A League of Their Own

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A League of Their Own

The 1992 film comedy, A League of Their Own, revitalized interest in and helped memorialize a neglected chapter of sports history: The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). With America's men joining up to fight in World War II, Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley, the chewing-gum mogul, thought that women playing baseball might help keep interest in the sport alive until the war was over and the men returned home. As depicted in the film, in 1943, the league's first year, there were four teams: the Rockford Peaches, the Racine Belles, the Kenosha Comets, and the South Bend Blue Sox. When it became evident that the major leagues would not be seriously affected by the war, Wrigley sold the league to Chicago advertising executive Arthur Meyerhoff. But after the men returned home, instead of fading into oblivion the AAGPBL prospered due to the women's extraordinary ballplaying abilities. By 1948, the league had grown to 10 teams, which attracted 910,000 paid fans. The league lasted 12 seasons, until 1954, killed off in part by television, especially televised professional baseball. During its existence, the AAGPBL never would have attracted as many fans as it did without the high level of pure athleticism demonstrated by the players.

The film itself is a craftily constructed comedy that gets big laughs, manages an emotional tale of sibling rivalry, imparts a surprisingly accurate painless history lesson, and, for some young girls, has been an inspiration, showing them that there's no such thing as a man's sport or, for that matter, a man's occupation. Much of the film's strength stems from the fact that the actresses playing the athletes seem, themselves, to be athletic, which is absolutely vital to telling the story of a professional women's baseball league able to sustain itself by attracting fans through sheer excellence on the field. The film, which cost up to $50 million to make, went approximately $15 million over budget and, according to no less an authority than Sports Illustrated, if the extra money was spent "for the technical advice, it was money well spent. Thanks to the efforts of Southern Cal coaching legend Rod Dedeaux, the USC coaching staff and AAGPBL alumna Pepper Davis, nobody in A League of Their Own throws like a girl. In fact, everybody throws better than John Goodman did in The Babe." Geena Davis and Lori Petty play the central two characters, rival sisters who move from farm life to the major leagues and, again according to Sports Illustrated, it's hard to believe that Davis never played baseball before because, in a pickup game, you'd choose her over Tom Berenger in Major League, while Petty "displays a nice flair for the mound." Screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (who also wrote Splash and City Slickers) made the sisters a pitcher (Petty) and a catcher (Davis)-perfectly logical positions for two sisters who practiced alone on a farm-and used those positions to maximum effect during the film's climactic game, with the sisters on opposing teams during the league's first World Series. Even comedy relief Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell seem athletic; John Lovitz is hilarious as scout Eddie Capadino; the director's brother, Garry Marshall, plays the Wrigley character (here made a candy bar mogul); and David Strathairn plays the promotional genius who believes that the league has a future beyond the war.

But the film is almost stolen by Tom Hanks in a career-altering role as the alcoholic chauvinistic manager Jimmy Dugan. Big showed that Hanks could act, but his next four films—The 'burbs, Turner & Hooch, Joe Versus the Volcano, and Bonfire of the Vanities —had his career on the ropes. So Hanks approached director Penny Marshall about playing the role of the team manager and, when she agreed, he once again got serious about acting. The script described the character as a 52-year-old broken-down alcoholic, but as Hanks told Marshall, instead of being made to look older, he was more interested in playing a 36-year-old broken-down alcoholic. He began by asking himself why his character wasn't still playing ball or joining up to fight in the war. Hanks solved the problem by giving the character a pronounced limp, an injury sustained during a drinking mishap. Another problem, suggested by Marshall, was how to make this character less attractive; if the manager were cute, everybody would be wondering why the girls on the team didn't go for this cute guy. Hanks suggested the solution, "How about if I get fat?"—and according to Hanks, he's been fat ever since. Hanks is both funny and touching as the manager who begins with the belief, "Girls are what you sleep with after the game, not what you coach during the game," then gradually develops a deep respect for these girls of summer. Hanks followed up this performance with Philadelphia, Sleepless in Seattle, and Forrest Gump. But the film's greatest achievement remains its reviving, from semi-obscurity, the achievements of the women of the AAGPBL, who definitively demonstrated that America's pastime is not a pastime just for men.

—Bob Sullivan

Further Reading:

Berlage, Gai Ingham. Women in Baseball: The Forgotten History. Westport, Connecticut, Praeger Publishers, 1994.

Brown, Lois. The Girls of Summer. New York, Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.

Galt, Margot Fortunato. Up to the Plate: The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Minneapolis, Lerner Publications Co., 1995.

Gregorich, Barbara. Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. San Diego, Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1993.

Hammer. Trudy J. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. New York, New Discovery Books, 1994.

Macy, Sue. A Whole New Ball Game: The Story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.