Light and airy, with only the faintest whiff of pathos or self-importance, A League of Their Own offers a refreshingly buoyant vision of America’s favorite pastime. Unburdened by the grandiose mythologizing of movies like The Natural and Field of Dreams, the film regards baseball with a breezy, wide-eyed innocence that captures the uniquely languid joy of the sport.
Working from a screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, director Penny Marshall casts the Rockford Peaches—a founding team in the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL)—as a ragtag ensemble filled with stock comic types, including Rosie O’Donnell as a brassy New Yawk broad and Madonna as an incorrigible floozy. The performances tend toward broad caricature, particularly Tom Hanks’s at times gratingly over-the-top turn as the team’s perpetually apoplectic manager, Jimmy Dugan. All shouting, spitting, and drunken ass-grabbing, Jimmy is a cartoonish parody of American masculinity that anticipates Hanks’s similarly out-sized but more delicately modulated voice work in Toy Story a few years later.
The sororal relationship between Oregon farm girls Dottie and Kit Hinson (Geena Davis and Lori Petty, respectively) forms the dramatic spine of the film—the conflict mostly stems from Kit’s resentment of her older sister’s natural talent and good looks—but it’s Marshall’s zippy direction that keeps the film chugging along. Marshall is largely indifferent to period accuracy, but she draws on a host of old-school techniques, including newsreels, spinning headlines, montages, quippy dialogue, and Hans Zimmer’s boisterous, big band-derived score, to suggest a spirit of wartime Americana. If her style is largely a collection of secondhand clichés, it scarcely matters: The film’s setting is an idealized vision of the WWII home front, not the real thing.
The real AAGPBL was created by gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley—in the film, Garry Marshall plays a fictional candy-bar mogul based on Wrigley—as a stopgap measure against the anticipated cessation of Major League Baseball during the war. With so many players being drafted to fight it was assumed that pro ball would be put on hold for a few years, thus opening up the market for a sexed-up, all-female version. (In fact, the MLB stayed in operation throughout the war, calling up players from the minors and even high school to fill vacated spots.) Was the AAGPBL a gimmicky entertainment or a genuine showcase of athletic talent? Marshall’s film is smart enough to recognize that both can be true and that neither fact cancels the other out.
This burbling tension around gender roles during WWII, when women were entering the work force in large numbers for the first time, is really the film’s primary subject. The AAGPBL players are at one point likened to Rosie the Riveter to drive the point home. They’re are at once sexualized and infantilized, trotted out in uniforms with short skirts for gawking male spectators while off the field they are lorded over by a chaperone to ensure they maintain their image of moral purity. Marshall treats these issues comically, with the same ultra-light touch she brings to the rest of the film, and while one could reasonably object that turning the subjugation of women into a crowd-pleasing comedy reflects a rather superficial approach to the subject, it can also be easy to underestimate the difficulty of pulling it off.
Because if Marshall doesn’t exactly offer a master’s thesis in gender representation, she nevertheless approaches her subject with clear eyes and a lack of condescension. Unlike, say, Hidden Figures, a more recent attempt to fashion a broadly appealing story of empowerment out of a true story from the past, A League of Their Own frees itself from the shackles of historical accuracy and awards-baiting self-importance. The film allows itself simply to entertain. And so Jon Lovitz pops up as a talent scout to fire off some caustic one-liners for 20 minutes or so before disappearing from the film without a trace; Jimmy’s alcoholism is suddenly cured when Dottie offers him a Coke; and Madonna gets an extended, ludicrously choreographed swing-dance sequence because, hey, why not! It’s that sort of film: the kind that favors pleasing the crowd over narrative logic or historical truth.
Of course, the film is fundamentally a sports movie with plenty of action-packed gameplay. The cast mostly performed their own game stunts, suffering significant injuries as a result, including the massive thigh bruise shown off by Renee Coleman in the film. And like all sports movies it culminates in a Big Game—in this case, game seven of the inaugural AAGPBL World Series—that Marshall juices up with Kit and Dottie’s sibling rivalry. (After a falling out with her sister, Kit is traded to the Racine Belles, and now faces Dottie and the rest of her former teammates in the World Series.) This is the rare sports film where the outcome of the climactic contest doesn’t feel like a foregone conclusion, and it’s the even more singular one that reflects a sense of ambivalence about its sport. Dottie is widely acknowledged as the best player in the league, but she leaves it all to live with her husband (Bill Pullman).
For Dottie, baseball is just a game, one that she enjoys but which isn’t her true passion, while Kit builds a new life around the sport. It’s a canny and understated comment on the difficult position in which many women found themselves after the war, having to choose between work and family. Unfortunately, the clunky framing device, in which the elderly Dottie travels to Cooperstown for a league reunion at the Baseball Hall of Fame, drives home the point that the league’s importance transcended her individual ambivalence. The ending inadvertently shows the problems of nostalgia in real time; what was at the time a multifaceted experience—one with shades of empowerment, humiliation, fun, boredom, humor, pain, and disappointment—becomes, in the rosy tint of the rear-view mirror, an undertaking of great import. It’s the sort of soppy, sentimental note that the rest of A League of Their Own cannily manages to avoid. If, as Jimmy famously tells us, there’s no crying in baseball, there’s plenty of it in baseball nostalgia.