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Home > Columnists > Doug Strassler
July 01, 2017

Happy 25th Birthday, A League Of Their Own!


Petty, Hanks, and Davis ()

Penny Marshall’s World War II Baseball Film is the Ultimate Summer Catch

By Doug Strassler

To remember Penny Marshall’s 1992 film, A League of Their Own, is to do a lot of looking back. Not just because the movie itself premiered 25 years ago today (!), but because the film itself was a loving look back at the ways both tough and not so tough that people comprised themselves during World War II, 50 years before the film’s release.

It’s also cause to reflect a little on just what even the most audience-pleasing of movies had to say beneath the surface.

The movie, written by Babaloo Ganz and Lowell Mandel (City Slickers, Parenthood), tells the true story of what ultimately became known as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), conceived by chewing gum magnate Philip Wrigley as a means of building morale and profits while men were fighting overseas.

League is neither a standard war movie nor women’s picture – its success is in its universality, which Ganz and Mandel achieved by making it a film about family. In fact, we will see one family, the Rockford Peaches, grow over the course of a film, while the relationship between the two sisters at its center, the corn-fed Midwesterners Dottie (Geena Davis, scoring a rare double following Thelma & Louise) and Kit (Lori Petty), permanently frays.

Dottie, you see, has proven to be the team’s star player, although Kit has real chops, too. But for Dottie, the game is a fun distraction while her husband (Bill Pullman) serves at war. And Kit, who finds empowerment and takes the AAPGBL far more seriously, resents feeling overlooked. A second-act fight between the two sisters results in an inadvertent league trade, putting Kit on the Racine Belles and pitting the Belles and the Peaches against each other in a riveting climactic World Series faceoff.

Spoiler alert: the Peaches – the very team that’s been the heart of this two-hour-plus film loses. Kit crashes into Dottie, manning home plate, and Dottie drops the ball. The film wisely (so wisely; it’s one reason people discuss League to this day) never lets us know if Dottie makes a deliberate choice to grant Kit the win or if it happens by the sheer force of Kit’s impact, but either way, it’s an unexpected way to end the meat of the film’s action. “The good guys,” so to speak, lose.

And it doesn’t matter. What does matter is how they’ve played the game. With class. Integrity. And with a newfound sense of sorority that didn’t exist as they played homemaker. (Also, of course Dottie dropped it on purpose. Of course she did.)

There we have it: Marshall’s movie is one in which the stakes hang on the relationship between two women. Men appear, husbands are mentioned, but League is about a devastating rivalry between two sisters. Context aside, it could just as easily have been a story about a gulf between two male players. And audiences flocked to it, in droves: it made over $130 million at the box office, more than three times its budget. An in 2012, 20 years after its release, the United States National Film Registry chose the film as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It took Rebel without a Cause nearly 50 years for similar distinction; The Empire Strikes Back took 30 years.

Of course, there is a leading male in the film. Tom Hanks is in it! Just before his double-whammy Oscar wins, Hanks played Jimmy Duggan, a former Cubs player gone to seed. An initial screenplay purported tested a romance between Dottie and Jimmy, but the final film excised those scenes, smartly promoting a friendship in which both learn to trust and respect the other.

In addition to Big and Nothing In Common, League truly features one of Hanks’ most beautiful, and honest, performances. So many of his scenes are, pardon the pun (or don’t), home runs. There’s Jimmy’s epic pee while hungover, for instance. But who am I kidding? It’s his “There’s no crying in baseball!” scene, opposite Bitty Schram’s Evelyn, that will last forever. It’s just perfect. And that is a testament to the performers, to the script, and, most especially, to Marshall, who blends humor and heart with a frisson only seen before in Big, and sadly lacking in her later films. (It might also be a lie: I have cried while writing this article.)

And it’s Hanks who anchors a sadder seen as well. A messenger has come to the Peaches’ locker room with devastating news about one of the women’s husbands, and he drags out the message while trying to figure out the intended recipient. It’s agony, and played with perfect dexterity. Let it not be forgotten, too, that Davis’ immediate reunion thereafter with Pullman, sans dialogue, is among her all-time best screen work.

I’ve left out some other heavy hitters (I’d like to promise that’s my final baseball pun, but I can’t be so sure). Madonna riffs on her image as All-the-Way Mae. She’s good, and could have been better if the film gave her a bit more to work with. Rosie O’Donnell claimed much of the film’s ink as its breakout discovery, and while the comedian detoured into a brief film career with highs and lows (Sleepless in Seattle, Exit to Eden), she eventually pole-vaulted into the stratosphere as talk-show host, LGBTQ advocate, and general personality. Still, I wish that Megan Cavanagh’s Marla Hooch lingered a bit more in the memory. She’s terrific. (Schram, Jon Lovitz, David Strathairn, and Garry Marshall are great as well. Petty struggles a bit, but in the end makes for a convincing angry little sister.)

Also, let’s not forget about the music. Madonna rightly scored a Golden Globe nod for “This Used To Be My Playground,” written with longtime early collaborator Shep Pettibone. And while Carole King’s “Now and Forever” never shot into the rafters as a single, it found a place in the public consciousness as well in many ballparks. The earworm-y AAGPBL theme, written during the 1940s by Pepper Paire and Nalda Bird, also features prominently.

Hans Zimmer’s score is a rousing and moving in all the right moments, not the least of which comes at the end, at a recreation of the AAGPBL’s exhibit in Coopersville. Through Dottie, we learn that Evelyn has passed away and Marla has enjoyed a thriving marriage (Dottie herself is by then widowed), and she encounters Kit (played in older age by Kathleen Butler, a good match), with many children and grandchildren in tow.

That reunion scene at the baseball hall of fame is a bittersweet but truthful tug on the proverbial heartstrings. It’s clear that the two sisters haven’t seen each other in years. There have probably been visits, but the rift we saw develop in the film has never healed. In a pre-social media world, the two have remained largely estranged and unfamiliar to each other. The film ends with their embrace, as they remember what they had but also, presumably, mourn what they missed out on. In doing so, League, ostensibly a baseball film – and a great one at that – is also a sentimental look at how quickly ties can unbind.

Call it what you want: a sports movie, a period film, a comedy, a tearjerker; League is all of these things and so much more. There just isn’t a more purely enjoyable movie than this one. At the time, it was just a fun outing to the local movie theatre, a solid, starry popcorn film. We’re starved for a movie of this caliber now.

Thank goodness we’ll always have the Peaches.

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