top of page
  • Sam Gilman

Aunt Mary

Jean Stapleton portrays Baltimore's legendary youth coach "Aunt Mary"

Every now and again life requires you to find a movie you’ve never heard of and give it a whirl. If you’re lucky you just might happen upon a gem. Aunt Mary is a diamond and there is nothing rough about its sparkle.

The film covers one of the most influential coaches in American baseball history, a disabled Russian immigrant woman. Making its small screen debut in 1979 we won’t blame you if you’ve never heard of it, or Aunt Mary herself.

Here’s your spoiler alert. This is, without question, one of the best baseball movies I’ve ever laid eyes on and I’ve watched more than my fair share in life.

Mary Dobkin was a child immigrant who arrived in America without her family. Her mother abandoned the family and her father passed away in Russia so she, along with an aunt and uncle, immigrated to the States in 1905. There were 6 children in their household and times were tough so the children were sent into the streets to find food.

At just 6 years old she was found, nearly dead from frostbite and exposure, on the streets without a pair of shoes to her name. She could not speak English. She had to undergo a series of surgeries, 100 in all, to treat the frostbitten extremities but eventually she lost both feet and part of one leg. After she was recovered she could not find her aunt and uncle and they had not inquired after her. She was in her late 30s by that time. She later recalled that, when she left the hospital she said, “If God was good enough to let me live… I would work for children for the rest of my life”.

The work she did with those kids, how it all began, that is the story that is covered in the 1979 film Aunt Mary. It is such a small but significant sliver of a life lived with determination, charity and love at its core.

Mary remained a ward of the city her whole life. That means she was under the care of the government due to her physical disabilities. Born in August 1902 she passed away just 8 days before her 85th birthday. As many people do today, Mary learned English by listening to the radio and watching TV. She learned the game she loved the same way. It was during her recovery from surgery that her interest in the game was ignited. She learned to catch and hit in therapy camp from her wheelchair. The hospital was close enough to the stadium she could see and hear the crowd. The sports pages taught her to read.

It seems only fitting then that her story was told in a made for TV movie where she was portrayed by the legendary actress Jean Stapleton. Kids of the 80s will also recognize a few others in the cast including Oliver from The Brady Bunch, Sarge from Gimme A Break and Eddie from Growing Pains, aka Greg in E.T.

Stapleton said Mary herself taught the kids in the cast how to behave on-set and play the game. Perhaps it is no surprise then that her New York Times obituary headline read, “Mary Dobkin Dies; Advocate for Poor Children”, where she was quoted as saying “You be good to kids and most of ‘em will come out on top.”

Aunt Mary, as she was known to the neighborhood kids, was not one to sit around and loaf, Mary saw a need in her Baltimore community and she filled it. Concerned that juvenile delinquency was ruining the neighborhood, she formed the Dobkin Dynamiters, a team filled with minority and disadvantage youth. Her act of community spirit made her the first woman to ever coach little league in Baltimore, the first coach to integrate a team and the first to put a girl on a team.

"Aunt Mary" Dobkins and her kids

Mary would leave a legacy that spanned more than her decades on the diamond. She supported nearly 35,000 boys and girls as they played to escape the streets. She fundraised for equipment and uniforms, and eventually formed the Mary Dobkin Athletic Club which included softball, basketball and football activities. Her youth sports programs were primarily funded through donations and benefactors. She didn’t stop here. She went on to learn enough basketball and football to coach those teams as well.

Some of those boys went on to play in the majors including RHP Tom Phoebus and OF Ron Swoboda. Phoebus played 7 seasons in the league, 5 with his hometown Os. He posted up a 3.33 lifetime ERA and a .519 W-L% over 1,030 innings of work. He pitched in the 1970 ALCS and World Series.

Swoboda spent 9 seasons in the majors 6 with the Mets before heading to Canada for two seasons then returning to New York for the team on the other side of the subway series. Over 928 games Ron held a .242 average with a .324 OBP, .379 slugging percentage and .703 OPS. A power hitter for 4 of the 9 seasons his bat ran colder the more looks opposing pitchers got. Primarily an outfielder, playing all three spots, Swoboda did record 22 games at 1B. He finished his career with a respectable .972 fielding percentage. He also made an appearance in post season play. He was part of the 1969 NLCS and World Series where his Mets faced off against his hometown team in Baltimore.

The kids Mary chose to talk about however were wearing a different kind of uniform. “We’ve had kids on my teams become doctors and lawyers and 35 police. Imagine 35 police. You should have seen what cop-haters a lot of them were… But my greatest joy is the boys who are now grown up and bringing their own kids to practice. Some of them are my best coaches.”

In 1941 Dobkins became the first woman to serve as Baltimore’s municipal baseball manager. In 1965 the Orioles honored Mary’s contributions to the game with “Mary Dobkin Day” at the park. They didn’t select just any game day either. This was the 6th game of the 1979 World Series! Two of her players were honorary bat boys for the game and Mary threw out the first pitch.

When Mary Dobkins Park was dedicated in 1975, she became the first living person to have a playing field named after her. She remained a volunteer throughout all this to avoid any issues with her disability benefits. She also threw an annual Christmas party in her neighborhood for the kids. Her efforts did not go unnoticed. Upon her death City Councilman Dominic DiPietro commented, “She was one of the hardest workers we had for kids.”

If your travels bring you to the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore, you can visit the exhibit dedicated to Mary’s life’s work.

bottom of page