More Than Just A League

In 1992 the face of baseball films was changed dramatically. A League of Their Own, a movie loosely based on the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (A.A.G.P.B.L.) was released. The film is a nostalgic look back at a time in world history that too often is forgotten in the post-wars era. It is also, at its core, a baseball movie.

Director Penny Marshall put all the actors through a baseball audition before they were allowed to read for the film. Once cast they went through months of baseball training before filming began and any on-screen bruises were actual injuries suffered by the actresses during filming. Practices were 8 hours a day, 6 days a week for 7 ½ months. To train the girls to slide coaches tried to use a slip and slide. After the first three girls got concussions more traditional methods were employed. Because she was a late addition to the film, having just weeks to prepare, only Geena Davis used a stunt double and only to perform her split catch scene. This level of preparation adds authenticity to the film.

Actresses Lori Petty and Rosie O’Donnell were the best players and hitters on set. Competing regularly against one another they often hit to the fences at the major league parks where filming took place. Throughout filming Petty, who was the only girl on a boy’s baseball team growing up, threw more pitches than most MLB players do in a season. All the equipment used in the filming was authentic, including the wool uniforms the women wore during the World Series scenes that were shot as the thermometer reached 110F (43C) degrees.

Though taking factual liberties with player positions and personal histories, A League of Their Own reflects a historical time that many women of the era will find relatable. Told through the stories of the women who played in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, it is the history of the “Rosie the Riveter”, “Land Girls” and “Trümmerfrau” generation.

As the Second World War came to an end, troops stationed across Europe were introducing America’s pastime to communities as part of the rebuild efforts. Back at home it was their wives, girlfriends and sisters who, as part of their “patriotic duty”, kept the game ingrained in the fabric of their homeland.

From 1943-1954 the A.A.G.P.B.L. played a 108-126 game regular season schedule, depending on the year, at minor league parks across the country in an effort to keep the teams going while the men were abroad. In their best year attendance topped 1 million. These are the ballers this film is all about.

The film may never have been made were it not for one of the player’s own children. Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Helen Gallaghan had five sons. One grew up to be a filmmaker and created a documentary on the A.A.G.P.B.L. for PBS. Director Penny Marshall saw the documentary and decided the A.A.G.P.B.L.’s story would make a great film and A League of Their Own was born. She visited the Baseball Hall of Fame’s permanent display, Diamond Dreams, which features many of the women in the league, for inspiration in character development.

The film A League of Their Own centers around the general story of Dottie Kamenshek, considered a top athlete of the time. In the film much of her personal story and even her playing position, have been changed. One thing they kept true to the original however was her power at the plate. Over ten seasons Kamenshek struck out only 81 times in 3,736 plate appearances. She was named to the All Star team 7 times and held the league batting title two years running with averages of .316 and .306. She retired with a career average of .292 and, in 1999 was named amongst the 100 Greatest Female Athletes of the 20th Century by Sports Illustrated.

As the movie emphasizes, the women of that time were facing a dichotomy, “We told them it was their patriotic duty to get out of the kitchen and go to work. And now, when the men come back, we’ll send them back to the kitchen.”

Outfielder Helen “Gig” Smith, who played in the A.A.G.P.B.L., and was inducted into the National Softball Hall of Fame in 1975, said of the league, "When Mr. Philip Wrigley created the All-American Girls League in 1943, he wanted the girls to conduct themselves as ladies at all times, but to play like men." This sums up the many controversial topics for women in the league.

Mrs. America Fredda Acker, member of the South Bend Blue Sox, in Havana during spring training

Players had to attend both charm school and beauty classes. They were required to wear heels, makeup and dresses at all times off the field. They were not allowed to be seen drinking in public or found in the company of men that were not their husbands. On the field, they were expected to play like men and wear skirts while doing it.

As Lovitz’s character of the scout helps show, they were either considered too girly, “Field. Tryouts. Play. That’s it, get lost. I hate when they get attached to me like that”, or not feminine enough.

Naturally you have the, “everybody’s a critic” moments as well.

Of course you can’t talk about this film without including the 54th most quoted movie line of all time according to the American Film Institute, “There’s no crying in baseball!”

Or it’s lesser-known corresponding scene that would do any women’s coach proud.

The film is a humor-filled, journey of a group of women through a season between the lines. It reflects upon one team’s experiences but uses the history of dozens of women, throughout the history of the game, to tell the story. It tackles many of the concerns for women of the time as well as timeless relationship dynamics. Many of these stories are told through subtle subtext. One example is displayed by the team’s support of a player who cannot read. Another is Kit’s explanation as to why she wants to play ball, “Nothing’s ever gonna happen here. You gotta go where things happen.”

If nothing else the film will inspire you to learn about the women of the league like 1946 Player of the Year Sophie Kurys who averaged 100/stolen bases a season over her career. In 46’ she took 201 bases in 203 attempts. No player, male or female, has ever come close to that record. Though the bases were 72 feet apart to the MLB 90 feet, the best any man in the MLB has ever done is 138 back in 1887. Her career total 1,114 bases was not surpassed until Rickey Henderson did it in 1994. It took him 15 years, averaging 40 more games/year to reach her 9-season record.

While more comedy than baseball a good percentage of the time, there are moments any baseball player will appreciate. The conversation between coach and player when Dottie decides it’s time to leave the game is but one example.

Some of the untruths portrayed in the film, such as the publicity stunts like kisses for foul balls, the child on the road with the team and the potential love story between two of the lead characters, seem to have been more a product of studio desires. Marshall is on record as having flat out cut some of the storylines the studio had asked for that she felt devalued the players’ stories.

The weak spot of the film is the soundtrack. At least that’s what it feels like watching it. The awards people would disagree, having given it three separate statues and a Grammy nod for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture. While the film focused primarily on women, it was only their leading man who walked away with a statue. Geena Davis was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Comedy but it was Tom Hanks who took home the American Comedy Award for Funniest Supporting Actor. While the more traditional awards shows shunned the film, the MTV Movie Awards were big fans. Geena Davis got that Best Female Performance award, Best Breakthrough Performance went to Rosie O’Donnell and Best Kiss was given to Pauline Brailsford and Tom Hanks; admittedly, one of our all-time favorite on-screen lip locks as well. The film had one more award coming but it would take 20 years to get there. In 2012, The National Film Preservation Board added the film to their Registry.

One of the best parts of the film, if you turn off the soundtrack, are the closing credits. In them, you see the original A.A.G.P.B.L. players in a game during their senior years. They might be slower but the muscles still know exactly what to do. It’s ingrained in their DNA – arguing calls to completing the cutoffs.