A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (which opened against BOOMERANG on July 1, 1992) is a very nice and pleasing mainstream period sports comedy-drama from director Penny Marshall (JUMPIN’ JACK FLASH). It’s a fictionalized version of one of those true life historical events you hear about and think “Yep, that’s a movie” because it reads so much like a high concept movie pitch: during WWII, when so many American men were sent to fight overseas, some enterprising baseball executives started the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League to keep the sport in the public eye. Though they endured all manner of sexist indignities (like being forced to wear skirts and pretend to fit various feminine stereotypes) they also were good at what they did and took their shot to show it off.
Geena Davis (FLETCH) and Lori Petty (CADILLAC MAN) star as Dottie Hinson and Kit Keller, small town Oregon sisters who run a dairy and play catcher and pitcher on a softball team. One day a scout named Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz*, THREE AMIGOS) attends a game and wants Dottie to try out for the A.A.G.P.B.L. She’s happy with her life and uninterested, but agrees to go if he’ll give Kit a shot too.
They end up assigned to the Rockford Peaches, with teammates including the great hitter Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh) and wiseass pals Doris (Rosie O’Donnell in her first movie) and Mae (Madonna, A CERTAIN SACRIFICE). They’re all very excited and then they meet their manager, the grunting, spitting, pissing alcoholic ex-MLB star Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks, VOLUNTEERS). He needs the job but has no respect for “girls” playing baseball, so he spends the first game passed out drunk on the bench. The commentators still give him credit for his brilliant strategy (actually Dottie’s).
The heart of the movie is really the friendship that develops between this grump and the team, especially Dottie. He’s disgusting and unfriendly, makes Evelyn (Bitty Schram, FATHERS & SONS) cry, and then famously harangues her for crying. But there are signs of caring on the bus when Dottie mentions not having heard from her husband Bob (Bill Pullman, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW), who’s off at war. Jimmy gives her reasons why he might not be able to send a letter and assures her he’s okay. And later there’s the big scene where a messenger shows up with a death notice for one of the players, but realizes he lost the name of who it’s for and needs to go back to the office. Jimmy takes the letter, pushes the guy out of the locker room, and opens it. Admittedly he then draws out the trauma a little more by walking slowly toward the intended recipient, causing Dottie to gasp, thinking it’s her. But seeing this abrasive grouch become protective of these women when it matters most is moving to me, even if it’s plucked right out of ‘Appendix I: Oldest Tricks’ in the back of the book.
It feels a little too safe that Bob miraculously returns home in the next scene. On the other hand it introduces a dramatic conflict that challenges me: the idea that Dottie immediately quits baseball to go back to being a wife. Of course she changes her mind and returns for the World Series (sorry, replacement catcher Alice [Renée Coleman, AFTER SCHOOL] – you got screwed), but it’s never addressed what Bob thinks about any of this. That he thinks nothing of her dropping something she’s great at contradicts his portrayal as Perfect Supportive Husband.
This is the central conundrum of the Dottie character – everyone agrees that she’s the best player, but she only tries out reluctantly, tries to quit two different times, then really does retire at the end of the season. In the wraparound scenes (where she’s dubbed by Davis but played by uncanny lookalike Lynn Cartwright, QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE, THE WASP WOMAN, THE GARBAGE PAIL KIDS MOVIE) she’s also reluctant about attending a reunion at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s nice that she has this cool thing she did once but enjoys her humble life, but in a movie about baseball you gotta suspect the main character has a passion for baseball, right? And when she starts the movie saying, “Look, I’m married, I’m happy, that’s what I want. Let’s not confuse things,” you assume she’s gonna evolve from that opinion, right? It’s sad if that’s true because she can’t seem to admit it to herself.
There’s a reunion game played by players from the actual teams, and you can tell just by looking at them that those are some tough ladies and that they got something from continuing to play over the years. I just hope Dottie doesn’t regret missing out on that to milk cows and make dinner for Bob.
But the movie obviously isn’t arguing that a women’s place is in the home and/or dairy, even if that’s what Dottie wants for herself. Attitudes like that are mocked early on with a newsreel where some prude lady complains that “careers and high education are leading to the masculinization of our women, with dangerous consequences to the home, the children and our country.” She describes the players as “young girls plucked from their families,” suffering from “sexual confusion.” Making fun of this asinine opinion seems like low hanging fruit until you remember that 30 years after this depiction of events 45 years before that there are new generations of dipshits saying the exact same preposterous things. They just move past women playing sports and find new targets. Years from now (if society survives) their terrible opinions will be laughed at in movies, but their spawn will have moved on to torment some other group of people with the exact same horse shit.
By the way, there’s one scene where race is addressed. A ball lands in the stands and a Black woman bystander throws it back to Dottie, seriously impressing her. They exchange a look but of course both understand that during segregation no one will give this woman the shot they gave Dottie. The bystander is played by DeLisa Chinn-Tyler (uncredited), who played on softball teams in Evansville, where it was filmed, and responded to an open casting call for players. Recently tracked down by Consequence, she said she was told at the tryouts that they couldn’t cast Black women as players because of the time period, but Marshall was impressed by her skills and came up with the idea for the scene.
It’s of course a frustrating scene because it’s a feel good movie, but this woman doesn’t get to fulfill her dreams, and then we return our attention to the white women who do. But I think it’s more admirable to acknowledge it than to sidestep it. Just like the 19th amendment, this league wasn’t progress for all the women, just the white ones.
A goofy subplot I enjoyed is about Evelyn having to bring her son Stilwell (Justin Scheller) on the road with them. She swears to Jimmy that he’s “the sweetest little boy” and then in the next scene the little shit puts his hands over the bus driver’s eyes while he’s driving. A pretty funny character, and so fitting that in the present day scenes he’s played by Mark Holton, a.k.a. Francis from PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE.
