As a little girl Connie Dorsey's favorite Cardinals weren't Bob Gibson, Stan Musial or even Dizzy Dean. Those players were still yet to come. Her first Redbird heroes were Rogers Hornsby, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Jim Bottomley and — improbably — the journeyman catcher Gus Mancuso. These were the players she witnessed firsthand when her father would pile her and her brother and sister into the family DeSoto and head 50 miles north to St. Louis from the Illinois town of Prairie du Rocher.
Dorsey, who was born Connie Murray in 1914, can't remember the exact year of her first game, but she can nail the year of her first of many World Series games: 1926, the first time the Cardinals won a pennant. At 99 (she will reach the century mark this December), Dorsey is still going to Cardinals games, and she plans to be in her regular center-field seat — Section 595, Row 3, Seat 13 — when the team plays its home opener on Monday, April 7, against the Cincinnati Reds.
Dorsey has been to most home openers since the 1950s, and she occasionally dropped in on opening days in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Is she baseball's oldest fan? Well, last year a 111-year-old Yankee fan named Bernando LaPallo showed up in New York to shake Derek Jeter's hand. There were callous rumors that La Pallo was a mere 103, but either way, Connie Dorsey has a way to go. "She'll make it," says one of her friends. "She's never really had time to die."
For 37 years Dorsey taught school, starting in a one-room schoolhouse and spending most of her career as a first-grade teacher at St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Crestwood. She remains busy in retirement. Dorsey flew twice last year: once to visit her grandson in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, the other time flying to New York, where she was a backstage guest at the Today show. More recently she spent a week in Florida, watching the Cardinals in spring training and attending three exhibition games. And just last month Dorsey was in her usual spot, riding in a golf cart in Kirkwood's St. Patrick's Day Parade. Parade regulars call Dorsey's cart the "Popemobile."
Dorsey doesn't take her public appearances lightly. After the Cardinals invited her to throw out a ceremonial first pitch before a preseason game in February, she asked her physical therapist, Peggy Abeln, to work with her on throwing a baseball. Dorsey didn't want to show up in Roger Dean Stadium unprepared.
Dorsey visited the Cardinals' spring- training camp ten years ago, and late last year she and her daughter, Addie Tomber, planned another trip. But at Christmastime, Dorsey was rushed to an emergency room, where she was diagnosed with colitis and a urinary-tract infection. By most accounts, it was touch and go. The trip to Florida was off, then on again. Tomber called Drew Mooney in the Cardinals' ticket office in January to buy tickets to replace the ones they had purchased and returned in December. When Mooney heard that Tomber's mother was 99, visions of a first pitch danced in his head. He called the club's marketing department to set it up.
The day was February 28. The opposing team was the Miami Marlins. Dorsey arrived at the ballpark in a wheelchair — she also uses a walker from time to time — but for the pitch she insisted on standing. Before her, a 90-year-old woman from the St. Louis area also made an honorary first pitch.
"And now..." the public-address announcer said, "we have Connie Dorsey. We had a 90-year-old, but Connie is a 99-year-old."
Dorsey rose from her wheelchair, about halfway between the pitching rubber and home plate, and let it fly underhanded.
At the other end, glove ready, was Greg Garcia, a Cardinals infield prospect.
The throw was a close one.
"He either caught it on a short hop or got it on the fly," Dorsey says.
For the next three days Connie Dorsey was a minor celebrity around the ballpark and at her hotel. She was the 99-year-old woman who had made the first pitch.
"She had three days of fame, instead of fifteen minutes," her daughter says.
Tomber located Mooney, whose idea it was to give her mother the chance, and showed her appreciation with package of sausages.
"I knew she would make a good throw," says Peggy Abeln, Dorsey's physical therapist. "She told me she was going to go for it. She is just awesome. Her love of life is amazing. She looks forward to every single day."
And for so many of those days, there has been baseball.
"Baseball is a wonderful game," says Dorsey. "The players have such interesting personalities. It's still a thrill for me, just walking in the stadium."
Dorsey's parents were in their early fifties when they died. She says their genes must have stopped with her. Her husband, Bill Dorsey, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, was 80 when he passed away in 1989, after a marriage of nearly 45 years. He bought their three-bedroom house in Crestwood in the 1940s for $16,000 from Mark Christman, another baseball aficionado. Christman played five seasons as an infielder for the St. Louis Browns.
Dorsey still lives independently in her home, though since her illness last winter, she's used a temporary bedroom downstairs. She has resolved to return to the big bedroom on the second floor, though, never mind those sixteen steps upstairs.
"There's a landing halfway up," she notes.
One of her few concessions to age is driving a car. Three years ago, at 96, her driving license expired. She didn't renew it.
"All those years," she says, "and I only had two incidents. A speeding ticket, and the day I ran over a chicken. That was a long time ago. The farmer wouldn't let it go that I had killed his chicken."
This season Dorsey plans to attend at least fifteen games at Busch Stadium. She'd attend more, but she has discovered something that wasn't around when her father would drive her to St. Louis to see the Cardinals teams of the 1920s.
"The truth is," says Dorsey, "you see more on TV than you do at the ballpark."
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