Thursday, February 14, 2013

Pepper Paire-Davis, RIP: In a Peach of a League of Her Own

By Jeff Kallman

If you saw A League of Their Own, you remember among other things the All-American Girls' Professional Baseball League's anthem, still warbled whenever surviving members gather at periodic reunions. The anthem's co-author, catcher Pepper Paire-Davis, who finished her league career fifth on its all-time runs batted in list, died February 2 at 88. She was considered the primary model for the film's Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis), though she often suggested another player, Dorothy Kaminshek.

You may also remember seeing the rear end of the Racine Belles' team bus emblazoned with the team's motto, "Dirt in the Skirt." The phrase became the title of Paire-Davis's 2009 memoir, in which she debunked much of the mythology portrayed in the film but did so with affection and an unapologetic recollection that — much the way Stillwell remembered his mother during the ceremony opening the league's permanent exhibit at the Hall of Fame — playing baseball was the happiest time of her life.

Ah, Hollywood. In its twentieth anniversary year, last year, I couldn't resist putting A League of Their Own into the DVD deck. For the most part, the film composited the first season of the AAGPBL, 1943, respectfully enough and with reasonably questionable accuracy.

Oops. The Racine Belles did win the league's first World Series. But the Rockford Peaches weren't their victims, as the film depicted. The Peaches finished dead last in the original four-team league; the Belles beat the Kenosha Comets in the Series.

Well, now. A quick review of the league, courtesy of their Website, informs that the Peaches proved the Biblical admonition about the last becoming first. The Peaches would become the New York Yankees of the AAGPBL: they won the most league playoff championships — four (1945, 1948-50). The Belles would win one more championship in 1946. The Milwaukee Chicks won the title in 1944 and, after moving to Grand Rapids, in 1953. The South Bend Blue Sox won back-to-back league championships in 1952-53; the Kalamazoo Lassies, who'd moved there from Muskegon during the 1950 season, won the last title in 1954.

Paire-Davis played for four pennant winners in the life of the league, while playing for the Belles, the Chicks, and the Fort Wayne Daisies.

It's almost too fitting that the Peaches and the Blue Sox should have been the only AAGPBL teams to win consecutive league playoff titles. The Peaches and the Blue Sox were also the only AAGPBL teams to stay the entire twelve-season course of the league. Three years ago, the Peaches' home field, Beyer Stadium, was restored and rededicated in their honor; in the rededicated park, the Peaches' original ticket booth still stands. When the league went from a hybrid of softball/baseball pitching to all-baseball pitching, Peaches pitcher Lois Florreich turned out as the league's best pitcher.

Come to think of it, the Peaches had the AAGPBL's first batting champion: Gladys Davis, batting .331 with 155 total bases, also leading the league. Another Peach, Dorothy Kamenshek, won the batting titles in 1946 and 1947.

A League of Their Own depicts the Peaches, and implies the rest of the league, playing as theatrically as possible, the better to draw out the family entertainment spending critical to assuring the league's early survival. Yet it seems that only the Peaches among the league's teams took it to full flower. "If God meant for us to play baseball," said Eileen Burmeister, an eight-position Peach (the only thing she didn't do was pitch), "He would've made us any good at it."

Any good at it? Yet another Peach, Olive Little, won 20 games for the inaugural edition and threw in a no-hitter for good measure. She also struck out 151 batters. She took 1944 off, returned in 1945 to win 22 games, retired after going 14-17 in 1946, and added three more no-hitters to her resume while compiling a lifetime 2.23 ERA. She became a bona-fide Hall of Famer — the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame — but she died a year before the AAGPBL was inducted as a league (in 1988) into Cooperstown. As a no-hit pitcher she was the league's Sandy Koufax (first in Show to throw four no-no's), a decade and a half before Koufax became Koufax.

The filmmakers, including director Penny Marshall (whose daughter, Tracy Reiner, portrayed outfielder/pitcher Betty Horn in the film), were trying to show the whole, overall spirit, of what made the league tick, within reason, even if the ladies weren't even half as randy for real as were the celluloid Peaches — ducking their disabled bus for a night at the roadhouse, getting one shy and homely teammate into a makeover that included a dress and a gross of booze (under which influence she serenaded, if that's the proper word, the man who became her husband, to the visible consternation of the house saxophonist), an occasional brawl, and clubhouse bawdiness enough to rival the 1986 Mets — were presented to have been.

