Battleborn

illustration by Brianna Ashby

There’s a scene in A League of Their Own in which one of the members of The Rockford Peaches, a World War II-era All-American Girls Professional Baseball League team, brings her small, irritating tornado of a son on the team bus, since her unemployed husband won’t be bothered to watch the kid at home. “Stilwell, angel,” she calls to her little boy over the exasperated eye rolls of the rest of her team, the kid running amok through the bus aisle, as Mae (played by Madonna) threatens to kill him with a baseball bat from the back seat. In the movie’s comedic version of these female ball players’ stories—indeed, real-life “all-girl” teams did play for a total of twelve years, in the wake of the Second World War’s draft of many male players—these women are ultimately strangers to each other. They are strangers to living lives away from their families, strangers to traveling, and strangers to adventure, before making the League. And, in one of many shrewd choices made by director Penny Marshall and the screenwriters, the word “friends” is hardly used anywhere in the movie. If at all.

Once you get past the knee socks and bubble gum of the Rockford Peaches, A League of Their Own is dug-out (ha!) of those relationships in our lives that are not quite friendships and not nearly enemies; relationships just as rife with loyalty and respect as with distrust and competition. These aren’t the types of relationships that will bloom over time into deeper friendships since the time just isn’t given to us. We get to know certain people in such tense, life-altering scenarios for a very limited timeframe, but through some magic of human alchemy, we are often able to learn more from these brief, intense interactions than we might with more familiar acquaintances in our everyday orbit. “Dirt in The Skirt,” reads the splashy motto on the back of a team bus—and there is a lot of dirt to be found in these teammates’ complex loyalties. The women in A League of Their Own, to borrow a phrase from modern reality television, “didn’t come here to make friends.” They came to play ball and do their civic duty while the men were away at war doing theirs. And sure, if they made a friend along the way, that was peachy too. But it wasn’t the point.

A League of Their Own is not a movie praising unconditional female friendship and bonding, despite what its feminist storyline might have us remembering—from its sepia-tinted cinematography to its big band soundtrack and nostalgic faux news-reels—decades after the film’s release. A League of Their Own is about something tougher. If the crowd looks a little closer—stops munching peanuts for a second, listens past the lipstick and curled hair—what is going on between these characters is a little darker, a little lonelier, something a bit more like begrudging, obligated allegiance.

The heart of the plot, even, is not one of female solidarity. The film begins and ends with a focus on the sibling rivalry between two sisters, Dottie (Geena Davis, in her apple-cheeked, beanpole-bodied, auburn-haired glory) and Kit (Lori Petty, with her giant blue saucer-eyes). Dottie is the older sister, already married to a man away in the war. Hers is a near-flawless embodiment of beauty, virtuosic athleticism, strategic smarts, and manufactured humility—an older sibling elixir any younger sister would dread trying to match. Early in the film, before being recruited to play for the Peaches, Dottie and Kit are walking home following one of their games. Dottie had coached the younger, less-talented Kit to stop swinging at all those “high ones” she can never seem to hit—but Kit, stubborn and defiant, had done so anyway and cost the team the game. Dottie is more than happy to remind her younger sister how she’d told her so. Sick of feeling inferior and overshadowed yet again, Kit tries to explain her aching feelings of inadequacy: “You ever hear Dad introduce us to people? ‘This is our daughter Dottie, and this is our other daughter, Dottie’s sister.’”

Once they’re on the road with the Peaches, Dottie quickly becomes a centerpiece for the media, nicknamed “The Queen of Diamonds” and doing splits in her skirted uniform to catch a baseball to the flash of the cameras. With Dottie thrust into the spotlight, the two sisters inevitably get into a screaming match, as the entire team listens from outside the door of their boarding house. Kit, her tremendous blue eyes welling with tears, yells “When you’re here it’s like I’m not here!” These are almost cute interactions, unless you’ve lived through them—or until you watch the movie as an adult woman and realize this is still a well-known worry for most women in the professional world: being overlooked, or underestimated, simply because of beauty or personality. It can be argued that to this day men in the workplace (or on teams) are primarily judged for their skill sets, above all else. But A League of Their Own understands that for women it’s also a “different ballgame,” with different rules—rules that often make female companionship and competition quite a bit harder to reconcile.

If you were part of a certain American generation growing up during the ‘90s, chances are you were raised seeing A League of Their Own in perpetual syndication, flipping past scenes as it played after school, after dinner, or on late night TV. And you were either allowed to watch it or not, and you either thought it was dumb because it was about “girls playing baseball,” or you loved it because it was about girls playing baseball. But regardless of anyone’s personal relationship with the film, its entire premise certainly seemed sweeter through the lens of 1992: “War” still felt very far away to Americans, even with the cloud of the first Gulf War having faded away just a year earlier. (In hindsight, of course, the cloud never did fade, we just looked away very, very quickly.) With the drastic, previously incomprehensible shift in war dynamics and world politics since 2001, concepts of alternate American histories and identity have started to seem more necessary to understand where we find ourselves now. A League of Their Own, you could argue, is strangely sturdy considering its somewhat corny conceit. The United States now, in 2016, is not a country not at war with multiple other countries. And so the center of the movie’s controlled veering, the core of it all told through flashback, lifting and lowering like a ball player herself, sliding between comedy and the hovering threat of tragedy from scene to scene, is maybe even more impressive (despite the soft-focus melodrama of the opening and ending segments, or the credits rolling over “This Used to Be My Playground,” sung by Madonna herself).

