Last night we hunkered down with some popcorn and an '80s flick called Blue Skies Again. Released during the 1983 spring training season, the story focuses on a 2nd baseman determined to make their favorite major league team. Unquestionably qualified for the job, the only thing working against this rookie is the insermountable problem of gender.
The film itself is an attempt to look at what a barrier breaking experience might have been like for women on the ball field. During the early '80s women entering the field of play in the US was becoming a serious topic for the first time in modern history.
Following the landmark 1973 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to allow girls to play, in 1974 the first non-gender specific rules were released by Little League. Amanda Whurlitzer, pitcher for The Bad News Bears first addressed the changes in 1976. By 1983, when those first Little Leaguers were becoming women, along came Paula Fradkin, a 19-year old 2nd baseman looking for her shot at the bigs.
The film seems to embrace arts imitation of life. In 1950 a New York girl tucked her hair under her cap and tried out for the local Little League club. She made the team and then revealed she was a girl. The coach kept her on as a novelty. It seems that the league wasn’t impressed. In the 1951 rules, Little League became gender specific, by rule, for the first time in its then 13 year history. When Paula’s character asked for a tryout in the 1983 film, the MLB has no such rule on the books. Paula is brought into the owner’s office and treated very respectfully. The conversation ends as follows:
“Thank you. It’s been a pleasure meeting you, really Paula.
I think I’ve been turned down.
Not exactly. You were never considered.
Just because I’m a girl?
When the owner later, seemingly magnanimous, realizes the error of his ways he sets up that tryout only for it to become clear that he’s made the arrangements solely to prove a point. Every player on the field berates Paula with hate speech as she tries to stay in the batter's box. The taunting reminds you what a day in the life of Jackie Robinson must have been like every time he stepped onto the field.
Not everyone sees gender as a divisive force in the film. In fact, there is a lot of baseball in the movie and much of the content is directed at its history as much as its future all while focusing on it's underlying principle of fair play.
The clubhouse manager, an old ball player himself, takes a shine to the young girl. When he sees she needs a bit of a pep talk to stick with it he offers, “You see I come from the old school, you play because you love the game. The money, that’s like salad dressing. You play ball. You don’t whine.” That would be one of several shots taken at MLB players of the time.
Right about the time this film was shooting the 1981 baseball players strike was underway. For those too young to remember a time before collective bargaining agreements, no trade clauses and free agency, this was it. Before the series of strikes that took place, starting in the early 70s and lasting, in part, through this particular strike, player’s rights were owned by clubs for life. Even when a player was released by a team, that team could still block them from playing for anyone else because the club's right to the player never ceased.
This particular strike was over free agency. It was the first time the players decided to take an in-season stand. Started in June, it took place smack dab in the middle of the season and resulted in the cancellation of 38% of the schedule for the year. The total loss was estimated, in today’s money, at $400M.
It was the longest strike in MLB history until the final strike 22 years later, in 1994, when the issue of salary caps arose. That would be the same year women would finally return to the ball field as professional players since the Second World War. While women were once again being paid to play they were also still seen as a sideshow, something to occupy the void left by the men on strike. Though many teams suffered in terms of a talent pool, relying on scabs during the strike, women were not considered for any open roster spots in the MLB system. Instead, a private group of baseball enthusiasts started a women's professional league. By the time the 1995 season began, the dismantling of the women’s league was already well under way even as people were still trying to build it into its own business.
In the film Mimi Rogers plays a female sports agent, a novel role for the time. Naturally she has to have a male sidekick for access and credibility. He's also an old timer. They have a great scene together where he teachers her how to chew tobacco. In fact, I consider that scene perhaps the pinnacle of Rogers’ acting career. I think she missed her calling in situational comedy.