If you haven't seen A League of Their Own,even once, the film begins with slightly rivalrous siblings Dorothy Hinson (Geena Davis) and Kit Keller (Lori Petty) going from roughhouse local women's league to a train heading for the original AAGPBL tryouts, after a particularly, shall we say, blunt league scout (Jon Lovitz) agrees to let Kit join the tryouts if she can get her more comely sister to join. It continues with the tryouts at Wrigley Field (called Harvey Field; chewing gum magnate Phil Wrigley, the Chicago Cubs owner who instigated the AAGPBL, was fictionalized as a candy manufacturer), at which the sisters meet and impress the roughhouse Doris Murphy (Rosie O'Donnell) and Mae (All the Way Mae) Mordabito (Madonna) before the teams are chosen. It progresses with a so-awkward-it's-almost-comical depiction of the charm school to which the league organizers sent the original players, the better to buff and polish them for public presentation, at least until the actual league discontinued the school in the mid-1940s.

During the season, the film Peaches meet and are befuddled by their booze-sotted manager Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), an apparent stand-in for Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx, who actually did manage in the AAGPBL ... in 1952, for the Fort Wayne Daisies. On film, Dugan managed to rediscover his bearings, act like a manager and not a bombed half mascot, and lead the Peaches to the league World Series. In actuality, Foxx managed the Daisies to round one of the playoffs, where the Daisies got their skirts knocked off by the real Peaches in three games, and never managed in the league again.

To the best of anyone's knowledge, neither did Foxx chew out an errant player to the point of tears and then bellow that there was no crying in baseball. It might have produced one of the most memorable, quotable, and paraphrasable lines in film history. But to the best of anyone's further knowledge, Dugan bellowing there was no crying in baseball was lying through his teeth. Of course, considering his character background, he might have missed Lou Gehrig's tear as he proclaimed himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. But he surely didn't live to see a tear stream down Wade Boggs' cheek when the 1986 Mets wrenched out that World Series win. Or in Mike Schimdt's eye when he announced his retirement. Or in Bill Mazeroski's, when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

The rivalrous Peach siblings' rivalry hit the breaking point on film when Hinson, fed up with kid sister Kit's blaming her for, well, just about everything short of the Pearl Harbor attacks (the wick that lit the powder keg: Hinson joining Dugan at the mound, telling the skipper little sis had lost her stuff: "She's throwing grapefruits up there"), asks for a trade ... and a trade is made — kid sister Kit going to Racine, then the sisters squaring off in the elimination game of the World Series, then kid sister Kit blasting through big sister Dottie at the plate to score (O Hollywood!) the winning run.

In actuality, the players in the AAGPBL contracted to the league, rather than their teams. This might have helped assure the league retaining a semblance of competitive balance, but only a semblance, considering that in twelve seasons the Peaches and the Chicks held seven of the league's 12 playoff championships. The Kenosha Comets (1943-51), the Minneapolis Millerettes (1944), the Fort Wayne Daisies (1945-54; the Millerettes changed their name when moving to Fort Wayne), the Peoria Redwings (1946-51), the Chicago Colleens (1948), and the Springfield Sallies (1948), never got to win one.

But the league ran into two critical problems after the war. First, the advent of televised major league baseball meant families beginning to stay home to watch the big leaguers rather than spend quite what they'd been spending to watch the ladies during and right after the war years. Second, when the team directors bought out the league in 1950, they proved unable to match the centralized league publicity machinery that helped keep the league going. (Max Carey, the Hall of Fame outfielder who also managed in the AAGPBL, was the league's president at the time of the buyout; he resigned after the buyout.) They also couldn't match the centralized player procurement and development apparatus. The league survived exactly four more years.

It took another AAGPBL pitcher/first baseman, June Peppas (she was, I assure you, a better first baseman and hitter than a pitcher), to resurrect the memory of the AAGPBL beyond the women who played the game and those who saw them play. As a player, she was a latecomer to the league, joining the Daisies in 1948, playing two seasons with them before moving on to the Belles (1949-51, including the team's move to Battle Creek) and the Lassies (1951-54). But in 1980, Peppas launched an insiders' newsletter in 1980, leading to the formation of the AAGPBL Players' Association, which restored their story to the public eye.

