This Dennis McCarthy column was first published on Nov. 14, 2004 under the title “A league of her own — pro baseball legend Pepper Davis recalls her diamond days in the sun.”
Pepper Davis opens the screen door of her tiny Van Nuys bungalow on a Friday, sliding another bowl of cat food out onto the front porch for the neighborhood strays.
“The thing is, I don’t even like cats that much; I’m a dog person,’” the 80-year-old widow says. “But I can’t let these baby strays starve, so I feed them, and they hang around my yard all day.
“I can see the headlines now,’” she says, laughing. “‘Cat Lady Jailed — Used to Play Baseball.’”
With that, one of the greatest female baseball players to lace on a pair of spikes turns her wheelchair around and heads back into her shrine.
Back to tables covered with scrapbooks filled with baseball programs and newspaper clippings of her exploits with the Racine Belles, Grand Rapid Chicks and Fort Wayne Daisies of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Back to walls covered in framed sports pages and photographs of Pepper with the greatest ball players of an era when major league baseball was forced to take a backseat to war.
When some incredibly talented female athletes grabbed a bat and glove and filled in for the guys. Running out onto the field of dreams in skirts to keep the spirit of baseball alive for 12 years in the country’s heartland during World War II and Korea.
It was all chronicled in the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own.’” Actress Geena Davis portrayed a character based on Pepper and her friend, Dottie Kamenshek — two of the best players in the league.
“We were damn good, and we proved it,’” Pepper said Friday, smiling as a few more neighborhood strays climb up on the front porch of the cat lady who used to play baseball.
Her parents named her LaVone, but none of the boys called her that. She was always “Pepper”‘ to them — the kid sister who learned to play hardball from her older brother, and pretty soon became the first pick when the boys chose up sides.
“Being a redhead was a stigma back then, so they nicknamed me ‘Red Pepper’ to rub it in. The name stuck when I went to play for the Dr. Pepper baseball team.’”
She went to University High School in Los Angeles, becoming good friends with a fellow student named Norma Jean Baker, who would change her name to Marilyn Monroe after high school.
Pepper went on to become a riveter and welder in a military defense plant in Culver City, until a baseball scout knocked on her parents’ door one night when she was 18.
Her baseball talents had caught the eye of promoters with a crazy idea of starting a women’s baseball league around the Chicago area. Was she interested?
“My family was poor, money wise, so I jumped at the chance,’” Pepper said. “Heck, I would have jumped at it if they were rich. The league was paying $75 a week, plus $2.50 a day in meal money. All the girls were sending money home to their families.’”
The book on Pepper was she had a pretty good bat, but a gun for an arm. They moved her from shortstop to catcher, where she played for three different teams in 11 years — all of them winning the championship when Pepper was behind the plate.
“There were 10 teams in 10 towns, and I had a boyfriend in every one of them,’” she says, with a twinkle in her eye. “We played a ballgame every night, with a doubleheader on Sundays and holidays.
“I quit in 1954, a year before the league folded, because I had finally found the right guy, and didn’t want to let him get away.
“I got married, put my scrapbooks away and became a mom.’”
In 1958, she and her husband, Bob Davis, moved into this tiny Van Nuys bungalow, built in 1928, and raised three children.
Her baseball career was over. Men were home from war. The women’s league became nothing but a small footnote in baseball history for the next 35 years.
Even a special ceremony in 1988 inducting Pepper and the entire All- American Girls Professional Baseball League into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown didn’t cause a blip on the public’s radar screen.
That blip didn’t come until film director Penny Marshall made a movie.
Growing up, Bill Davis had heard all the stories, seen the scrapbooks in the closet. He knew his mom had played professional baseball, but it never really hit home what it all meant.
“Then the movie came out, and it was, ‘Wow, that’s my mom.’ All of a sudden, everyone wanted to talk to her, have her come to their events all across the country.’”
Pepper and her teammates became stars again — traveling to charity functions all over the country — becoming friends along the way with the greatest male players of all time, including the man she thinks was the best baseball player of any era — Joe DiMaggio.
But it was the respect they found late in life that meant the most to the women, Pepper says in a book she’s just finished writing, “Dirt in a Skirt.” She’s looking for a publisher.
“Wherever we went, people asked if we could have beaten the guys,’” Pepper says. “Well, we beat some of the men’s teams we played in exhibition games.
“One man, a catcher for the Baltimore Orioles, came up to me at one event, and said we had played an exhibition game against one another in Fort Wayne back in 1948.
“Going into the 9th inning, we were beating them 3-1. He said their manager called them together in the dugout and reminded them they were going to New York to play the Yankees next.
“Did they really want to tell the Yankees that the Fort Wayne Daisies had beaten them? They rallied and beat us by one run.’”
The kid plays catcher, his grandmother’s old position.
“I think she’s still better than me,’” 13-year-old Riley Robert Davis says. “She has a great arm.”
Pepper Davis smiles. She’s been working with her grandson — trying to get him to release the ball a little earlier so he can nail the runner at second.
At 80, her knees are shot, and she gets around most of the time by wheelchair. And, when the weather gets cold like it is now, every one of her 10 fingers, each of which she’s broken many times playing baseball, really aches.
But Grandma still has a great arm.
Pepper Davis, née Paire, died on Feb. 2, 2013. She was 88.
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.