Dottie Ferguson Key: 'I'd rather play ball than eat or sleep'

ROCKFORD, Ill. — By her own admission, Dottie Ferguson Key wasn't a great hitter, but she was proud that she had reached base 91 times being hit by a pitch as a star for the Rockford Peaches.

"I'd rather play ball than eat or sleep," Key said before boarding a bus bound for an All-American Girls Professional Baseball League reunion in 1986.

It was that kind of spirit that helped make the former second baseman/center fielder a Rockford sports icon and a member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.

She died Thursday at age 80 in the home of her daughter, Dona Ericksen, after a battle with cancer.

"She was ready to go be a part of her team and be with her No. 1 fan, who was our dad, whom we lost seven months ago," Ericksen said. "They were a team for more than 60 years."

Ericksen said she considered her mother a woman ahead of her time.

"She had her career first and then she had her family after. She played the game because she loved to play. That was a great step forward back then."

Key, a leadoff hitter with great speed, was a fan favorite during her 10 seasons with the Peaches.

Key, the North American women's speedskating champion in 1939, was denied an Olympic appearance for her native Canada in 1942 by World War II. She was drafted by, and signed with, the Peaches in 1945.

Key, who was born on Feb. 17, 1923, in Virden, Manitoba, remained with the Peaches until the league disbanded in 1954 and was a member of all four of the team's league championships in 1945, 1948, 1949 and 1950. Her road uniform is part of the Women in Baseball exhibit dedicated in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame on Nov. 5, 1988.

She appeared in several clips featured in the 1987 Ken Burns-produced documentary "A League of Their Own." She supposedly was the basis for the "All the Way" Mae character played by Madonna in the 1992 Hollywood version.

"She was never like that, she was strictly a baseball player. She loved it," said Helen "Sis" Waddell Wyatt, a member of the Peaches in 1950 and 1951.

Key was inducted into the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.

Key married her Canadian sweetheart, Donald L. Key, who had been a member of Canada's Olympic track and field team, in 1949. Wyatt said Dottie rebuffed his first proposal of marriage and put only one condition on her acceptance of the second.

"I get to keep playing baseball," Wyatt said of Dottie's prenuptial demand.