Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own was a film I really didn’t want to see in 1992. Back then I wasn’t particularly interested in ‘sports movies’ in general because I had this preconceived notion that one had to be intimately acquainted with the sport being extolled in the film to sufficiently be entertained by the experience of seeing it depicted in a movie. So all-girl’s professional baseball was way down on my list of must see movies. That attitude, I now realize, was genuinely misguided.
In fact, in retrospect A League of Their Own was primarily responsible for getting me to revisit my reticence and investigate older sports movies like Pride of the Yankees and Field of Dreams. Both have since become cherished additions to my movie-going experience, to say nothing of the countless other sports movies I have since come to know and love. My admiration for stories with a sport’s theme has only continued to exponentially grow over the years.
Reflecting on my ignorance then, I think part of my problem was that, like I suspect many, I had never heard of the All American Girl’s Professional Baseball League. I mean, it was never glossed over in any of my history classes, not even by some of my more diehard feminist professors in university – and there were more than a handful of those teaching back then. So the complete absence of any sort of acknowledgement for this decisive chapter in American sports history was something I really couldn’t figure out.
Truth told, the reason I fell in love with A League of Their Own the very first time I saw it had absolutely nothing to do with extrapolating any such feminist interpretation of the movie. As is the case for me now, back then I worshipped movies for the narratives they told. Tell me a good story and you have me hooked from main title to end credits. And A League of Their Own proved to be an exceptionally good story indeed.
In hindsight, the other aspect of the film that left a warm soft spot in my heart was its central character, Dottie Hinson, superbly played by Geena Davis as a young war bride and Lynn Cartwright as the sage grandmother with a continuing feisty streak, even as her own dreams to play pro ball had been sacrificed in order to preserve the integrity of both her marriage and her often strained relationship with younger sister, Kit Keller (Lori Petty in her youth and Kathleen Butler in later years).
In the years since the film’s release I’ve done a fair amount of reading on women’s baseball circa WWII and realize the exceptional level of verisimilitude achieved in Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel’s screenplay; itself an engrossing fictionalized ensemble piece with poignant, true to life reflections about sexual and racial politics. Weaving a seamless tapestry of comedy, drama, history and sentiment is never as easy as it looks, and, at times A League of Their Own comes dangerously close to losing its emotional center.
The trick and the wonderment is that A League of Their Own remains true, not only to its characters, but also that period in history it is attempting to recreate. The movie works for several reasons, not the least of which is its cleverly executed balancing act between the ‘hearty laugh’ and the ‘good cry’. Some might call this a shameless manipulation of sentimentality run amuck. I prefer to regard it as exceptional movie-making craftsmanship that perpetually tickles the fancy as it effortlessly massages the heart.
We begin in 1988 with a very reluctant Dottie Hinson (Lynn Cartwright) being prodded by her daughter to attend the induction of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. It’s been so long since Dottie played ball. She’s not even sure anyone will remember her. Still, her passion for the sport never died all these many years. So, off she goes, and is startled when former teammates Mae (Eunice Anderson), Doris (Vera Johnson) and Marla (Patricia Wilson) not only recognize, but welcome her with open arms. This camaraderie rekindles the sights and sounds of a different time and we regress with Dottie back in time to 1943 – the height of the war.
Recently married Dottie (now played by Geena Davis), whose husband Bob (Bill Pullman) is off fighting in Europe, and her younger wallflower sister Kit (Lori Petti) live on their parent’s dairy farm in Oregon. They play baseball in their spare time for a local women’s league. Although both are passionate about the sport, Dottie is the one with the innate talent. Baseball is in her blood. But Kit has heart. And she wants a different life for herself – bad!
Kit realizes that left to her own accord on this bucolic backdrop she will always live in the shadow of her older sister. But when candy bar magnate and Chicago Cubs owner Walter Harvey (Garry Marshall) decides to rescue major league baseball by creating an all-women’s pro league to substitute for men’s baseball he orders manager, Ira Lowenstein (David Strathairn) and agent Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) to seek out the best of the best and sign them to contracts for the duration of the war.