Two years later, the surviving members of the league held their first reunion, in Chicago. Five years after that, what Peppas had launched culminated in a documentary, 1987′s A League of Their Own, written by one of the sons of 1945 batting champion (.299) Helen Callaghan (Daisies), Kelly Candaele. (One of Callaghan's other sons, Casey, played major league baseball in the 1980s and 1990s.)

So who were the league's best players? Perhaps it's better to note their all-time leaders. The top five RBI women were, from fifth to first, Pepper Paire, Lib Mahon, Eleanor Callow, Inez Voyce, and Dorothy Schroeder. Joanne Weaver, who won the league batting title in each of its last three seasons, holds the league single-season record for hitting a whopping .429 in the final league season. (Weaver's sister Betty Foss, in fact, won the league's previous two consecutive batting titles. Tragically, both sisters eventually died of Lou Gehrig's disease.) Lois Florreich of the 1949 Peaches holds the league single-season ERA record — with 0.67, also going 22-9. The league even boasts two 30-game winners: Helen Nicol (31-8 in 1943, for the Comets), and Connie Wisniewski (the Chicks), who did it in back-to-back seasons. (32-11 in 1945; 33-9 in 1946; her ERA over those two seasons: 0.86.) Nicol, often known as Nickie Fox during her playing days, is also the league all-time strikeout leader (1,076) and had the most wins (163).

It might have been wonderful if Marshall and her crew had made room in A League of Their Own for some of those achievements, at least Nicol's 31-win season. Or, Olive Little's first no-hitter. As it was, the film did introduce a few harrowing realities, perhaps none more so than the likelihood that some of the league's players stood at very real risk of receiving the dread telegram from the War Department.

Unfortunately, the film is described best, perhaps, in the words of former AAGPBL player Doris Sams (Lassies outfielder/pitcher): "I thought it was 30 percent truth and 70 percent Hollywood." When Dottie and Kit play in that local league contest, Dottie warns Kit about a huge hole on the second base side and suggests she pull. Good one, Dottie — Kit was a right-handed hitter, and pulling it would have meant her hitting 'em where they is. She would have been a dead duck. When Madonna's racy All the Way Mae slides headfirst into third, the move didn't come from anywhere in the AAGPBL playbook: "I never, ever remember anybody sliding in head first" — Shirley Burkovich, former Peach. And did you notice all the games in the film were played in the sunny afternoon? Surprise: the bulk of the AAGPBL's games were played at night.

By the way, that clever little flick of the cap Madonna used to snag a fly ball for an out? In the real AAGPBL, the batter would have been safe: the league's rules of play specified that outs had to be made with glove or hand. "Stuff like that never went on," RBI queen Schroeder would say of Madonna's cap catch. There were a few outright entertainers in the league, however: outfielder Faye Dancer (Millerettes, Redwings), a girlhood friend of Pepper Paire-Davis, cartwheeled and back-flipped to her position a decade before Ozzie Smith was even born. Nobody cartwheeled or backflipped to position in the film, alas.

And, unfortunately, the scene in which a black woman throws an errant ball hard and straight to Dottie Hinson — whose similar barehanded catch of a point-blank bullet throw from Doris Murphy at the tryouts broke the ice between the two — dropped the sole unpleasant hint about the AAGPBL: the league would not admit black players, even after the major leagues integrated.

You can still watch A League of Their Own, the film, for entertainment value and go unharmed for the experience. Mostly. (A League of Their Own, the documentary, is even more fun for its factualities.) Four years before the film was released, the AAGPBL was granted a permanent and splendid display in the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, the film's closing sequence, with the now-elder players visiting the exhibit (and Dottie and Kit reuniting during their tour), allows a small implication that the women themselves were inducted full-fledged into the Hall of Fame.

(Fair disclosure: Five of the AAGPBL ladies are members of the National Women's Baseball Hall of Fame: Claire Schillace, Faye Dancer, Dorothy Ferguson, Joanne Winter, and Dorothy Kamenshek.)

They weren't. But they didn't have to be, either. "I can't honestly tell you I knew the history we were making back then," Paire-Davis once told the Virginian-Pilot. "I can tell you we knew we were doing something special."

That something special, the life of their league, and the impact of their league — proving women could play professional team sports without being any less women, without obstructing or abrogating what their men happened to do — endures.

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