“A League of Their Own” Baseball legend & author Pepper Davis travels from California to honor sports artist James Fiorentino at gallery show in Frenchtown, N.J.
An 85-year-old California woman that made history as a professional baseball player and whose life was portrayed by Geena Davis in the movie “League of Their Own” will be guest of honor at an art gallery show in Frenchtown hosted by Flemington resident and noted sports artist James Fiorentino.
Fiorentino will show dozens of original sports portraits as well as limited edition Giclees, including reproductions of the book cover he created for “Dirt in the Skirt,” a first-person history of the league written by Pepper Davis. The gallery show opens June 1 and will run through June 13.
Inducted into The Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, Davis will be at the Open Space Gallery, 36 Bridge St., on Saturday, June 12 from noon-3 p.m. to autograph copies of her book and reproductions of Fiorentino’s book cover. From 6-9:30 p.m. that evening, Fiorentino will host an invitation-only reception for Davis at the gallery, with celebrities, former Major Leaguers and sports personalities expected to attend.
A smorgasbord of Fiorentino’s best works, certain to satisfy the appetites of sports aficionados, art connoisseurs and sports junkies will be available for purchase, from Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams to modern-day ballplayers like Albert Pujols, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, as well as paintings and prints of football, basketball, hockey and golf greats including Brett Favre, Eli Manning and Michael Jordan.
“It’s a huge honor for me to have Pepper come out here from California for my opening,” Fiorentino said. “She’s a living legend and has an unbelievable story, one that everyone should know about. It’s going to be a thrill to have her here and meet my friends, family and clients at this opening,” he added. “Everyone will get a g big kick out of meeting her.”
Proud to be “one of them women libbers” generations before gender equality elbowed its way into America’s conscience, Davis was member of the fledgling All American Girls Professional Baseball League from 1944-1953, barnstorming across America’s heartland in rattletrap buses to fill the void left as many of America’s baseball heroes put down their bats and gloves and swapped their pinstripes and road greys for M-1 rifles and olive drab uniforms.
Bouncing from town-to-town left little time for laundry or romance, she recalls. The AAGPBL gave new meaning to “wash and dry.” Wet uniforms, bloomers and undergarments were hung out the windows of the bus to dry as they drove to their next game and as for romance – “well, let’s just say I steamed up a few car windows in my day,” Davis said.
Davis was a scrappy shortstop, played third base and eventually was converted to catcher out of necessity. She played for the Fort Wayne Daisies, the Racine Belles and Grand Rapids Chicks, a total of 926 games in her career, with 713 hits in 3,164 at-bats.
She led the league with the fewest strikeouts in 1945, whiffing just 6 times in 392 times at bat. The following year, she led the league in Runs Batted In with 70 and led all catchers in fielding percentage in 1950. She was the catcher on several pennant winning teams, Racine in 1946, Grand Rapids in 1948 and Fort Wayne in 1952 and ’53.
“I came into the league as a shortstop and I was a doggone good shortstop but one game the catcher went down and in our league you didn’t get anywhere without a good catcher,” she recalls. “We didn’t have a second string, we only had 15 players and we played every day and night and doubleheaders and traveled at the same time.
“So I stepped in so we could get somewhere,” she continued, “and eventually, I loved being the catcher, but I l still loved roaming around as a shortstop, too.”
“Dirt in the Skirt” recounts her career as a vagabond ballplayer in a league that was first perceived as a dalliance, a novelty. Crowds came more out of curiosity, she recalls but eventually grew to embrace the hard nosed play and competitiveness of the players wearing skirts and knee highs.
Directed by Penny Marshall, The All-star cast of the 1993 movie also featured Tom Hanks, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Jon Lovett and others.
Davis, who spent months on the set of the movie as technical advisor, became good friends with the cast and the director.
