Everybody loves an underdog story, and everybody loves a sports story. “A League of Their Own” (1992) is a combination of both genres. The underdog is this case is the average American woman left behind as the ravages of World War II has stripped the country of its fit and healthy young men.
While American male bodies are being destroyed by bullets and bombs fighting overseas, the country is feeling the void of masculinity in homes, factories, and sports arenas. The film starts with the portrayal of male absence by the initial images of playing children and lonesome wives followed by long lingering shots over photographs of men who do not exist in the present or the recent past. The film shows the route from relative rural isolation to public community and unity of purpose.
The Queen of Diamonds, a recently bereaved grandmother Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis), bookends the film as she reluctantly revisits her memory of her younger days journeying from a member of the country baseball team, Lukash Dairy, to the star of the national Rockford Peaches team; it was something, she says, that “was never that important to me. It was just something I did.”
Fundamentally, “A League of Their Own” is a story of sisterhood in the narrowest sense. The siblings Kit Keller (Lori Petty) and Dottie join the first female professional baseball league and they struggle to help it succeed amidst their own growing rivalry; additionally the sisters join a wider sisterhood of the women of the league when they get to Chicago and become members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. While Dottie professes her reluctance to leave her rural farm life for the city and baseball prospects, her younger sister Kit pleads with Dottie—the favoured star prospect—to accept the opportunity because for Kit it is a chance to break free of the strictures of the family home: “Please Dottie, I’ve gotta get outta here. I’m nothing here.” It is sisterly sacrifice that leads to the two sisters joining the inaugural intake of the first female professional baseball league; they join the national campaign to help the league succeed amidst their own personal growing rivalry.
Sacrifice is a continuing theme of the film: Dottie, apparently happily married and settled in her job and home, gives up her country life to give her sister Kit a chance to fulfill her own dream; Marla Hooch’s father, a widower from Fort Collins, Colorado, actively encourages the baseball scout Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) to take his skillful daughter because “nothing’s ever gonna happen here. You gotta go where things happen”; the selected baseball players agree to impractical baseball uniforms along with charm and beauty classes because “every girl in this league is going to be a lady,” according to the sales requirement of Ira Lowenstein.
Lowenstein, working for the baseball league owners, led by financier and chocolatier Walter Harvey, is tasked with filling the temporary gap in the sport and making the women’s game into a salable product. Naturally, some women in the 1940s who are the depiction of propriety—notably four portly Chicago middle-class, middle-aged women in matronly patterned dresses, with matching handbags and pearls—publicly express their disgust at the prospects of women in sports by using a language of violence to describe women outside of the home, in both education and in baseball, as “leading to the masculinisation of women with enormously dangerous consequences to the home, the children, and our country,” and “the most disgusting example of this sexual confusion” as “young girls are plucked from their families… to see which one of them can be the most masculine.” It was the general contention that women were to be kept separate from baseball and public displays as sports ignited the passions and therefore it should be avoided by the “fairer sex.” The position of the staid homemaking American woman alters by the end of the film when, at final of the Women’s World Series, the national anthem is led on the baseball field by a doppelgänger of Maida Gillespie, the woman who spoke so ferociously against the idea of sportswomen being highly publicised.
The central premise of the detractors of women in sports was that the world worked well because it was organised on simple binary oppositions of men and women, work and home, country and city, and these boundaries should not be breached. Dottie and Kit’s parents were portrayed as the ideal image of family life: a homely couple on a farm with the mother fussing around the needs of the central father figure. Their daughters both abandoned the stereotypical role of women by becoming baseball players in the city showing a contrast to the traditional roles of femininity and the modern rise of feminist personal agency outside of the home. Throughout the film, women are seen as being catapulted from the comfort of the contained family hearth into the open centre of the competitive baseball field. A place where they were encouraged to identify as people with desires, people who wanted to win.
The game of baseball becomes an intense and passionate experience for everyone involved right from the spectators, the reluctant coach, to the highly competitive leagues of women players.
Other themes central to the film are misogyny, feminism, and masculinity. The Rockford Peaches’ coach, Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), is portrayed as an alcoholic former World Series calibre baseball player being given a second chance to redeem his status as a baseball legend. Dugan views the women’s baseball game with disgust and turns up drunk for the first several games when he is nothing more than a token—a gender role reversal—used to promote the status of the game. Dugan is initially portrayed as a weak persona, a position usually reserved for the females in a film. “A League of Their Own” is full of usual and unusual contrasts, many of them based around the 1940s public image of femininity related to the home and sports.