The irascible Capadino takes an immediate interest in Dottie. She’s a hell of a catcher, a solid hitter and a real ‘dolly’ – just the sort of poster girl Harvey is looking to promote. Unfortunately, Dottie politely turns Capadino down, that is, until Kit begs her to reconsider. Dottie tells Capadino that she’ll sign on, but only if Kit can play too and Capadino reluctantly agrees. On route to basic training Capadino and his new recruits stop to scout another hopeful, Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh); a phenomenal switch-hitter slugger who unfortunately has about as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville. Insulted by Capadino’s immediate dismissal of Hooch because of her looks, Kit and Dottie refuse to budge until Marla is signed, leaving Capadino no choice but to once again give in.
Arriving at Wrigley Field for basic training the girls are introduced to other hopefuls; tough talking taxi dancer Mae Mordabito (Madonna), her best friend, Doris Murphy (Rosie O'Donnell), right fielder Evelyn Gardner (Bitty Schram), illiterate left fielder Shirley Baker (Ann Cusack), left fielder Betty ‘Spaghetti’ Horn (Tracy Reiner) and former beauty queen turned pitcher, Ellen Sue Gotlander (Freddie Simpson). After some very intense tryouts the ladies, along with Kit, Dottie and Marla, are all drafted into the Rockford Peaches, managed by former Cubs slugger, Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks). Dugan, who proudly declares that women are something you sleep with - not coach - is a very bitter man.
Once an all-star, Dugan blew out his knee during a drunken brawl; an injury that forced him into early retirement. He’s since turned to the bottle to medicate his own insecurities. Unable to reconcile his current plight with those more lofty ambitions and failed dreams, Dugan is condescending to the women at first and treats his coaching duties with general disdain, forcing Dottie to take on most of his responsibilities. Dugan and Dottie frequently clash over game-time decisions but gradually a mutual respect begins to develop between the two.
Despite Harvey’s high hopes, the initial debut of the AAGPBL garners little public attention. Attendance is so low that the owners begin to grumble about the league being a waste of both their time and money. Determined to prove everyone wrong, Lowenstein informs the Peaches that he has brought in a Life magazine photographer to craft a story about women’s baseball and encourages the team to do ‘something spectacular’ to get his attention. Hence, when a pop fly goes behind home plate, Dottie obliges Lowenstein’s request by catching it while doing a dramatic split. The photo is taken and generates a national craze for women’s baseball that draws in the crowds.
Kit, who had hoped that a change of venue – from farm to baseball diamond - would allow her to step into the light and find her way in life, quickly realizes that Dottie is becoming the star. Resenting her sister’s success, Kit confronts Dottie; the two striking a bitter sibling rivalry that boils over after Jimmy pulls Kit for a relief pitcher on Dottie's advice. Later, Dottie informs Lowenstein that she has decided to quit the league in order to salvage her relationship with Kit. Instead, Lowenstein arranges a trade and Kit is sent to Racine.
The middle act of A League of Their Own diverges ever so slightly from Dottie and Kit’s story to become a more ensemble piece. We learn a little about the other players, just enough to make each one more memorable. Evelyn informs Dugan that her husband is forcing her to take their son, Stillwell (Justin Schiller) on tour with the team. The child turns out to be a handful, trying both Dugan and the team’s patience. Marla meets her soul mate, Nelson (Alan Wilder) after becoming intoxicated at a roadhouse and the two eventually marry. Sometime later Betty is informed that her husband was killed in action and Dottie suffers a terrible bout of anxiety that is quelled when Bob suddenly arrives at the team’s boarding house to collect his wife, wounded but otherwise unharmed, having been honorably discharged from the army.
The next morning Dottie tells Dugan that she is quitting the league to return to Oregon with Bob; a decision he is certain she will live to regret. As the World Series begins, it becomes clear that the Rockford Peaches will be pitted against the Racine Belles and Dottie, having reconsidered her love of the game with Bob, unexpectedly rejoins her team for this penultimate showdown. The reunion, however, becomes even more personal as it exacerbates Dottie and Kit’s sibling rivalry.