In the foreward to “Dirt in the Skirt,” Hanks writes:
“Pepper knows baseball. She also loves baseball. What makes her so special and unique though is that she played baseball. Professional, heat throwing, swing for the fences drag bunt, double steal, line drive to the left field baseball . . . The kind of baseball that separates those that “do” from those that only “talk,” For this reason, Pepper Davis and all the players of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League have stories as rich as any in the game. And Pepper knows how to tell them.”
Long retired, Davis is still in demand at sports memorabilia shows and ballparks across the country, and crosses paths with other sports heroes and celebrities frequently. She first met Fiorentino at the National Baseball show in Cleveland ten years ago where he was exhibiting his artwork. They became instant friends. When it came time to write her autobiography she went right to Fiorentino to ask whether he would create the cover for the book.
“I was honored,” Fiorentino said.
And Davis was flattered.
She’s a big fan of the artist, on several different levels. Both share a passion for the national pastime – and both played shortstop. Fiorentino was a standout athlete at Middlesex High School earning All-State honors and played shortstop at the Division I level for Drew University on a scholarship.
“I’m real happy with the cover and it is so realistic,” Davis said. “Anybody that looks at it knows ‘that gal can hit,’ ’’ she added, “including a guy like Hank Aaron.”
Aaron, who hit 755 career home runs, was given a copy of the book, took one look at the cover and said, “Man, that’s a great swing,” Davis said. “That’s coming from a pretty good source.” To a baseball purist, it’s the accuracy of the swing as captured by Fiorentino that impresses Davis most.
“That’s the reason I like it so much,” she explained. “If you look at it, it’s a classic swing, it’s not how you’d picture how a girl swings a bat; my wrists are turning over, my eyes are riveted on the ball, I’m stepping forward into it, my weight is shifting into it and my head is looking right at the ball . It’s the Pete Rose definition of how to hit – see the ball, hit the ball,” she said.
Now working from his home studio in Raritan Township, Fiorentino has been piling up the accolades since he was in third grade. Now 35, he has been painting professionally for over 20 years; when he was 15, he was selected by the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. to create the official induction portrait of Reggie Jackson.
Dozens of Fiorentino’s original works of art are in the permanent collections of several museums, including the Baseball Hall of Fame; the United States Sports Academy Museum in Alabama; the National Basketball Hall of Fame, Springfield, Mass., The National Museum of Art & Sport in Indiana, the Roberto Clemente Museum, Puerto Rico and The Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in Montclair, N.J. Several professional athletes are also clients and own their original portraits painted by Fiorentino.
In 1994 he became the youngest artist to win Beckett Magazine’s annual sports art competition for the likeness of Hall Of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton. When Beckett opened up the competition worldwide the following year, Fiorentino triumphed again with a stunning collage of Muhammad Ali. When Ali saw Fiorentino’s latest work of himself, the greatest said, "James, you are the greatest."
Fiorentino’s artwork has been featured in numerous national publications and published as cover art for official commemorative programs for the 1995 Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremonies, Don Mattingly Day in 1997 at Yankee Stadium, the 1996 Red Cross Calendar, and the 1995 and 2001-2003 covers of the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame Induction program.
He has also created hundreds of images of baseball players for several collector card sets.
Fiorentino was also the official artist for Orioles’ shortstop Cal Ripken Jr.'s record-setting Consecutive Game Streak which broke Lou Gehrig’s long-standing mark of 2,130 games, ending in 1998 at 2,632 games.
Operation Shoebox New Jersey Presents: The Sports Art of James Fiorentino opens June 1 at The Open Space Gallery, 36 Bridge St., Frenchtown and runs through June 13. For every painting and print sold, the artist will donate a percentage to Operation Shoebox New Jersey, a 501c3 non-profit corporation that ships personal care packages to US troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The gallery will be open weekdays and weekends. Private appointments can also be scheduled.
Further information is available by calling Visionary Art at (908) 782-8509 or Operation Shoebox New Jersey at (908) 698-0333 or visit the websites at www.jamesfiorentino.com or www.opshoeboxnj.org.