By Brian Skutle
When “A League of Their Own” was in theatres in 1992, I remember my mom and grandfather and I going to see it. I thought it was a good movie, and it was something we taped off of HBO to watch. I was going on 15, though, and relatively new to really starting to watch movies on a regular basis, so the significance of it didn’t really resonate with me- I just liked watching a baseball movie. Watching it 30 years later, and there are things about it that surprise me quite a bit, like how I don’t know if I would really consider it a sports movie in the traditional sense. That’s not a bad thing; just an observation.
If we think about sports movies, we tend to think about them in terms of on-field heroics. The game-winning run scored at the end of “Major League” (1989). Rudy finally getting on the field. Rocky Balboa going the distance with Apollo Creed. There’s some of that at the end of “A League of Their Own,” when the Rockford Peaches are playing the Racine Belles in the World Series for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, but really, the success for the Peaches- and the other teams in the league- isn’t about how they do on the field, but how they make a cultural impact while Major League Baseball is on hold during World War II. It’s very much the same blueprint that Brian Helgeland would later incorporate when telling the story of Jackie Robinson’s introduction to the major leagues in “42” (2013). For director Penny Marshall, and writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (working off of a story by Kelly Candele and Kim Wilson), this story is about women who are given a chance to do something they love, the misogyny they face from even the men giving them the chance, and whether an audience can be found for them. That’s where the underdog spirit of the sports movie genre comes into play most, and it’s where this film succeeds the most. That is something I didn’t really appreciate at 15; at 45, it’s the thing I appreciate most.
At the heart of this story are sisters Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) and Kit Keller (Lori Petty), whom are first seen playing softball in a small town in Oregon by scout Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz). Capadino is looking for women to take part in the AAGPBL, which Chicago Cubs owner Walter Harvey (Garry Marshall) is putting on to keep baseball going while the men are off to war, and he’s identified Dottie as a talent the league could use. One of the interesting dynamics in the film is how Dottie- a catcher, and more naturally talented- is not terribly interested in playing, but Kit- a pitcher who hasn’t met a high pitch she didn’t want to swing at- wants the chance. Dottie goes, but only if Kit can join her at tryouts. Both sisters make it, because Kit- for whatever faults she might have as a hitter- is a very talented pitcher, but throughout the film, Dottie feels like she keeps the game at arm’s length, even when she has to step in and manage when their manager, former player Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), is drunk on the bench. But as the league gets more popular, Dottie becomes the face of it; in a way, she looks at it almost as a responsibility than a chance to play ball. The sibling rivalry is palpable in the performances by Davis and Petty, and comes to a head when Dottie suggests to Jimmy to pull Kit when her pitches lose their heat at a crucial moment. The rift becomes a chasm, resulting in a trade that will put the sisters on the opposite teams for the World Series at the end. By that point, though, Dottie’s husband (Bill Pullman) returns from the war injured, so for Dottie, it means walking away. Jimmy knows better, though, and naturally, we will get the on-field showdown between the sisters we’ve been waiting for all movie. How it pays off is emotionally satisfying, both for how each character leaves the field, but the discussion they have afterwards, where both are settled into what they’re supposed to be doing, and comfortable with how each one sees their lives moving forward.
One of the things I found myself appreciating about the film is how it builds the team of the Rockford Peaches. To be sure, Dottie and Kit are central at the start, but we see how their friendships are built with “All the Way” Mae Mordabito (Madonna) and Doris Murphy (Rosie O’Donnell); Helen Haley (Anne Ramsay); Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh), another talented player whom wouldn’t be in the league without Dottie giving Ernie an ultimatum; Evelyn Gardner (Bitty Schram) and her obnoxious son; and Betty “Spaghetti” Horn (Tracy Reiner). Eventually, once he gets relatively sobered up, Jimmy becomes a member of the Peaches, as well, becoming a supportive force for them in ways that go beyond being a manager (even if he still doesn’t consider them ball players). Take the scene where the worst happens for one of the women; a lot of these players have husbands and boyfriends fighting in the war. When an army soldier comes into the locker room, we know immediately what shoe is going to drop, and it’s just a matter of whom it’s for. Jimmy knows what this means, and he is the one to let Betty know, and be one of the Peaches who wants to comfort her in this moment. It’s a beautiful moment, and indicative of how honestly Marshall, Lowell and Mandel have played the story. Other movies that incorporate humor in their sports movies are centered on entertaining us first rather than telling a believable sports story (as much as I love it, “The Replacements” (2000) is a ridiculous film from a football standpoint, and a comedy first); “A League of Their Own” is more concerned with making us care- the entertainment will come naturally after that.
The film begins with Dottie as an old woman. Her daughter is getting her ready to go to Cooperstown for a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The women who played in the league are being honored with an exhibit. When they arrive, they go to a field in town, and the memories come back. Old age framing devices are a mixed bag, and at the start of my rewatch, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this one, but when we return to the modern day, the emotions that come with reunions after decades apart, of the accomplishments they had, and of reliving that sense of community they found on the field, they make the choice the right one. “A League of Their Own” is a celebration of the women who met the challenges of the war, and made a difference they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.
You can read Brian’s review of “A League of Their Own” over at Sonic Cinema here.
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