Penny Marshall’s feminist baseball chronicle screens at the Memorial Union Terrace on August 7.
The discovery of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League’s (AAGPBL) former existence felt like a revelation to a 10-year-old girl dedicated to the rigorous routines of youth softball. And without Penny Marshall’s A League Of Their Own (1992), screening Sunday, August 7 at 9 p.m. on Memorial Union Terrace as part of WUD Film’s Lakeside Cinema Series, that piece of World War II history might have stayed buried—or, at least, it might have taken me a bit longer to comprehend the social disparities of the sports world I still saw in the early 2010s.
Though the film may have caused the first stirrings of feminist ideology in multiple generations of impressionable athletes, its combination core as a pure baseball comedy is what has made it stick. A League Of Their Own tells the mostly-fictionalized account of the AAGPBL in its prime. As Major League Baseball players continue to get shipped overseas as soldiers for WWII, the businessmen of the American dynasty quickly notice the faltering profits. They eventually land on the novel idea of a professional women’s league to fill the time and their pockets.
The women who make it onto the AAGPBL’s iconic Rockford Peaches—the team the film centers on—battle with meager attendance numbers, a disinterested and alcoholic coach (Tom Hanks), typical sexism, and an internal sibling rivalry between Dottie (Geena Davis) and Kit Hinson (Lori Petty). While they take their roles on the field seriously, the higher-ups are convinced that short-skirt uniforms and gimmicks like “Catch A Foul and Get A Kiss” will suffice.
While that tension between the Peaches’ desire to be taken seriously and the societal consequences of simply being a woman in 1940s America undercuts the entirety of the narrative, stock baseball-movie tropes are ultimately the foundation of the film. Davis makes Dottie the signature captain with her performance, dignified and rooted to her morals with a sculpture-like face that calls back to the smooth portraits of old baseball cards. Petty thrives as the diva pitcher, who can’t hit a ball to save her life. Madonna, the popstar she is, gleefully plays into the stereotype of team playgirl in her role as Mae “All The Way” Mordabito. Rosie O’Donnell’s exaggerated New York accent rivals that of any movie about the Yankees.
Marshall and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel meet viewers with the familiarity of America’s Pastime to ease some into the fact that women can be ballplayers, actually. They can be young adults who like to sneak out and meet new people at a roadside pub. They can be vulgar, spitting out tobacco chew into the dugout and reading explicit paperbacks. Above all, they can put their heart and soul into the same game, with the same athleticism that audiences witness in the stands at Wrigley Field or the on-screen equivalent.
But A League of Their Own also simultaneously refuses to remove the gendered constructs that haunt and hold back the Peaches and their Midwestern counterparts in the Racine Belles and South Bend Blue Sox. It wouldn’t be the dramedy of resilience that it is without its acknowledgment of the barriers women faced in the 1940s, especially those who stepped outside the boundaries of the home when the war made it essential. During the try-out montage, the film overlays a radio “social commentary” by a society lady of Chicago over scenes of the players diving into the grass to catch a fly ball, sliding into third base with a cloud of orange dust, and hitting home runs over the fence.
“Careers in higher education are leading to the masculinization of women with enormously dangerous consequences for the home, the children and our country,” the moralizing society lady broadcasts. “When the boys come home from war, what kind of girls will they be coming home to?”
Marshall’s film answers that soldiers will come home to find girls who, despite the extraordinary experience they’ve been part of, still face uniquely female, heteronormative obstacles. They worry about their brothers and husbands being killed just the same. They’re forced to play ball in skirts to accommodate pervasive male fantasies. One player is forced to bring her son on the road after her partner calls and tells her he refuses to raise him anymore, that it’s a mother’s job. Dottie, the star of the show, leaves the moment her husband calls her home—though she eventually returns for the World Series. The players are laughed at, harassed, and embarrassed for the publicity, but still they stay on the field.
And, minuscule though the gesture is, Marshall briefly acknowledges those who weren’t allowed a chance onto the field in the first place: Black women. A group stands on the outskirts of the stadium, watching the all-white Peaches practice, when a ball rolls over to them. One of the women answers the players’ patronizing looks by hurling the ball back a sizable distance with impressive force. Dottie and the thrower exchange a knowing glance, but Marshall fails to adequately address the issue of race in a film that perhaps didn’t have the scope or education to do so correctly. Fans of League can hope the upcoming Amazon series adaptation of the same name may aim to dive further into the dynamics of being a Black athlete in the United States of the 1940s.
However it ends up, A League of Their Own both introduces and uplifts the women of the AAGPBL with a generalized narrative of overcoming injustice and hardship that nearly anyone in America can relate to, just as they relate to the “love of the game” as a cultural staple. The triumphs of the Rockford Peaches, both in-life and on-screen, prove that crying in baseball might just be exactly what’s needed for a country that still remains hellbent on hiding its vulnerability.