A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (1992)

  • Director: Penny Marshall
  • Writers: Screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, Story by Kelly Candaele and Kim Wilson
  • Starring: Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Lori Petty, Jon Lovitz, David Strathairn, Garry Marshall, Bill Pullman, Anne Ramsay, Megan Cavanagh, Freddie Simpson, Tracy Reiner, Bitty Schram, Renée Coleman, Pauline Brailsford, and Ann Cusack
  • Accolades:  2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#60)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Baseball movies are often among the most famous of sports movies, yet out of a field that includes Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, The Natural, Major League, and many others, I think I might bet on A League of Their Own to win a poll today as the casual viewer’s favorite. I had somehow not sat down and watched it in several years, and mostly remembered it as a rare sports movie where our heroes lose the “big game” at the end. There are certainly sports movies where the heroes don’t actually win, or just taking part is considered a triumph (Cool Runnings is one example, I’m hoping to include it in an Olympics Film Festival this summer), but generally it is still played as an “up” note. Not here. Anyway, I found a lot more going on here than that on this viewing. There are some bits I liked more than I remembered, and some I liked less. But certainly A League of Their Own remains recommended viewing, especially for any baseball fan.

This is a fairly true-to-life fictionalized account of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a professional “major baseball league” for women which existed from 1943 to 1954, but had been mostly forgotten by the time this movie came out. As the movie points out, the league was started during World War II at a time when many male Major Leaguers were off fighting in the war. Director Penny Marshall’s brother Garry (himself a director of many movies including Pretty Woman) plays a fictionalized version of chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley, a candy magnate named Walter Harvey, who starts the league in an attempt to fill a niche and puts his financial guru Ira Lowenstein (David Strathairn in a role that doesn’t give him very much to do) in charge. The movie goes on to follow one of the league’s founding teams, the Rockford Peaches, over the course of the league’s inaugural season. None other than Tom Hanks plays the acerbic, drunk manager Jimmy Dugan, who gradually comes around to the job from his initial position that he’s basically been exiled to baseball Siberia. The team members include Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna, and Rosie O’Donnell, among many others.

There are main characters (the movie clearly finds its emotional throughline in the relationship between the sisters played by Davis and Petty), but A League of Their Own works best when its dealing with the camaraderie among the members of the Rockford Peaches. This is a movie without a real villain, where everyone is basically nice to each other, and the occasional person that isn’t (Jon Lovitz playing the extremely snarky scout who discovers Davis and Petty’s characters) is portrayed as having their heart in the right place, kind of, in the end. It is also blessed with a series of scenes that have become famous all out of their context within the narrative. The best known, frequently played on Jumbotrons at actual baseball games ever since, involves Hanks screaming in the face of one of his players (Bitty Schram) who just missed the cut-off lady. When she bursts into tears, he exclaims, “There’s no crying in baseball!” over and over in disbelief. This has since been voted by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 most famous lines in movie history. Often left out is the umpire’s unconcerned response, “Maybe you chastised her too vehemently?”

There are many, many others, too. When a kid asks Dugan to sign a baseball for him, he distractedly agrees, then signs it “Avoid the clap, Jimmy Dugan.” There’s the scene where Hanks and Davis compete to give increasingly complicated signs to a hitter (Megan Cavanagh), who steps into and out of the batter’s box repeatedly. The scene where Madonna’s character times how long a drunk Dugan takes to relieve himself after walking into the clubhouse using a stopwatch. The scene where Madonna’s free-wheeling “All the Way Mae” is forced by the team matron to go to church and confesses so many sins that the Priest comes out of the confessional looking shell-shocked. There is pretty much everything that comes out of Lovitz’s mouth, down to him kicking at chickens on Davis & Petty’s farm and shouting, “Get this wildlife away from me!” or telling a talkative salesman on a train that, “If I had your job, I’d kill myself.”

I will say that I found myself not as pleased with some of the connecting tissue in this movie, and that for every one of those iconic scenes that work perfectly, it has one that makes me cringe for its hamfistedness. In one early scene, an older version of Geena Davis’ character (played by Lynn Cartwright with Davis’ voice dubbed in) drives off to one of the worst 90s sappy ballads I’ve heard in my life. One incredulous newsreel announcer delivers the line “Girls??! Playing baseball?!?!” in an awful parody of the tone you’re imagining. The fact that Black women not allowed into the league is acknowledged in a single scene where a Black woman in the stands retrieves a foul ball and throws it to Davis’ character on a rope. Davis’ character looks impressed for a moment. The actress playing the Black woman does not get any lines or is even credited.

I feel like I might be immune to some of this movie’s charms that really connect with other people. I thought one scene, where Rosie O’Donnell’s character gives an extremely-on-the-nose speech about how she doesn’t have to put up with men who don’t treat her right because now she knows there are other “weird girls” too, then rips up her husband’s picture and throws it out the bus window, had a good message but felt like an anvil dropped on the head of the viewer. But one of the co-hosts on Unspooled, while discussing this scene, described how it made her cry and she “wished she could have internalized it more when she was younger.” Not everything has to be subtle, I suppose. 

And I found that different parts of the movie connected with me emotionally on this viewing, as well. First seeing this movie (I think in a movie theater) as a kid, Lori Petty’s angry, troubled kid sister character didn’t really register with me. On this viewing I realized that, after her character (a pitcher) gives up some runs in the climactic game, we watch her have a panic attack in the dugout. I had never seen anything like it in a sports movie, and as someone who sometimes has panic attacks myself I really found it interesting.

A League of Their Own has become one of these movies that people at the time thought was, you know, pretty good, but has had a much longer and more widespread afterlife than anyone involved with it could have anticipated. It became the second movie directed by a woman to make $100 million at the American box office (after Big, also starring Hanks and directed by Penny Marshall, a former star of Laverne & Shirley who made a very successful second career as a director), and it might be because this is an extremely rare sports movie for women, about women, and by women that it struck such a chord. It was Marshall, for example, who insisted that a kiss between Hanks and Davis (which was even filmed and you can find online, and in context pretty much changes the whole main arc of the movie) be cut out, and that it should be a movie entirely about the relationships between women. It’s also a funny movie with lots of great scenes, so that helps, too.

The movie’s appeal has proved so enduring that it has been subject to multiple television adaptations. A wildly unsuccessful 1990s CBS sitcom (with a laugh track, bizarrely) lasted six episodes. Now there is a new Amazon adaptation in development, reportedly more of a drama, with a cast that includes Broad City and Disenchantment star Abbi Jacobson and The Good Place star D’Arcy Carden. I’ll watch.

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