So there are plenty of laughs in this. Lovitz got some out of me in his small part at the beginning, mostly with lines I would guess he improvised. A story credit goes to Kim Wilson & Kelly Candaele, who made a 1987 documentary of the same title that inspired Marshall. The script is by Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel, the Oscar nominated team behind NIGHT SHIFT, SPLASH, and CITY SLICKERS, among others. Like Marshall they got their start in sitcoms (including Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days), and I notice a sitcom flavor to the writing in its willingness to undermine some of the drama for hacky one-liners. For me it cheapens the movie a little but doesn’t kill it.
Hanks was coming off of two movies that were perceived as major career stumbles, JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO and BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. So this was a good time for him to reteam with his BIG director Marshall and further go against type, but in a supporting role where it might be considered more acceptable. Other members of the cast here make me glad I did a summer of ’91 series last year since it really shows me the trajectory of these stars. Davis had had a huge breakout with THELMA & LOUISE, and here she is using her freshly amplified star power to headline a less confrontational version of a women’s issues movie (and with a woman director – something Davis has long championed).
Petty’s summer of ’91 achievement was playing the female lead in POINT BREAK. If I didn’t know I’d think this was earlier, because she really seems younger. She definitely has the kid-sister-trying-to-prove-herself thing down.
Madonna had had a big movie star role in summer of ’90’s DICK TRACY and then the hit documentary TRUTH OR DARE in summer of ’91. It’s cool that for her summer of ’92 movie she seemed to have fun just playing a supporting role where she mostly joke around with her friend Rosie. But she’s also able to share her unique talents in a dance scene and hit end credits song (“This Used to Be My Playground”).
What strikes me most about the story of A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN is the idea of extraordinary events opening a window to try out something new and then learn from it. Obviously women should’ve been able to play professional baseball well before this, and it’s great that they took advantage of the circumstances to prove that, even if that wasn’t the goal of the money men behind it. There’s a very dramatic moment when general manager Ira (David Strathairn, EIGHT MEN OUT) realizes that his investor sees this league as something to do only for the duration of WWII and then stop as soon as the men come back. So Ira really has to fight to keep it going. (In reality it lasted from 1943 to 1954.)
It’s not as if women’s professional sports have reached full equality all these years later. I’m still regularly fuming how often my city’s most decorated team, the Seattle Storm, gets disregarded. For example a beer hall in my neighborhood made a huge mural with allusions to the baseball team and the football team and centering on symbols for the new hockey team and the men’s basketball team that left town 14 years ago, but no mention of the still-existent team that plays just up the street and has four championships and multiple Olympic gold medalists but gets paid less so the players have to travel around playing in other countries during the off season. To some people it doesn’t count as sports. But fuck ‘em. Push them out of the way.
The story makes me think of things we’ve had to do differently to get through the pandemic, and of how hopefully we can keep doing some of those things afterwards if it’s helpful. Unfortunately it seems like our dumb asshole system is determined not to recognize the success of the period when the government was investing in people and businesses to keep people home and safe. But I don’t know, maybe we’ll get to keep some of the closed streets, outdoor dining areas and to-go cocktails.
Another thing it reminds me of is the 2015 Supreme Court decision that recognized same sex marriage as a constitutionally protected right. Of course the concept of constitutionally protected rights is meaningless with the current Republican-packed court, but I think having this 7 year window of sanity in the arena of marriage equality allowed many people with maybe some lingering homophobic conditioning to see it with their own eyes and realize that it was fine. People get complacent with how things have always been done, so you just gotta do it and show ‘em. It’s clear now to any vaguely reasonable person that only a bigoted wacko would have any interest in interfering with other people’s marriages. Of course same sex marriage is okay. Nobody’s making you do it. Go do your thing and stay out of other people’s business you nosy freako.
That’s not stopping the fascists from coming after that right, but it will be harder for them now. I bet there are plenty of people in my state who were against legalizing recreational marijuana but, almost a decade later, can recognize what a stupid fucking waste of time it was not doing it before. Would they vote to make it illegal again? I doubt they would. You just gotta push progress as far ahead as you can and have faith that some of those stragglers will catch up.
In 1993, sitcom vets Ganz & Mandel actually did turn A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN into a CBS sitcom. Cavanagh, Tracy Reiner and Freddie Simpson reprised the roles of Marla, Betty and Ellen Sue, but the roles of Jimmy, Dottie and Kit were played by Sam McMurray, Carey Lowell and Christine Elise. It sounds like it was treated as a sequel – the first episode is about Dottie returning to the team after her husband gets called back into service. Marshall directed the pilot, and Hanks directed the third episode, which is about the team getting a chimpanzee as a mascot. Six episodes were made, but only five aired.
Now there’s an Amazon Prime series of the same title/premise (different characters) starting next month, and it actually looks really good – it’s co-created by and starring Abbi Jacobson from Broad City. But that made me think about how many of the movies represented in this retrospective have been reworked as TV shows in recent years or are about to in the new future: Lethal Weapon, Boomerang, and the Jack Ryan character of PATRIOT GAMES (not reviewed in this series but released that summer) have had shows. The ALIEN series is getting a show. Batman is getting another animated series. Also PINOCCHIO has both a remake and a retelling coming soon, THE STEPFATHER got a remake a while back, and SISTER ACT got a stage musical. Legends never die.
*1992 is when Simpson and Bruckheimer were developing BAD BOYS (then called BULLETPROOF HEARTS) as a vehicle for Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz. So picture that when you see Lovitz in this movie.