Walt Whitman once said, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.” You could look it up. – Annie Savoy
My grandfather used to tell stories about his sister, my aunt Janie. She played baseball. Not softball, but baseball. And was better than most of the boys. Her girls team even beat the boys a time or two (I’m guessing that boys in the 1930s were enough like the boys of today that they didn’t want to lose to the girls, so there might have been fewer opportunities for inter-gender matchups after that first win). Then there was Gertrude Hines, and older girl in his neighborhood when he was growing up. Nobody wanted little Sammy Linville on their team because he was too young and small, but Gertrude, who was always one of the captains, would say “I’ll take him if I can have his third strike.”
In my neighborhood, Debbie Altman was maybe the best baseball player. A leftie, she was a great pitcher and could hit the hell out of the ball. (She was also really, really pretty, and the combination of athletic ability and long blonde hotness was responsible for my first major boyhood crush.)
Later, when I managed the Colorado Sun Kings in the Denver NABA 30+ league, we had a woman on the team. Teresa, who played second and short, was set for a tryout with the Coors Silver Bullets, but injured her hand just before camp. I saw the Bullets play, and Teresa would have made that team.
This past week, Lavonne “Pepper” Paire-Davis died at the age of 88. Paire-Davis was our most visible link to a past when girls were allowed to play hardball, owing to the fact that she was the inspiration for Geena Davis’s character in A League of Their Own, the 1992 movie about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. If you don’t know the story, the AAGPBL was started as an alternative to the Major League, which was hard hit by World War II. It was originally feared the league might fold for the duration of the war; it didn’t, but the quality of play obviously suffered as all the young stars, men in the prime of their lives and careers, marched off to the European and Pacific theaters.
It wasn’t enough for AAGPBL players to be athletes, of course. The original rules (which evolved into something like pure baseball over time) looked more like softball, and the players were required to wear skirts and behave like proper ladies at all times.
During spring training the girls were required to attend Helena Rubinstein’s evening charm school classes. The proper etiquette for every situation was taught, and every aspect of personal hygiene, mannerisms and dress code was presented to all the players. In an effort to make each player as physically attractive as possible, each player received a beauty kit and instructions on how to use it. As a part of the leagues ‘Rules of Conduct’, the girls were not permitted to have short hair, smoke or drink in public places, and they were required to wear lipstick at all times. Fines for not following the leagues rules of conduct were five dollars for the first offense, ten for the second, and suspension for the third.
Paire-Davis was, to all accounts, a very good player.
An All-Star catcher, Paire was a fine defensive player with good range on the field and a strong throwing arm. She exhibited an aggressive catching style, leading to a broken collarbone in her rookie season. She suffered numerous injuries thereafter, but kept on playing. Basically a line-drive hitter, she had a compact swing and tremendous plate discipline, collecting a significant 2.63 walk-to-strikeout ratio (308-to-117). A lifetime .225 hitter she made good contact, hitting safely more frequently with runners on base or when the team was behind in the score, as her 400 runs batted in ties her in fourth place with Elizabeth Mahon on the all-time list, behind Dorothy Schroeder (431), Inez Voyce (422) and Eleanor Callow (407). In addition, the versatile Paire played shortstop and third base, and even pitched. She also was a member of a championship team and made the playoffs in nine of her ten seasons.
In 60 playoff games, she hit .211 with one home run and 16 RBI, including one triple and seven stolen bases.
In fact, a lot of women were good players. And would be today if they were allowed to play the game. But instead they’re stuck playing softball, and I can only assume this is because it’s presumed to be safer. (This isn’t a logical conclusion that takes into account the speed with which some women pitch or the fact that the ball is plenty hard, but the fact is that little girls don’t have the option of playing the American pastime once they get past coed tee-ball age.) This system has always felt a little like the old six-on-six basketball rules, which were finally eradicated for good in the ’90s (Iowa and Oklahoma were the last two holdouts).
Is softball a remnant of a paternalistic culture that feels girls and women have to be protected? Probably. But I’ve played a number of sports with women – basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, soccer, tennis, you name it. The idea that these are delicate flowers who can’t handle the full measure of the game is ludicrous, and we have all the examples you’d ever need in pretty much every game except baseball and American football (which frankly, I’m not sure anyone ought to play, male or female). Do Mia Hamm and Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach look fragile to you? Maya Moore and Candace Parker?
A League of Their Own sparked a brief revival in women’s baseball. The Silver Bullets were founded shortly after the movie popularized the idea of women with fastballs. Here in Denver, the NABA launched a women’s league. The whole fad fizzled, though, and with our last links to that legacy of women’s baseball dying out, it’s hard to see how the vaguely sexist softball culture might ever be replaced with a baseball option.
It’s a shame to think that there will be no more Pepper Paires. There will certainly be plenty of Debbie Altmans ripping doubles into the gap on the playground and Gertrude Hineses taking little Sammy LInville’s third strike and Aunt Janies who show up the boys every time they step on the field. The occasional Teresa will love the game so much that she’s willing to deal with being stared at and whispered about when she steps into the box as the only woman in a man’s league, and her teammates will scream their fool heads off when she smacks an RBI single up the middle off a pitcher who now has to go back to the dugout and endure the humiliation of having given up a hit to a girl.
Perhaps no character in the canon of American culture has ever loved baseball so completely as Bull Durham‘s Annie Savoy. Few have known more about the game or more fully inhabited its spiritual essence. I have always called Bull Durham the greatest sports movie ever made, and in part this is because not of what happens on the field, but because of the negative space in the social fabric: Annie, the soul of the narrative, is only allowed to play the game in her back yard. She has no league of her own.
For a few years, Lavonne Paire-Davis and the rest of the women in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League did. S&R honors them and the grace with which they crashed the gender barrier, if only for a while. We hope that the US, as it evolves on questions of fairness and equity, finally creates a place where little girls and young women can fully share in what the Boston Globe‘s James Carroll once called the “baseball communion.”
If we do, it will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.
Image Credits: NBC Sports, Feminist Guide to Hollywood