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August 30, 2013

The All American Girl: Dorothy Kovalchick Roark

In 1952, baseball brought Dorothy Kovalchick to West Monroe, La. from Sagamore, Penn. By then, she had already achieved more than many could dream of.

From 1940 to 1948, Dorothy played professional baseball, and was one of the first women to do so.

Dorothy moved to the twin cities with her first husband, professional baseball player Ralph Erwin, who was sent to Monroe to play for the Monroe Sports minor league baseball team while recovering from surgery on his pitching arm.

Unfortunately, Erwin's arm never recovered, ending his baseball career. Having fallen in love with the area, Erwin and Kovalchick decided to settle in West Monroe, permanently.

During her time in West Monroe, Dorothy remarried and lived a quiet life as an accountant and real estate broker in the twin cities, raising her daughter Denise with her second husband Earl Roark, and spending time with her granddaughter, Brooke.

Modest, yet high-spirited, Mrs. Roark carries with her a historical sports legacy that exemplifies her strength and presence.

Dorothy Roark is best known for her career as a professional baseball player during WWII, first barnstorming with her father's team the Kovalchick's, then playing for the famed Fort Wayne Daisies in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League—the first league of its kind for women, and the same league chronicled in the blockbuster film, "A League of Their Own."

It was once said in the Indiana Evening Gazette that she was "20 years ahead of the women's liberal movement."

Her eight years playing with men earned her fame and recognition beyond her wildest dreams.

While taking a break from playing with the Kovalchick's men's baseball team in 1945, Dorothy decided to explore unchartered territory, joining the All American Girls Baseball League.

Roark said, "I never even knew softball existed—until I went to the All American League. I had been barnstorming for four years with the men's team prior to going to the All American League. Upon leaving that league, I chose to return to barnstorming on a men's team for four more years."

The All American league became a main attraction for baseball fans during World War II due to the large numbers of players from men's professional teams being drafted into the war.

Upon returning to the Kovalchick's men's team in 1947, Roark took another bold chance and tried out for the Pittsburgh Pirates Major League Baseball team.

The Altoona Mirror said she was "the first girl ever to report to any baseball school in the area."

In the 40s, Dorothy was known as a heavy hitter and great baseball player and she proved that again almost over 65 years later in 2012 at the age of 86, when she was asked to throw out the first pitch during a double-header for the University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM) Warhawks Softball Team.

"It was a great honor," said Roark. "It was an honor just that they asked me to do that. I received a signed baseball from the Warhawks Baseball Team along with special memorabilia from the girls. I appreciate that I had the opportunity to pitch for them."

ULM Softball Coach, Rosemary Holloway-Hill reflected on Roark's visit.

She said, "Just like any competitor would do, Mrs. Roark came out a day early to practice her pitches to our catcher. She also was very entertaining as she spoke of her experiences in the professional league."

On that spring evening of April 24, 2012 in front of a gracious crowd and surrounded by the ULM Softball Team on the field, and the ULM Baseball Team in the stands, Roark showed everyone what she was made of.

"She threw a strike for her first pitch!" said Holloway-Hill.

"I believe our Warhawk Softball Team walked away not only amazed at her resilience, style, and candor, but also knowing more of the history of females in the sport."

Roark's tremendous feat of throwing a first-pitch strike from a regulation softball mound is just one more accomplishment to add to her list of life-long achievements.

In 2008, the Senator John Heinz Historical Sports Museum featured her as one of three athletes in its historical display. Roark's eight-foot banner still hangs from the rafters of the museum five years later.

"Every year, hundreds of students and families come in and see the banner," said Roark.

"They see a woman who played baseball—not softball—and they are inspired."

Today, at 87, Roark continues to travel the country doing speaking engagements and book signings for her popular book, "Uncertain Destiny," which she calls "A fulfillment of [her] father's wishes."

On Sept. 10, she will travel to Kittanning Penn., near where she grew up.

She will be speaking during an hour-long program as a special guest, promoting her book, and telling her amazing story. Three days later, she will serve as the guest of honor during Kittanning's two-day jamboree.

National Baseball Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan once said, "One of the beautiful things about baseball is that every once in a while you come into a situation where you want to, and where you have to, reach down and prove something."

That "once in a while" was and still is every day for Dorothy Roark.

Dorothy's book, "Uncertain Destiny" is presently in its sixth printing. To purchase "Uncertain Destiny," call 318-323-8756.

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