A League of Their Own
World War Two was a good time for the Negro Leagues of American baseball. Most of the white stars were in the military (where I believe a lot of them battled Hitler and Tojo by playing ball), so MLB was a shadow of its former self. Black men were drafted, too, but at home many black people had good-paying jobs for the first time in their lives, working in war industries. They had money to spend, and they packed the ball fields. It was also pretty much the first time women were able to make any money at a team sport, in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, founded by Philip K. Wrigley, the chewing-gum magnate and owner of the Chicago Cubs. They played from 1943 to 1954, and in their best year they pulled in almost a million dollars at the gate. At first there were only four teams: the Kenosha Comets, the Racine Belles, the Rockford Peaches, and the South Bend Blue Sox. Eventually there were eleven teams and, like the All-American Boys Professional Baseball Leagues (also known as the Major League) those teams often hopped from city to city at the whim of the owners. They even had a song:
We are the members of the All-American League
We come from cities near and far
We’ve got Canadians, Irish ones and Swedes,
We’re all for one, we’re one for all
We’re all Americans!
Okay, it’s not “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” but it’ll do.
This movie is obviously a labor of love on the part of the director, Penny Marshall. The last twenty minutes or so is devoted to a reunion of some of these tough old babes at Cooperstown, where a room is being dedicated to the AAGPBL. We see some of the actual veterans batting the ball around. It has little to do with the movie, but who cares? It’s moving. These women were far ahead of their time. Women’s team sports will probably never make the kind of money that men’s leagues do, but girls these days have so much more opportunity to experience sports. The AAGPBL girls had to wear skirts to play, take lessons in etiquette and deportment, and had to wear lipstick at all times. There were many other indignities. Well, that’s the way we react to it all, and so do the actresses in the movie, though it’s not clear to me that the actual women saw it all as degrading as we do. It was a different time. I suspect most women wanted to wear lipstick at all times.
All the cast is good, particularly Rosie O’Donnell before she became a big celebrity. The sub-plot of Geena Davis and little sister Lori Petty with an inferiority complex struck me as a little lame, but the other stuff about the trials and travails of making it all work before a skeptical public worked for me. But the star turn is Tom Hanks as a washed-up alcoholic manager who is so divorced from the team that he doesn’t even know their names. And he doesn’t have a Come to Jesus moment when he suddenly reforms, cuts out the booze, and begins to love everybody. He gets interested because he finally notices that these girls are playing some damn fine baseball, and baseball is the only thing he’s ever loved, aside from the bottle. From that moment, he can’t help being engaged, wanting to win. It’s in his blood. And he has one of the all-time classic lines. He’s savagely chewed out a player who can never seem to remember to throw to the cut-off. She starts to cry. Tom looks at her incredulously, and hollers, “There’s no crying in baseball!”
I did a little research, and have to report an historical inaccuracy. The game these girls played was actually more like softball, at least at first. The mound was real close to the plate, they had to pitch underhand, and the ball was the size of a softball. But you know what? Sometimes historical accuracy gets in the way of a good story. By the time the league folded they were playing actual baseball, and while I have nothing against softball (in fact, I think the International Olympic Committee should be taken out and shot for eliminating it from the London Games), it’s just more exciting to see someone, male or female, take the traditional wind-up and fire it over the plate.