The Peaches and the Belles square off. Dottie tells Ellen Sue about Kit's fatal weakness for high fastballs. But after predictably missing the first two pitches, Kit surprises everyone by belting a line drive that sends the Peaches into a climactic and game changing frenzy. Ignoring all stop signals from her teammates, Kit rounds third and heads for home plate. It’s up to Dottie to tag her out and win the game. In these final moments it remains unclear whether Kit legitimately conquers the field by slamming into Dottie and dislodging the ball from her glove, or whether Dottie has decided to throw the game by dropping the ball on purpose. Regardless, Racine wins the World Series and Dottie leaves the field with a sense of pride. Kit has at last been afforded her moment in the sun.
We return to the present with Dottie and her teammates sharing a sentimental tour of the museum exhibit in Cooperstown dedicated to their former glories. Dottie is reunited with Stilwell (Mark Holton) who informs her that his mother, Evelyn has since passed away. He has come to Cooperstown to honor her memory. Ellen Sue strikes up an impromptu rendition of the team’s pep song and as everyone joins in Dottie and Kit are reunited in a reconciliation that is truly heartfelt. Dottie is at last able to admit, if only to herself, just how precious those years she spent with the league were.
In these final moments A League of Their Own achieves one of its primary objectives; the good cry. But until this penultimate tear jerking moment much of the movie plays like a flag waving patriotic comedy of errors; a sort of ‘Bad News Bears’ for adults that uses the backdrop of sisterly bonding to dress up its sports motif. This isn’t as terrible as it sounds. In fact, despite its rather discernible stereotypes and the obviousness in its clichéd comedy, A League of Their Own hits one out of the park with a very consistent batting average.
Part of the film’s success remains its choices in casting. Virtually everyone is a character’s character – imbued with memorable (if often cartoonish) traits that make them easily identifiable and even more readily loveable and endearing for the audience: Tom Hanks’ forgivable slob, Geena Davis’ stern sass, Madonna playing to her pop culture stereotype as a gal whose racked up almost as many points off the field as she has on, Rosie O’Donnell’s smart-mouthed sidekick; Lori Petty’s willful spitfire, et al. These performers make A League of Their Own the stellar ensemble piece that it is, full of meaningful interactions and sincere moments that continue to linger in our hearts and minds long after the houselights have come up.
Penny Marshall’s direction also should be cited; slick and stylish – making its points and moving alone without a moment’s drag or lost opportunity to be had. Miroslav Ondricek’s cinematography perfectly visualizes the vintage look of wartime America while Hans Zimmer’s noteworthy score create a lush orchestral palette that elevates the emotional content of the story. In the final analysis, A League of Their Own is a ‘bases loaded’ crowd pleaser on practically every level – not because it is a perfect movie, but because it has so obviously been made by people working both in front of and behind the camera who have baseball coursing through their veins.
Sony Home Video delivers the goods in1080p. The Blu-ray exhibits an impressive transfer with colors that are vibrant and occasionally eye-popping. Good solid contrast levels, deep blacks and lifelike skin tones reveal an impressive amount of fine detail and film grain. There are several brief shots that appear slightly softer than anticipated, but otherwise this is a gorgeous hi-def transfer that will surely delight those who have had to contend with the rather unimpressive DVD incarnations over the years. The 5.1 DTS audio is also a major upgrade. There’s an impressive clarity. Dialogue sounds extremely natural and the music tracks soar and envelope.
Extras are all carry overs from the DVD and include a director and cast audio commentary, deleted scenes, Madonna’s ‘This Used to be My Playground’ music video and ‘Nine Memorable Innings’ – a documentary divided into 11 featurettes that effectively cover reflections on the making of the film. Bottom line: A League of Their Own is heartwarming entertainment. Though it may seem a little out of season (baseball for Christmas?!?) the film is a memorable slice of a largely forgotten chapter in history and Americana lovingly preserved for posterity. Recommended? You bet! Batter up!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)