When WWII threatens to shut down Major League Baseball, candy magnate and Chicago Cubs owner Walter Harvey (Garry Marshall) convinces the other MLB owners to back a women’s league, placing Ira Lowenstein (David Strathairn) in charge and sending out Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) to recruit players for four teams – the Rockford Peaches, Racine Belles, Kenosha Comets and South Bend Blue Sox. While attending an industrial-league softball game in Oregon, Ernie is wowed by the catcher for the local dairy’s team, Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) and makes her an offer; however, she has no interest in playing professionally and prefers waiting for husband Bob (Bill Pullman) to come home from the war. Eventually, though, her eager-to-play sister Kit Keller (Lori Petty) persuades her to join.
As the season begins, with former MLB home-run king turned career-destroying alcoholic Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) being hired to coach Dottie and Kit’s Rockford team, the women face the monumental task of proving to the fans that they are more than just a cute gimmick and can serve as a legit sports league.
Founded in 1943 by Chicago Cubs owner and chewing gum manufacturer Philip K. Wrigley (here portrayed as a chocolate bar exec named Walter Harvey), the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) was established in order to maintain the public’s interest in baseball while many Major Leaguers served in the armed forces during WWII (Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Warren Spahn, Bob Feller and Stan Musial are just to name a few of those that served). No one really expected the league to make an impact or amount to any sort of legacy; its intention was to keep the sport active while Uncle Sam picked the MLB clean during the war.
In the overall grand history of professional baseball, the AAGPBL is only a footnote, but the accomplishments made shouldn’t be overlooked. Even though it only lasted 11 years (1943-54), that’s still a little over a decade longer than anyone honestly expected it to last. While it’s stretch to compare ballplayers to “Rosie the Riveter” as some have done (I’m sure even the players themselves would admit the women who worked in factories and shipyards while their husbands were at war sacrificed more to the cause), they still provided nine innings of entertaining escape at an uncertain time when Americans needed it most.
Plus, it ain’t exactly easy to fill in the shoes, even if temporarily, of some of the greatest Major Leaguers to ever play the game.
At the time, former Laverne & Shirley star turned filmmaker Penny Marshall was in the midst of her peak as a director with A League of Their Own coming after two of her biggest hits, both critically and financially, Big and Awakenings. A League of Their Own doesn’t quite have the emotional punch of Awakenings nor the poignancy of Big (Marshall’s best film), but as the third and final entry of Marshall’s trifecta of best films, it works as an effectively charming portrait of wartime Americana.
Marshall’s not shooting for profound here. Nearly every sports film trapping in the book is committed, including the obligatory bottom of the ninth game-winning home run that takes practically an hour for the batter to round the bases in over-dramatic slow-motion. Observations are still made by writing team Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Splash, Parenthood, City Slickers) – the women are picked to play more for their looks than their talent and are dressed accordingly (good luck trying to steal a base in that skimpy attire), and Tom Hanks’s Jimmy Dugan initially feels that coaching a women’s baseball team is beneath a former home run champ such as himself (could always be worse, Dugan… could be the WNBA). But Marshall, Ganz and Mandel elect not to bludgeon viewers over the head with a sermon and opt for broad comedy, perhaps in an effort to compete for the summer box office dollars back when it was first released. Sure, the humor is more one-liner based than the sharp wit Ganz and Mandel brought to Parenthood, but it’s hard not to be amused by the now iconic “There’s no crying in baseball!” scene.
Despite the film’s cliches, one of which is the all-too-often used present day to flashback bookends device, Marshall navigates through Ganz and Mandel’s breezy screenplay with a light touch, capturing the essence of the ’40s quite well, from the set design, costumes, soundtrack to even a well-cast Jon Lovitz as the tart, fast-talking scout. The baseball sequences, though not inventive, are competently crafted even if they feel familiar, and are boosted by a great sense of joy and enthusiasm that make that games pop with energy.
Where Marshall truly excels is in directing performances. A former star in front of the camera herself, Marshall previously notched Tom Hanks his first of five Best Actor nominations for Big and drew terrific work from both Robert De Niro and Robin Williams in Awakenings. The characters are the usual stock types found in your everyday sports film – loose, stoic, shy and homely, sensitive and the tough-talking New Yorker – but Marshall brings fine work out of each of her cast members, all of whom brighten up the film with their distinct personalities. Hell, you know she’s doing something right if she can wrangle out a good performance from Madonna (really stretching her bounds as an actress playing the team nympho).
Geena Davis, who at the time was at the height of her career, turns in strong work as Dottie Hinson, the best player in the league. The emotional core of the film, Davis brings a quiet intensity to Dottie with a touch of vulnerability hiding behind her toughness. She plays hard and fights even harder to gain any sort of legitimacy from the higher-ups and, more importantly, the baseball fans, but she’s also a wife worried sick about her husband fighting overseas, and struggles over what to do when or if her husband comes home. Ganz and Mandel don’t dive as deep into that aspect as they could’ve; most of the conflict revolves around the sibling rivalry between Dottie and her younger, jealous sister Kit, and there’s an authentic rapport between Davis and Lori Petty that makes it a conflict worth focusing on. Even though Dottie’s “to domesticate or not to domesticate” dilemma isn’t as developed, we’re still given enough reminders of the realities of war Dottie faces every day.
Teaming up with his Big director once again, Tom Hanks provides the most colorful performance and clearly relishes the opportunity to channel his inner Morris Buttermaker as the boozy, old-timey team manager, a former player himself who once was referred to as a “talking pile of pigshit” by Rogers Hornsby. A few more notches up on the over-the-top scale and Jimmy Dugan (a composite of Philadelphia Athletics/Boston Red Sox legend Jimmy Foxx and Hack Wilson) just might’ve become an irritating distraction, but Hanks finds the right level of camp for his coaching tirades, and honestly, if you’ve ever seen Lou Piniella’s outbursts, Dugan’s rants are a model of humble restraint. For most of his career, Hanks has understandably become known for his dramatic roles (Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, Cast Away, Road to Perdition), but I think some viewers forget just how good he is at comedy and A League of Their Own offers a fine example of his comic chops.
As she always does, Marshall puts the sentimental pedal to the metal, especially during the final 10-15 minutes which go to great lengths to tug on those heartstrings of yours. Sentimental doesn’t automatically mean mawkish, though, and it’s thanks to a charming cast and some memorably penned moments from Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel that A League of Their Own hits most of the emotional notes it aims for. Combined with Marshall’s keen sense of style for the period, it makes for a heartfelt, nostalgic homage to a forgotten piece of American history.