace period passes. But Wilkinson’s supporters were fighting for an exception to the rule to share her story with those who play on one softball field in Phoenix. 

“She was the best catcher in the history of Arizona Softball,” said Lee. “To name a field after her will inspire so many girls and women who play on that field to be as exceptional as Dot was.” 

The motion to make an exception to the policy was approved and is currently in progress. The softball field set to be named after her is at Esteban Park, 4.5 miles away from where Wilkinson lived, giving the park an opportunity to bring the legacy of Harris, Wilkinson and their teammates to light. 

In naming a field after Wilkinson, Lee hopes that the decision will inspire the next generation of women and queer sports players. 

“I don't think there are many fields named after women,” Lee said. “In addition to providing girls with a field named after an incredible woman to play on, it will show them it's possible.”  

Although the park renaming has yet to be officially designated, the signs for the park are in the process of being made and there will be an opening ceremony for the park in the future.  

For now, Wilkinson’s close friends and supporters are willing to wait a little longer if it means honoring Wilkinson, Harris and the legacy of the Phoenix Ramblers.

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