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A Game OF Pepper : One of the Original 'Characters,' Lavon Davis Hopes That an Upcoming Movie Does Justice : to the Only Women's Pro Baseball League

December 25, 1991|JEFF MEYERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With Madonna and Geena Davis starring as 1940s pro baseball players who overcome sexism and inside fastballs to save America's sagging spirits during World War II, Columbia Pictures' upcoming "A League of Their Own" can't help but be outrageous, audacious and occasionally dramatic.

The movie, as odd as it sounds--women playing hardball for a living?--is based on fact. In the long history of professional baseball in this country, women have had their own league only once. It was called--no surprise here--the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and it lasted from 1943 through 1954.

Remarkably, however, no matter how far out the movie gets, it will be hard-pressed to outdo the real thing. You want high jinks and romance? Singing and dancing? Pain and broken hearts? The original cast had it all:

-- On a tour of South America, two players managed to escape from their chaperon long enough to break into a hotel liquor cabinet. They got caught, avoided prosecution by paying for damages out of their meal money, and still got to the game on time.

-- Shortly before a game, a player learned by letter that her fiance had been killed in a crash of a B-24 on Okinawa. She played the game.

-- A baserunner jumped up to dispute a call at second base and accidentally decked the umpire, a moonlighting pro football player.

-- Wearing a splint on a freshly broken ring finger, a catcher threw out the first three runners who tried to steal.

These are enough anecdotes to supply an entire team of fictional players but, in reality, they happened to only one player, Lavon (Pepper) Davis. Now a spry 67-year-old widowed grandmother living in Van Nuys, Davis had more than her share of adventures, but she was far from unusual. The league, she says, was full of exuberant athletes who played hard on and off the field, bonded by a zest for both life and baseball.

"You have to love baseball to go through what we did," said Davis, who played shortstop, catcher, first base and pitcher for three teams during her 10 years in the league.

She was a consultant for the movie, spending 22 days on the set in Evansville, Ind. Her answer to the obvious question is no, Madonna is not playing her. Davis relates most closely to the Geena Davis character, a catcher. And she has read the script, reporting that it met her approval by "treating the baseball seriously and with respect."

Which is all the women ever wanted in real life. Until the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown recognized them three years ago with a permanent exhibition called "Women in Baseball," the 545 women who played in the league had been swept under the carpet of sports history. Even today, women are acknowledged for their prowess in softball, but baseball is considered beyond their limitations. That makes Pepper Davis see red.

"When I was behind the dish, I could throw to second on one knee, which is not too shabby," she said. "We didn't have the power men did, but we played just as skillfully. We could beat an average men's team any day of the week, and we did. I had one romance break up because the guy got so mad when we beat his team."

Breaking down social barriers was not the reason women were given their one and only chance to play baseball.

Chewing-gum magnate P. K. Wrigley, who owned the Chicago Cubs, devised the league as a patriotic diversion for war-weary Americans, but it was also an insurance policy that would keep major league club owners in business in the event the majors had to close down because of all the players trading in their bats for rifles.

But the league initially bombed in the big cities, Davis said, "because the media didn't like the idea of women playing baseball" and turned off fans with negative writing. The league found a home, however, in Midwestern towns--Racine, Wis.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Grand Rapids, Mich.--expanding to a high of 10 teams and drawing more than a million fans one season.

Although the league demonstrated a woman athlete's ability, it helped perpetuate the male belief that women had to look and act feminine to play sports. Wrigley insisted on dressing the players in skirts--a maximum six inches above the knee--and sending them to charm school.

So that the public would perceive them as womanly, players had to wear makeup on the field and keep their hair long while playing on teams with such names as Chicks, Daisies, Peaches, Belles and Lassies.

"We had to look like ladies and play baseball like men," Davis said.

Slang was discouraged, grooming emphasized, slacks banned. Each team employed a full-time woman chaperon to screen dates and scrutinize moral conduct. The treatment the players received reflected the mood and attitudes of a different generation, and the women accepted it without protest.

But they still managed to have fun. To lighten the load of a 130-game season, pranks were standard procedure: Limburger cheese on chaperons' hotel light bulbs, toothpaste in Oreo cookies. All-night bus rides were made enjoyable by marathon singing sessions.

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