At day’s end this is a great, in the way only 1980s movies ever have been, film. Cheesy with little depth, plenty of situational comedy and a delicate balance between making a point and crossing a line. Though films of the time seemed to forever land on the misogynistic side of the fence, this time the line gets crossed in ways that are so subtle it is possible only a woman could have noticed them when the film was released. It was certainly a step further in the direction of normalizing women into workplace roles traditional thought of as male-only.
The humor in the movie definitely keeps you engaged in the film. A favorite scene for me was watching the coach make up a superstition on the fly to distract the owner from a scheme they were trying to pull off behind his back.
On the more serious side however is this. Here we are 34 years later and the question still remains. What would happen if a woman played in the MLB? France’s Melissa Mayeux looked like she might be able to provide an answer when she became the first woman in the history of the MLB to become draft eligible in 2015. No team picked her up however and today she continues to play in France for the Montigny Cougars.
Many women playing the game today still have stronger prospects in softball, despite the comparatively limited number of professional teams worldwide. With the Olympics making the gender divide relevant once again, for many women it is their best professional future to remain, at least close to the sport they love. As anyone who loves either sport knows however, they are not one in the same.
Case in point. The actress who played the lead ballplayer in the film, Roby Barto, was a 19-year old local girl playing softball for the local community college when she was discovered. She told a reporter in 1993, “One minute all that matters is the game, and the next this woman is telling me they’re interested in me for a part in a movie and handing me pages of a script.” While Hollywood never knew the difference between Barto and a baseball player, anyone watching her slide in the film no doubt will.
The entire movie was filmed just minutes from Robyn's home. After trying to find an actress who could also play ball, the casting director decided to take the opposite approach and Barto’s star was soon on the rise. She had zero acting experience, not even a school play. “They picked me out of all those girls. I was so excited. I figure, I can get through this, say a few lines, play ball. It’ll be fun. But then they hand me the entire script and I start reading. I find out the whole story revolves around me.”
For the 8-weeks of filming Barto was paid $1,100/week plus a hotel stay despite living in the neighborhood. Her family was welcome on set. The crew used her Mom as an extra and her brother played a batboy. She received the Hollywood treatment with a huge press rollout leading up to the release.
“They only got upset with me once because they wanted more emotion out of me. I was about to cry when I realized, ‘Hey, they’re halfway through this film. They’re not gonna fire me now.’” That sort of free-spirited thinking, spunk as it might have been called back then, is ever-present in her performance and that is a very good thing for viewers.
After the movie Hollywood came calling. She used some of her residual checks to make the move across the country. Her second visit was vastly different from the premiere and lasted just 2 months. “I was almost 21 by then, and they’re putting me in pigtails and having me audition to play 14-year olds. Pigtails!” She moved back home, took a bank job, got married, had a daughter and hasn’t looked back. She still loves the game though. She’s been a high school softball coach for several years.
Barto certainly held her own on the silver screen. And she was standing next to several of Hollywood’s future heavy hitters. In his first film role, and such a small role at that he isn’t even billed in the movie, Andy Garcia plays a demure, yes-man of a 2nd baseman. That’s right, she’s after his job. It’s surprising, watching it all these years later, to see him in such a soft role.
In just a few short years you’d be hard pressed to go anywhere in Hollywood gangster film history without coming across Garcia. He starred in The Untouchables in 1987 and followed that up with his most memorable role as Vincent Mancini in the third installment of The Godfather films. In between he played a cop more than once and not always the friendly neighborhood variety.
Though they had great character successes on the small screen throughout their careers, this would be the only leading roll Mimi Rogers (X-Files, Two and a Half Men, Cleaners, NCIS) and Harry Hamlin (L.A. Law, Mad Men, Glee), would ever have on the silver screen. Their performances in this film emphasize their abilities to shine in an ensemble while pointing a glaring light on their inability to take center stage for a solo performance.
At the end of the day this is a 1980s film. You need to go into it with that mindset and enjoy the ride. It will take baseball fans and feminists alike, to all the right stops over the two-hour journey to the end.