Most of the film takes place around 1943 and is rather perfectly-paced, composed only of scenes essential to the storytelling. The editing moves between physical and vaudevillian comedy—from Jon Lovitz as the foul-mouthed recruiter to Tom Hanks’ drunk and washed-up manager Jimmy Dugan, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell’s tough New Yorker ball player shtick to “Stilwell Angel” wreaking havoc with his little chubby Cracker Jack-box insolent face—before landing lightly with moments of touching, low-lit sincerity.

We find true kindness in small scenes like the one in which Dottie, having finally earned Jimmy’s respect with her on-field abilities and cool-headed leadership, sits at the front of the bus with him. He borderline flirts with her, asking about her husband away at war, while twilight Midwest fields roll past them outside. Dottie tries not to look at him when she mentions she hasn’t gotten a letter from her husband in three weeks. When she tries to distract herself by asking Jimmy if he’s ever been married, he swoops back up from the sadness to make a joke about one of his ex-wives.

Dottie: You ever been married?

Jimmy: Well, let me think… yeah, twice.

Dottie: Any children?

Jimmy: One of them was, yeah.

In the same scene, Doris (O’Donnell) takes out a photo of a guy she’s seeing back home, causing one of her teammates to resort to a tired platitude: “Well, looks aren’t the most important thing.” Like a true stand-up comic, Doris delivers the zinger. “That’s right the important thing is he’s stupid, he’s outta work and he treats me bad…” And then, in a rare show of emotional vulnerability, she confesses: “…the other boys ever uh… always made me feel like I was wrong, you know. I believed them too, but not anymore you know. I mean look here. There’s a lot of us.” Doris thinks for a second. She rips up the photo. Paper scatters out the window, over the dark plains.

Meanwhile in the back of the bus, Mae is trying to teach her illiterate teammate Shirley (Ann Cusack) to read. For a second it appears we might have found an unfettered glimpse of altruism between teammates—until Shirley stumbles over the words “mm-milky ww-white…breast,” and we realize she’s reading a pulp fiction smut novel. Mae, without batting an eyelash, turns the page and says matter-of-factly: “It gets really good after that.”

But for every touch of hard-earned sweetness—even the ukulele fight song in the locker room, a little anthem of unity—there is also an argument (or three arguments). For every moment of forged camaraderie, there is a thorny exchange while changing socks, or a screaming match with a dozen teammates listening in around the corner. And perhaps that’s as it should be: These women had never met before being recruited and each is the best athlete from her respective state; the world is locked in an uncertain, multi-country war; they’re playing double-headers in 100 degree heat; their reputations—and a feeling of contributing to something greater, something that matters—are all at stake.

Making A League of Their Own was no cakewalk, either. Director Penny Marshall decided it mandatory that all cast members playing ballplayers actually learned how to play baseball. Prior to filming, the cast trained six days a week for eight months—about which there is nothing cute. It was reported that all the injuries caught on film were real too, like the massive “strawberry” bruise on one of the actress’s thighs, captured for a headline in the movie by a photographer’s flashbulb. Even if the rumors aren’t true, and the injuries weren’t real, they still mirror the historical hazards these female players suffered regularly: bleeding, flesh-ripped welts on their thighs from sliding into bases wearing only skirts. “Faye Dancer pays for sliding into base with her bare legs protected only by a skirt rather than the male players’ pants. ‘Strawberry’ marks are painfully frequent,” reads a real Life magazine caption beneath an image of a ballplayer with a bandage on her thigh, harsh evidence in black and white.

The women push each other around. Kit gets thrown in a cold shower by Jimmy after she lashes out at her sister on the field during a game. Mae literally poisons their long-suffering chaperone’s food so they can all sneak out to a swing club and have some booze and boys for a night (forbidden things, just as they were for the real teams). There are STI jokes, and pissing jokes, and penis jokes, and a lot of somewhat uncomfortable slut-shaming jokes. And, despite Hanks’ famous line—“There’s no crying in baseball!”—there is a lot of crying. Oh, there is absolutely crying in this kind of baseball. But that doesn’t mean there is any less grit. Grit is all over this movie, if you can just get past the feel-good newsreel headlines—sugarcoated with the kind of language we’re still being fed, decades later—about how darn inspiring and impressive it is that women play sports at all, as if inferring, even now, that no one expects them to do so.

Until the Peaches make the playoffs, Jimmy loses himself in his drink every game, gets into fights with umpires, harasses his female players, mumbles and complains about how these aren’t ball players. Not real ball players, not a real team. And in some ways he’s actually, ironically, correct. This isn’t a real team, it’s a community of people who otherwise never would have been professionals—or even met each other—had the idea of an all-female sports league not been born out of the void of a wartime draft. And so, no, they are not a real, traditional sports team. But what they are is something perhaps even tougher because they trust each other less, know each other less, are respected less. And they have more to lose for all of it.

Early in the film, the women, elated at making their new teams and seated together in sunlight on a baseball field, are shown what their uniforms will look like. Management brings out a model striking poses in a short yellow-skirted outfit, belted at the waist, legs bare except for knee-high socks. Doris yells out, “What do you think we are? Ball players or ballerinas?” It’s not just a 1940’s oversexualizing of women playing sports, or a marketing tool of the new product of all-girls’ baseball, it’s a message: Their athleticism, their muscle, their resilience, are all secondary. A League of Their Own, as entertainment, is packaged similarly, too. But over 24 years later, it’s still proving—just like some of the more short-lived, intense, high-stakes, unusual alliances in our lives—that dirt in the skirt don’t shake off too easy.