Baseball is always so much better in the movies than in real life. There’s nothing to get in the way of the pasttime side of America’s pasttime. I realize I’m alienating all the baseball fans who read my blog*, but please accept that I struggle with the concept of being a baseball fan and we can discuss the sport’s merits later. Interestingly, I watched a good amount of baseball movies when I was younger and I remember them all fondly. I watched movies like Angels in the Outfield and Rookie of the Year over and over as a kid, but I can’t bring myself to follow real baseball. I even played baseball in elementary school. I was always the player who got the Most Improved Player award at the end of the seasons, which doesn’t mean I really improved, just that I was really bad at the beginning. I also remember missing several key pop flies. And yet baseball movies stir up nostalgia in me. I can’t explain it. People are weird.
A League of Their Own succeeded in giving me that feeling of nostalgia, though it’s a different kind of baseball movie, with women throwing the pitches, hitting the home runs, and catching the pop flies instead of men. The key women are Dottie (Geena Davis) and Kit (Lori Petty), sisters who live on a farm in Oregon. They play baseball in a local league, and when a baseball scout comes to town, he takes them both to Chicago where the best of the rest have come to join the new All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAWPBL, a totally worthless acronym). Mr. Harvey, the candy bar mogul who is financing the league, wants to make up for the possibility that men’s baseball will suffer because many of the players are fighting in WWII. He hires Jim Dugan (Tom Hanks), a washed-up star in the men’s league, to coach the team that Dottie and Kit end up on. The movie follows their team as they help to establish the league’s relevance.
It’s a funny movie with a light-hearted bounce to it and a lot of good, broad comedy. But it throws some curve balls at us with striking serious moments. Several of the girls, including Dottie, have husbands overseas in the war, and one of them receives terrible news that rocks the whole clubhouse. Dugan drinks heavily, perhaps in response to a career-ending injury; his drinking leads to a few funny scenes (including one involving a sink in lieu of a urinal), but his alcohol problem also has real sadness to it. Our main protagonists, Dottie and Kit, have a deep sibling rivalry that comes to a head in the climax (like Warrior, except with less punching, and less abs). Baseball provides the framework for the realities of their lives and helps them cope. Indeed, the girls come to rely on the league; when its existence is threatened by low attendance numbers, some of the women break down, not wanting to return to the hardships they left behind. Director Penny Marshall (Big, The Preacher’s Wife) handles the tonal shifts well. She knows what it means to be a woman in a man’s world.
Marshall has a great cast to assist her. Geena Davis is simply great as Dottie. She’s the best player in the league, but her heart isn’t wholly in the game; instead, it’s out of the park with her husband in the war. Winning the big game isn’t her passion; her life and the lives of her friends and family are more important. Lori Petty is feisty as Kit, a typical youngest-sister character. Hanks is coming into his own as an actor here, showing great, believable range. Rounding out the lineup with standout supporting roles are Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell, effective in their characters’ comic and dramatic scenes.
All of this makes for a very good movie. There really was an AAGPBL, and it really did have a totally worthless acronym. This is probably not the most realistic picture of women in baseball, but it feels like a complete one, a picture with real insight into the time period and the real-life plight of these women. Also, it effectively shows us sports as a lens through which we view life and as an escape route from life. Maybe that’s why I like baseball movies so much- that sentiment is universal throughout all sports.
*They all flock here whenever ESPN.com quotes one of my posts.