Lavonne "Pepper" Paire-Davis, the inspiration for the central character in the movie A League of Their Own, has died at 88 in Van Nuys, her son said Sunday.
Davis, a star of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the 1940s, died of natural causes, William Davis told The Associated Press.
Pepper Davis, who often regailed audiences throughout the San Fernando Valley with tales of the girls league, was a model for the character played by Geena Davis in the 1992 hit A League of Their Own. The film also starred Rosie O'Donnell, Madonna, and Tom Hanks as the crusty manager who shouted the famous line, "There's no crying in baseball!"
It was a line Davis used herself during an appearance in Chatsworth in 2011:
“There’s no crying in baseball. You cried in your room at night after shutting off the lights and laying your head on the pillow," she said.
In 1944 Davis joined the league, created out of fear that World War II would interrupt Major League Baseball, and played for 10 seasons.
She was a catcher and shortstop, and helped her teams win five championships. She chronicled her baseball adventures in the 2009 book Dirt in the Skirt.
It was tough for her team back in the 1940s as they traveled in buses without restrooms, music, air conditioning or reclining seats, she said.
“The bus didn’t have a potty. If you had to go, you had to find tall corn fields,” Davis told her audiences. “The guys today couldn’t hack what we went through. They have a 2 1/2-hour plane ride and they tire. We loved it. We were playing baseball, making money, helping the war effort and keeping baseball alive.”
When Major League Baseball lost many of its players to the military in World War II, women played hardball in skirts instead of softball in long pants. Sliding into base was painful, often leaving sores that reopened time and again before they were finally able to heal, she said.
Davis made $55 a week playing for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
She said teams played a game every night and double-headers on Sundays and holidays. She never had a day off in 10 seasons, except when the team visited hospitals—where they played exhibition games—two or three times a year.
“That was routine. Major Leagues today would never have made it,” she said.
Davis was working as a waitress in the San Fernando Valley when the movie A League of Their Own began production. She was hired as a consultant.
“It took 60 years to tell our story,” Davis said, adding that Major League Baseball was always jealous and didn’t want to admit that the women’s teams succeeded. During the 1940s, when towns were losing minor league baseball teams as the war broke out, women were called in to keep baseball alive.
"We were first in their hearts and on their front pages in all the small towns we played in," David said. "We kept baseball alive for them.”
Davis began as a shortstop and then moved into a catcher position with the All-American Girls League. She was sassy back in the day, and got into innocent trouble with her teammates.
She recalled the time she and the other players met a bunch of sailors during one of the team’s tours. The sailors invited her and her friends back to a submarine and were given a sail around the bay.
"We broke a million regulations that night,” Davis said.
The All-American Girls league disbanded when the troops returned home from the war and as the female players left due to injuries, jobs and a desire to return to their families and former lives.
Born Lavone Paire in West Los Angeles, Pepper was given her nickname by the boys who teased her because of her red hair. They’d call her "Red Pepper" and eventually only the Pepper part stuck, she said.
Pepper grew up during the depths of the Depression. Families were very poor, but because they didn’t realize what they were missing, they were perfectly happy, she said.
They made new soles for their shoes out of cardboard and shined the tops of them to make them look good. They also made their own toys and on occasion received a special toy at Christmas.
Her mother made dresses out of lima bean sacks.
Davis got into baseball when she was 8 or 9 years old. Her brother was 18 months older. As the story goes, when it was time to choose sides for a pickup game at a sandlot, her brother would only accept if the team agreed to take his sister on the team, too.
Then the roles were reversed. Davis said she had a strong throwing arm and natural talent.
Davis was a graduate of University High School, where Marilyn Monroe was a classmate.
“People still call to buy my yearbook,” she said.
After graduating from high school, she got a job building airplanes at Lockheed in Culver City, and graduated from UCLA with a degree in English when a scout announced he was starting a professional baseball league for women.
“We thought we died and went to heaven,” Davis said. “Off I went. I just turned 18.”
She later married and raised three children.
“Back then my hair was red and my eyes were blue," Davis said. Now my eyes are red and my hair is blue. The engine is still the same inside. The accessories went to pot.”
For the women in the league at that time, transferring to hardball from softball was easy. They evolved and learned on the job.
"The [field] was [set up] between a softball game and a [hardball] game. First the mound was moved back, then the bases … and pitching went from under arm to side arm to overhand,” Davis said.
After the women’s league gained fame and original players left for a variety of reasons, the newer players had difficulty transitioning.
The fans noticed the difference in the quality of play and decided to find other pastimes. And soon the league was gone.
"I know what it's like for your dream to come true, mine did," Davis said in an AP story in 1995, when she was 70. "Baseball was the thing I had the most fun doing. It was like breathing."
-- Marianne Love and the Associated Press contributed to this report.