MCB’s Replay Review discusses “A League of Their Own”
During the Second World War, with many of the country’s young men overseas—including its professional athletes—women were asked to step up and join the war efforts. American Women, many of them housewives and mothers, were asked to take on jobs at factories, plants, shipyards, and… on the baseball diamond. Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own, inspired by a documentary of the same name, tells the fictionalized story of the All-American Girls Baseball League, a professional league that was started to maintain public interest in baseball while many of the men were off fighting overseas.
Marshall’s film covers the start of the league and its first season but centers on a pair of talented softball-playing sisters, Dottie and Kit. Though both women are highly skilled players, Dottie is the more naturally talented one while Kit is more passionate about the sport. Dottie is recruited by a scout (played by a delightfully bellicose Jon Lovitz) to try out for the fledgling women’s league, but will only leave her Oregon dairy farm if Kit is recruited as well, thus setting the stage for the intense sibling rivalry that carries through to the final scenes of the movie.
The early portion of the film is devoted to the beginnings of the league, depicting the processes that went into putting the league together and finding its players. In one memorable scene, Lovitz’s Ernie rejects an athletically gifted but plain, awkward woman, Marla Hooch, before Dottie and Kit band together to force Ernie to reconsider. The film soon introduces us to the rest of the all-star cast: pop star Madonna plays the saucy Mae Mordabito, while Rosie O’Donnell plays her foul-mouthed friend. Tracy Reiner, Anne Cusack, Bitty Schram, and Freddie Simpson fill out the roster in notable supporting roles, while Justin Scheller plays Stillwell, a player’s obnoxious son.
Tom Hanks rounds out the cast as Jimmy Dugan, a former Major League star and the team’s alcoholic, uncouth manager (Dugan is loosely based on former Major League star Jimmie Foxx). Notably, Chicago White Sox star Lucas Giolito’s mom, Lindsay Frost, was the original choice for “All the Way” Mae Mordabito but dropped out when her TV pilot was picked up, and Debra Winger was originally cast as Dottie but dropped out when Madonna replaced Frost as Mae.
The movie was an instant hit, renewing interest in the AAGPBL and furthering interest in women’s baseball.
While the film’s primary focus in the early days of the league, the relationships between the characters, particularly the sisters Dottie and Kit, take precedence. The movie is populated with memorable supporting characters like Mae Mordabito, Doris Murphy, Marla Hooch, Evelyn Gardner, Ernie Capadino, Ira Lowenstein, and Walter Harvey (played by director Marshall’s brother, the late Garry Marshall). Several familiar faces also round out the background players, like Janet Gretzky, Téa Leoni, and Don S. Davis as opponents, and Bill Pullman in a small role as Dottie’s husband Bob. Former AAGPBL players consulted on the movie as well, lending an air of authenticity and the filmmakers respected the former players’ vision; when players objected to a scene in which Dottie and Jimmy share a kiss, it was edited and rewritten without the lip-lock.
As the Rockford Peaches establish themselves as a top team in the league, it soon becomes apparent that Dottie and Kit can no longer coexist on the same team. As Dottie quickly becomes one of the league’s best players and brightest stars, Kit starts to grow bitter and resentful, before finally lashing out and throwing a tantrum that ends with her being traded to the rival Racine Belles. The sisters’ relationship appears as if it might be beyond mending, with Kit departing to the Belles.
After the Peaches finish the season with the best record in the league and a ticket to the World Series, one of the players learns her husband has been killed in action and leaves the team. A shaken Dottie is soon reunited with her wounded husband, Bob, who has been discharged and makes plans to leave the team as well. Despite Jimmy’s attempts to persuade Dottie to change her mind, Dottie heads off with Bob back to Oregon. Jimmy and the team go on to face Kit and the Racine Belles in the World Series.
The Peaches take on the Belles in a tough series that stretches to seven games. Having reconsidered her decision to quit the team, Dottie returns in time for the seventh game.
The film ends with a memorable, mildly controversial confrontation between the sisters, as Kit scores the winning run by bowling over her sister at home plate and knocking the ball free. The shot of the baseball rolling out of Dottie’s hand has spurred occasional debate as to whether or not Dottie purposely let go of the ball. (For what it’s worth, Kelly Candaele, the son of Helen Callaghan, a former player, and brother of Casey Candaele, said his mother never would have willingly let go of the ball.) The sisters eventually reconcile after the game, and Dottie finally leaves with Bob. The movie ends in the present day, where former players have gathered together to commemorate the league at Cooperstown. An older Dottie and Kit again reunite, surrounded by family, friends, and former players. The movie ends with scenes of actual retired AAGPBL players engaging in a game of baseball.
When the documentary (penned by Candaele) came out in 1988, the All American Girls Professional Baseball League had been a forgotten footnote in American wartime history. Though the league had lasted for a decade, it had been largely forgotten. Marshall was inspired by the material, having never heard of the league, and brought on screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel to write a script from Candaele and Kim Wilson’s treatment.
Following the documentary, interest in the league and its athletes was renewed, and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown incorporated a permanent display dedicated to the league and its players, titled Women in Baseball. Marshall’s film also helped to further excavate the league and its players from the annals of history and shine a bright spotlight on them.
The filmmakers, stars, and surviving former ballplayers still routinely reunite for anniversaries to celebrate and commemorate the film and its legacy. In 2012, A League of Their Own was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” More recently, Abbi Jacobson, actress, and producer, has plans to reboot the film for a second time as a television series for Amazon Prime; it was briefly rebooted as a sitcom in 1993, featuring Sam McMurray as Jimmy and Carey Lowell as Dottie.
The new TV show adaptation will focus on themes of race, gender, and sexuality. Racism was only briefly touched on in Marshall’s film, highlighted in a subtle scene featuring a Black woman who returns a wayward baseball to Dottie and her teammates, showing off her strong throwing arm while reminding the audience that not every talented female player was invited to participate in the AAGPBL. Issues of gender and sexuality are similarly lightly explored, if they’re explored at all, in sequences featuring the players being trained in etiquette and femininity—with several jokes made at the expense of the awkward, ungainly Marla.
It’s undeniable that A League of Their Own has left a lasting impact on not just the sports and entertainment worlds, but the world in general, as well. Even if they may not know where the line is from, most people are familiar with Hanks’ iconic “There’s no crying in baseball” line. The movie was and continues to be a cultural phenomenon.
Given that it’s already been rebooted once and is slated for a revival on a streaming service, that isn’t changing anytime soon. A League of Their Own taught a generation of young girls the lifelong, enduring lesson that their dreams, no matter how improbable they might seem, are worth fighting for.