LOS ANGELES — She was a star player of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the pioneering women’s league that kept baseball alive during World War II. When the league folded after the war ended, she, like other women players of the day, packed her groundbreaking history away, along with her glove, bat and baseball uniforms.
But with the 1992 release of the hit film “A League of Their Own” about the short-lived women’s league, Lavone “Pepper” Paire Davis, an All-Star catcher and gritty clutch hitter, was rediscovered, becoming a popular speaker and tireless promoter of women in professional sports.
Paire Davis, who in 1944 also co-wrote the league’s official song, sung by actors and former players in the film, died Saturday at a medical facility near her home in the Los Angeles community of Van Nuys, her son William Davis said. She was 88 and had suffered from respiratory ailments and other health problems in recent months, her son said.
Paire Davis was among several players who served as models for the central character played by actress Geena Davis in “A League of Their Own,” which also starred Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell as fellow ballplayers and Tom Hanks as a foul-mouthed Hall of Famer who becomes the coach of one of the women’s teams.
The league was launched in 1943 by Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley and other major league baseball owners who feared that with star men’s players going off to fight in World War II, baseball would be forgotten by the fans by the time they returned.
Paire Davis, who grew up playing softball and baseball in West Los Angeles with her older brother Joe, was scouted, recruited and joined the league in 1944, when she was 19. Among only a handful of players from the West Coast, she played for 10 seasons, helping her teams, including the Racine Belles, the Grand Rapids Chicks and the Fort Wayne Daisies, win several league titles.
A versatile player who filled in at shortstop, third base and occasionally pitched in addition to her regular catching job, Paire Davis led the league in 1945 with the fewest strikeouts (six in 392 at-bats). She is tied for fourth on the league’s all-time list for total runs batted in.
Although another player, Dorothy “Dottie” Kamenshek, was known for her slugging and fancy-fielding ability — she often did the splits to snag the ball at first base — Paire Davis was known for her aggressive catching style, strong arm and discipline at the plate.
“I was never a home run hitter,” Paire Davis told the Gilroy (Calif.) Dispatch in 1996. “I was a contact hitter. I loved to get on with runners in scoring position. I lived for that.”
The conditions for players were not easy.
“We played every night of the week, doubleheaders on Sundays and holidays, and traveled on about a 1938 school bus,” she told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in 1995. “When we left Grand Rapids, Mich., at midnight, we would ride almost 400 miles to Rockford, Ill., get there at 10 or 11 in the morning — if the bus didn’t break down and we didn’t have to push it — get into uniform and go out and play a Sunday afternoon doubleheader.”
Born in Los Angeles on May 29, 1924, Lavone Paire, known to her friends and family as “Pepper,” was the younger child of Hortense and Charles Paire, who was a plumber.
She and her brother played baseball, football and other sports together on the playgrounds and streets of West L.A.
“She always said that if I had her arm, I’d be in the majors,” her brother Joe, now 90, said Monday. “And she’d kid me that they always picked her first because she was the better player. And she was right.”
She graduated in 1942 from University High School — a classmate was Norma Jean Baker, who soon changed her name to Marilyn Monroe — and took classes at the University of California, Los Angeles. But it was wartime and she also worked at Hughes Aircraft. In her spare time, she played softball — lots of it — for several Southern California women’s teams.
In 1944, she joined the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League’s Minneapolis Millerettes. She was traded multiple times, and played on several championship teams.
She left baseball in 1953 to marry Robert Davis and start a family. The next year, the women’s league suspended play on what was termed a temporary basis. It never resumed.
Throughout her life, Paire Davis remained a sports fan, rooting for the Dodgers, Angels and Lakers, but cheered with special passion for women’s baseball, exulting when the Woman’s National Adult Baseball Association was formed in 1994.
Paire Davis, who spent several months on the set of “A League of Their Own,” stayed in touch with director Penny Marshall and several actors afterward and appeared on O’Donnell’s talk show at least once, her son said.
In 2009, she published a book about her adventures in baseball, “Dirt in the Skirt.”
In addition to her son and brother, her survivors include another son, Rob Davis; a daughter, Susan Gardner; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
“I can’t honestly tell you I knew the history we were making back then,” she told the Virginian-Pilot. “I can tell you we knew we were doing something special.”