Before we begin, I must get this out of the way (clears throat): 🎶Batter up... 🎶
That’s better. Ever since I rewatched A League of Their Own last week (for the first time in over 10 years, maybe even closer to 20), “The All American Girls Professional Baseball League Song” has been in my head. So here’s a gift, from my head to yours.
Look, A League of Their Own is as close to perfect as slick summer popcorn fare gets. It is virtuosically paced, making its two-hour-plus runtime feel like a brisk sprint around the bases. I can’t think of a movie with such a massive ensemble in which I legitimately care about the narrative arcs of like 10 characters. They’re so well drawn and played that even with a handful of traits, they’re indelible. Geena Davis (the epitome of Hollywood glamour even when smudged with baseball diamond dust), Lori Petty, and Tom Hanks as a lovable grouch in a proper supporting role (as the Rockford Peaches’ manager Jimmy Dugan, he literally supports the team of women at the center of this story). Most impressive in the performance realm is that this is a movie in which Madonna is legitimately good. Director Penny Marshall’s daughter, Tracy Reiner, plays Betty Spaghetti and while she has said repeatedly that she secured the role during a brief period when her mother wasn’t attached to the picture, I find that dubious and I still don’t care. I can’t imagine another Betty Spaghetti. Sometimes (apparent) nepotism works! A League of Their Own is a period piece whose historical setting is liberating instead of confining, and a political statement that avoids preaching and smarm. A League of Their Own just is, and it’s mostly wonderful.
It is the director’s job to create a universe, and with a maestro’s touch, Marshall conducted her ensemble in a highly specific and rarely visited world. In one of the archival extras on the most recent A League of Their Own Blu-ray release, Penny Marshall’s writer/director/actor Garry Marshall (who plays Walter Harvey, the chocolate baron who bankrolls the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League) said that in Hollywood, the prevailing understanding of the men in charge was that women’s mind frames were too narrow to make universally appealing blockbusters. The misogynist, untested supposition was refuted by Penny Marshall when her Big became the first movie directed by a woman to gross over $100 million at the box office in 1988. And then she did it again in 1992 with League, which was not just a hit, but a hit in which the female principal characters outnumber the men at something like a 4:1 ratio (at least) and play sports. (In the time between Big and A League of Their Own, Amy Heckerling’s Look Who’s Talking and Penelope Spheeris’s Wayne’s World also crossed the $100 million milestone.) One of League screenwriters, Lowell Ganz, recalled that prior to the movie’s release, it was considered a “huge potential fiasco,” which made its success that much sweeter.
During my recent viewing, I was struck by how unsparing the movie is about the harsh realities the women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League faced (the movie takes place during the movie’s inaugural year, 1943). After tryouts, the women of the league’s four teams are shown their uniform, which includes a short skirt and no leg protection. They protest and they’re shot down—they have no choice but to wear the ridiculous outfit if they want to play and so they do. Tough shit. They go through charm-school training in a scene that’s played for laughs to expose the absurdity of it all.
But also played for laughs is the supposed homeliness of stellar player Marla Hooch, which always seemed fucked up to me especially since a real person, actor Megan Cavanagh, played her. The numerous comments about Marla’s appearance are then comments on Cavanagh’s, and the way Ganz and Babaloo Mandel’s screenplay resolves the cruelty Marla faces is by marrying her off in the middle of the season. See? She’ll be fine! A man has affirmed her worth! The development is out of step with the movie’s overarching theme that women had more to offer than their society-dictated attachments to men suggested, and it also makes no sense that Marla leaves the league (albeit temporarily) to get married. There were four teams! How long could the season have been? Couldn’t she have waited until fall? (Incidentally, regarding the script, in the film’s commentary track, Marshall said, “I went to women and they did not want to write this.”)
Also—and here’s where we get further into how League is close to perfect but not actually perfect—a lot of the misogyny the characters face is glossed over in a montage featuring exciting plays, hopeful developments in the popularity of the initially derided women’s league, and an upbeat, horn-laden score. Ellen Sue (Freddie Simpson) gives out promotional kisses to fans from the field. A spectator urges one of the women to slide and when she does, inadvertently exposing the bloomers underneath her skirt, he says, “Thank you!” And the scene zips on. Men love an upskirt, am I right, ladies???
