Friday Film Focus: A League of Their Own

A League of Their Own is based on the true story of the All-American Baseball League — an organization founded in 1943 when it briefly appeared that men’s baseball would be a causality of WWII.

Philip K. Wrigley (of the Chicago Cubs) and other prominent baseball figures got together to form this non-profit league. Its aim included filling the void of baseball as it pertained to the major league clubs losing many of their players to the armed services. Seen from a ’90s perspective, the story has the makings of a stinging feminist manifesto. Director Penny Marshall shows her women characters in a tug-of-war between new images and old values. Her movie is about transition –about how it felt as a woman to suddenly have new roles and freedoms. Taking this footnote to baseball history, Marshall — along with screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel — made A League of Their Own. It’s one of the most cheerful, relaxed, and easily enjoyable comedies of all-time.

Geena Davis stars as Dottie, a dairy worker recruited by a caustic baseball scout (Jon Lovitz is pure joy in a role far too brief). Lovitz’s character wants players to be lookers, regardless of their baseball skills. She’s a crackerjack catcher, a dependable hitter, and someone who is so beautiful that she winds up on the cover of Life Magazine. On the mound is her younger sister Kit (Lori Petty). She has a terrific pitcher’s arm, but tends to go to pieces when stepping up to the plate to hit. It’s a sibling thing, as she gets rattled by Dottie’s advice. As the audience can attest to, Kit simply can’t resist ‘hitting the high ones’. The sisters agree to try out for the Rockford Peaches — with both eventually making the team. A slugger dubbed ‘All-the-Way-Mae’ also makes the team. Madonna plays her with intelligence and scrappy wit, especially in tandem with Rosie O’ Donnell’s character. A coach is needed for the team, however. The owner (Garry Marshall) recruits Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), a one time home run king whose alcoholism wrecked his career and left him without prospects. He’s a tobacco-chewing slob with his own manner of expressing himself. For instance, he doesn’t resist urinating in front of his players in the locker room.

During their disastrous first game, he lounges in the dugout — snoozing in rye-induced oblivion. Dugan is hardly on the field during the first few weeks of practice. However, he slowly starts taking an interest in his girls. His hands-off flirtation with the married Dottie, and his grudging respect for the team redeem him. But with exception of scene-stealing Tom Hanks, this is a movie in which men are one-dimensional and fade into the background. Yet, Hank’s Dugan is a priceless, very graceful eccentric. While the women on the field are knocking themselves out to achieve fame and glory, the film never strains to get a laugh or make a point. It adopts a summer pace as it follows Dottie, Kit, Mae, and their teammates from essentially boot camp to the league’s first World Series. In the inaugural series, the Peaches square off against the Wisconsin Belles. A League of Their Own follows many of the time honored formulas of sports movies, and has a fair assortment of stock characters. With that said, it has another level that’s a lot more interesting.

After years of perpetrating the image of the docile little woman sitting at home caring for her lord and master, American society suddenly found itself needing women who were competent to do arduously skilled work during World War II. Rosie the Riveter became a national emblem; Hollywood threw out scripts and started making movies about independent, strong females. The film remembers this period from the present. It begins with Dottie, now older, taking a trip to Cooperstown for ceremonies honoring the women’s league. Dottie never took her baseball career seriously even though she was the best player of her time. In her mind, her life was simply on hold until her husband came back from the war. Dugan tells her she lights up when she plays the sport…that something comes over her.

The movie has a real bittersweet charm. The baseball scenes, we’ve seen time and again. What’s fresh are the personalities of the players, the gradual unfolding of their beloved coach, and the way this early chapter of women’s liberation fit into the conventional traditions of professional baseball. A League of Their Own is more than the sum of its parts, and is in some respect a ruse.

It is a film that tricks an audience into watching a movie about baseball. Instead, the audience is overcome with the realization of watching a story rooted in perseverance and dreams.

Image Source: ABC News