An often overlooked element in the film is the role of Black people. They are viewed in mainly service roles: as musicians or cleaners. However, there is one moment, halfway through the film, when a stray ball is picked up by a Black woman on the boundary of the baseball field, then when Dottie Hinson calls for her to throw the ball back, the Black woman throws it with ease so it soars past Hinson to a farther placed catcher. Hinson visually expresses surprise, the Black woman sadly acknowledges the regularity of her overlooked skill, and she is left to return to the sidelines where a group of other similarly isolated Black men and women stand. This short scene references the informal segregation of sports that was in place in the early 1940s. The colour bar was broken in the men’s game when Jackie Robinson was signed for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1946 baseball season. Marcenia Lyle Stone, commonly known as Toni Stone, was the first Black woman to join a professional baseball team, although she did not join a women’s team as they were still segregated; Toni Stone joined the Indianapolis Clowns and crossed a gender line into the men’s team where she played professionally, in traditional baseball uniform—not skirts.
The images of beauty, Eurocentric ideals, are one of the major factors that decide which women throughout the countrywide sweep for talent gets picked for the tryouts in Chicago. Despite Marla Hooch’s skill, the baseball scout openly rejects her when he first sees her face. This is regardless of the fact that he was amazed by her performance. What Capadino does not expect is that his position of ultimate power is instantly challenged when the bond of sisterhood is immediately portrayed as the Oregon sisters refuse to leave Colorado without Marla.
This is a drama, a sports movie, and a comedy combined. The comedic elements are usually visual or one-liners by Jimmy Dugan, Evelyn Gardner (Bitty Schram), or the crudeness of the baseball scout Ernie Capadino.
The visual comedy centres, in a frequent misogynistic gaze, on moments when the boundaries of decorum are breached like when the drunken Jimmy Dugan turns up on the first match day and urinates for an exceptionally long time just out of the visual line of the women in the changing room. “All the Way” Mae Mordabito (Madonna) is central to this scene as a curious and intrigued onlooker. Madonna, and her on-screen comedy partner Rosie O’Donnell, as Doris Murphy, have several two-hander moments including watching and timing the sot who is forced on them as a coach, and other risqué encounters.
Initially the new recruits, dressed in physically unsuitable short skirt uniforms, are discouraged by the unsupportive baseball fans; however, they are admirably portrayed by the director, Penny Marshall, as women who are encouraging of each other despite their obvious team rivalry. Marshall manages to show how American women of the ’40s were often conflicted between their personal ambition and their nationally prescribed duty. Eventually the public begins to appreciate the women’s league for both their skills and their looks with newspaper headlines eventually conceding that “Girls really do play baseball.”
The women of the baseball teams grow in respect and support of each other, and mutual respect is also nurtured between coach Dugan and the women after their initial opposition toward each other. Dugan’s emotional journey is shown as the most altered because at the end of the war, when the baseball-playing men are set to return from overseas, he is offered a new position in the male league, but he refuses it to stay with the women’s league.
“A League of Their Own” is a film that is still celebrated as a great sports movie after over a quarter of a century since its release. It is a film than depicts women as the central characters on the screen and gives them varied and detailed storylines. This film highlights the fact that women playing major league baseball was a significant event in the history of sports and society in the 1940s, and ensures that this event is never forgotten or discarded.
Many female sports movies focus on the athletic goal usually as a secondary matter; director Penny Marshall highlights the women’s athleticism and also uses this film to accentuate the everyday adversities, boundaries, and glass ceilings that women outside of the home, outside of the current “norm,” will face.
The underdog in this story is Kit Keller who ends up achieving the final win, while eventually gaining a better understanding of her sister Dottie. Kit and the other female players are repeatedly told that there’s “no crying in baseball”; however, they retain their full emotional range and still succeed in the sports arena. In the regular reunions of the cast since the release of the film, art reflects life as the depictions of the sisterhood of the Rockford Peaches has lasted offscreen as well.
The women’s league teams are base stealers in the sports arena: slowly but surely they creep their way into the hearts and minds of the American public, both in the 1943 to 1954 All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and in the canon of favourite sports movies. What was supposed to be a temporary measure to entertain the American public during the horrors of war became a successful “product” with nearly a million spectators at the peak of their games. At the final of the World Women’s Series, Hinson says to her sister and team rival, “Play great,” as sisterhood trumps game rivalry.
The film concludes with a reunion of the women league players, but most significantly with the reconnection of the sisters Dottie and Kit who through time had become estranged because of baseball and team rivalry and then individual family dynamics.
“A League of Their Own” is a monument to the collaborations, relationships, and friendships of women both on-screen and behind the camera. The female writer, Kim Wilson, manages to intricately portray the familiar struggles of women, and for nearly three decades viewers of all genders and ages have recognised themselves in the characters portrayed. This film has been the vehicle by which many people have decided that it is OK to get “dirt in the skirt” on the way to achieve their personal goals.
Majorie H. Morgan is a writer, playwright, and journalist with special interest in cultural and social politics. Marjorie writes both critically and creatively for a number of national and international publications, such as The Guardian and Reader’s Digest, and she was also shortlisted for the 15th Windsor Fringe International Kenneth Branagh Drama Award in 2018.