Madonna’s character “All the Way” Mae Mordabito suggests roping in potential fans by a felicitous wardrobe malfunction, in which her uniform would burst open and her “bosoms” would go flying out. “You think there are men in this country that ain’t seen your bosoms?” asks Doris (Rosie O’Donnell), in what feels more like a direct comment on Madonna’s career (which at that point was still in its imperial phase, post-Blond Ambition/Truth or Dare and pre-Erotica) than her character. League, by the way, shows just how charming an onscreen presence Madonna can be when she’s relaxed, physically tasked, and not the film’s focal point. Her character is like a young, athletic Blanche Devereaux, who gets a bunch of great lines (“My name’s Mae. That’s more than a name—that’s an attitude,” is just brilliant innuendo) and doesn’t have to concern herself with much emotional heavy lifting. Her chemistry with O’Donnell, with whom she became lifelong friends after meeting on the League set, is as thick as a classic onscreen romance, and seeing Madonna so effervescent puts into perspective how much of her movie career was squandered by her inability to never not be Madonna. League lets her lean into the sexual charisma she’d already established via her music and videos, and even gently poke fun at it. In a retrospective interview, Lori Petty praised Madonna’s hard work, saying she was never late, never a diva. The willingness to be a good team player suits her well.
Movies are physically demanding, and that’s especially so for sports movies. But the filming of A League of Their Own was notoriously tough. At least three actors suffered concussions while practicing sliding on a Slip ’n Slide. Garry Marshall said that because batting gloves were not period-accurate, Penny banned them from set (even during practice), and as a result, many of the actors’ hands were cut and bruised. Anne Ramsay (who played Helen Haley) reportedly broke her nose while trying to catch a ball (perhaps owing to the old-school catching gloves’ lack of webbing between the fingers). “Some of our real cast, from sliding into home, had ripped the skin off their legs. It was nutty,” recalled Geena Davis. Because the actors had to play ball (and in fact were cast based on their athletic aptitude), some of these injuries were probably inevitable. But not all were, and one would expect to see a higher standard of care on a movie set in 2020.
The most troubling element of A League of Their Own through a modern lens, though, is its relationship with identity. It barely questions the pervasive whiteness—aside from a Black musician who winces in close-up as Marla drunkenly warbles “It Had to Be You” on a nightclub’s stage and a brief moment in which a Black woman throws a foul ball back onto the field with force and distance (thus implying that she could have played in the league, if only...), the movie is as white as Ellen Sue’s pageant-perfect teeth. This is obviously a function of the world it portrayed—it wasn’t until 1947 that Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League did not allow Black players. To MLB.com, Carl Winsch, manager of the league’s South Bend Blue Sox from 1951-54, claimed, “We had a few Blacks try out, but they just weren’t as good.” And then, after some consideration, Winsch clarified: “If the league tried harder, shook the bushes more, as we used to say, we might’ve come up with someone.” Ya think?
I’m not saying that A League of Their Own should have resorted to ahistorical casting, but the fact is that diversity is missing from this movie. Something that was in the league that the film overlooks, per this year’s Netflix doc Secret Love, was queerness, though it’s hard to imagine Marshall getting away with a lesbian subplot in a 1992 smash, even if she were interested in doing so. (Remember, just a few years prior, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of The Color Purple, a book in part about a woman who finds redemption in a romantic relationship with another woman, reduced the story’s queerness to a mere suggestion.)
Regardless, I found it easier to take the straight whiteness of A League of Their Own for granted in a time when diversity was paid much less lip service in Hollywood. In 1992, movies were pretty damn straight and pretty damn white. Today, the veneration of a brazenly racist institution such as the AAGPBL is a harder pill to swallow. The league’s staffing was a product of segregated times, sure, but so was the Confederate flag. The women who played ball were mavericks and it seems unfair to invalidate their accomplishments entirely. But it also seems unwise to hold up such accomplishments as entirely prosocial when they in turn upheld a system of racism our culture has yet to eradicate almost 80 years later.
That makes thinking about and ultimately appreciating A League of Their Own more complicated, but by the end, during the film’s final scene of an AAGPBL reunion over 40 years after that first season, the movie retains its emotional weight, even with the frankly ridiculous dubbing in of Geena Davis’s voice for the lines of the actor who played the older Dottie, Lynn Cartwright. The movie’s final sequence, which featured actual members of the AAGPBL in addition to the speaking actors, is laden with melancholy, a flash-forward that illustrates how years after a defining period, going back can feel both full of loss and like no time has passed at all. The film’s emotionally irresistible nostalgia has only been strengthened over the years. Now 28 years after its release, A League of Their Own is its own artifact of nostalgia, so that it is both vessel and product. The poignancy is exponential.