As with all the best baseball movies, A League of Their Own captures all the joys, monotonies, and superstitions of a long season. But unlike other classics of the genre, League also captures a significant-but-neglected piece of WWII history: With the MLB shut down for the war, a landmark professional league sprang up for women. In addition to boosting the nation’s morale, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League offered further proof that our national pastime could vault beyond gender, income, and eventually race to become an all-inclusive experience.
The story, by journeyman screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, offers a heavily fictionalized version of real events. We begin with sisters Dottie (Geena Davis) and Kit (Lori Petty), two farm girls who spend their spare time on the local baseball diamond. Their sibling rivalry often brims with an unhealthy competitiveness. Younger Kit is often jealous of Dottie’s seemingly natural talent and star power, while Dottie grows irritated with Kit’s constant sniping.
Everything changes when a talent scout (Jon Lovitz, at his peak of nasally sarcasm) arrives with a tantalizing offer: A wealthy businessman (Garry Marshall) is launching an all-women’s baseball league, and Dottie has the makings of a star. Dottie reluctantly agrees to a tryout, but on the condition that Kit is included, as well. Naturally, Kit resents Dottie’s seemingly magnanimous gesture, but soon the two women are on a train, bound for Chicago.
At this point, the film settles into the same groove of a million other baseball movies. We meet the Rockford Peaches, Dottie and Kit’s new team, which is populated by an assortment of kooks: Cast against type, Madonna plays Mae, the promiscuous, free-spirited centerfielder. In another wild bit of casting, Rosie O’Donnell is Doris, the tough-as-nails wiseass at third base. Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh) occupies second base and serves as the team’s power-hitter. (The film relentlessly shames Marla for her homely looks. It comes across as mean-spirited, and is one of League‘s few misfires.) To manage this squad of misfits, the league hires Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), a hard-drinking burnout who pissed away his Hall of Fame career at a thousand after-parties. Offended at the prospect of overseeing a team of women, Jimmy spends most of his early scenes snoring in the dugout.
As with most sports flicks, things start out rough for the Peaches. Attendance is low, and hecklers comprise a high percentage of the audience. Thankfully, Dottie showcases her charisma, and fans start coming around. Director Penny Marshall tosses in a couple of montages, and voila! The new women’s league is a hit! (Apparently, the film fictionalizes this bit of history. Real-life crowds flocked to the women’s games immediately.)
Most of what follows is a lot of fun. Davis and Petty have a great interplay as the warring sisters, with both bringing real humanity to what would otherwise be an underwritten rivalry. Hanks might be having the best time, as the booze-swilling manager. Ganz and Mandel supply Jimmy with some of the film’s most memorable bursts of dialogue, including his infamous diatribe: “There’s no crying in baseball!”
Maybe not, but A League of Their Own manages to wring out some real emotions. It’s funny, moving, and even achingly nostalgic. The film is careful to remind us there’s a war on, which means these women have to play hard, raise the national spirit, and grapple with the stress that any day could bring devastating news from the front. Still, teams like the Rockford Peaches blazed a trail for all the women’s sports to come. A League of Their Own tells an important story, and it does so with warmth and charm to spare.
128 min. PG. Tubi.