Women don’t take up much space in the history of baseball. Literally. When you go to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY— a quaint village on the edge of Otsego Lake that feels like an untouched slice of Americana — you have to go to the basement to learn about them. Once you’re down there, the actual exhibit on women in baseball takes up maybe a corner and a half. For a teen girl who grew up obsessed with Penny Marshall’s 1992 classic movie A League of Their Own, this was not enough for me when I visited the museum in 2004. It looked nothing like what was in the movie I’d already seen probably 50 times by that point. To put it mildly, I was wildly disappointed.
The All-American Girls Pro Baseball League (AAGPBL) only lasted from 1943 to 1954, which makes its existence and subsequent inclusion in the Hall of Fame even more astonishing. But it’s difficult not to wonder why we still treat women’s work like a special attraction rather than the main draw (a problem the league itself had to solve). When it comes to examining and highlighting the sacrifices and contributions of women versus men in any given field let alone the one on which baseball is played, all you have to do is look at a museum floor plan to see who and what gets more space and reverence. Women get a corner in the basement while men get 3 1/2 floors. It’s a perfect visual metaphor for an altogether frustrating reality.
If Penny Marshall hadn’t made A League of Their Own, would the work and stories of the women of the AAGPBL ever have received more than a corner of our attention?
It may be nicknamed “America’s pastime,” but like everything else in this country, baseball is male dominated. So when America joined World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, major league baseball soon found itself in a crisis. By 1942, nearly all of the league’s star players were either drafted or enlisted to fight overseas. Meanwhile, women were encouraged to join the war effort by taking jobs once held by men, but no one actually thought that meant baseball.
And yet Philip K. Wrigley saw an opportunity to keep up morale and, more importantly, profits. If men were putting their bodies on the line overseas, why not women on the baseball diamond at home? War and sports are similar in that they both often bring out extraordinary things in ordinary people under intense pressure and/or facing almost insurmountable odds. It took a war for America to recognize women could play professional baseball, but when the war was over, and the men came back, America just as quickly forgot. It’s not that surprising. Women’s bodies have always been a battleground too, and no matter how hard we fight, there will always be some who insist we use them for housework and babies rather than ball games.
Or as Jimmy Dugan puts it early on in A League of Their Own, “Ballplayers? I don’t have ballplayers, I’ve got girls. Girls are what you sleep with after the game, not what you coach during the game.”
When Penny Marshall got the green light to direct A League of Their Own, batting cages around Los Angeles filled up with unknown starlets and famous faces alike. If you wanted to be in the movie, Penny was adamant you could really play — like, really, really play. She made Madonna work out with male ball players for three hours in New York. She auditioned Geena Davis in her backyard (after Davis’ agents expressly told her not to). Debra Winger dropped out. Penny had to cut Marisa Tomei (not coordinated enough) and Demi Moore (already too pregnant). She cast Lori Petty practically on the spot for her star athleticism.
It wasn’t as intense as the try-outs for the AAGPBL, depicted at Wrigley Field in the movie. But the rules were still the same: prove you can play, work hard, be a team player, and listen to the coach. Penny demanded physical excellence from her female actors in ways normally only expected for men. No matter what Hollywood studios or the real league itself insisted, the actresses needed more than a pretty face to make the team.
By the end of vigorous auditions and subsequent lengthy practices where the women’s bodies were bruised, sprained, broken, sweaty, and ultimately strengthened, Penny no longer had girls — she had ballplayers.
Loyalty and rivalry are at the very heart of team sports. They’re also at the heart of relationships between siblings. For A League of Their Own’s sisters Dottie and Kit, baseball is both a shared passion and a physical manifestation of their grievances towards each other. Dottie is tall, slender, beautiful, and preternaturally gifted in just about everything she does on and off the field. By contrast, younger sister Kit is short, muscular, tomboyish, and constantly struggling to step out of her older sister’s shadow.
“You ever hear Dad introduce us to people,” Kit asks. “‘This is our daughter Dottie, and this is our other daughter, Dottie’s sister.’ They should have just had you and bought a dog.”
For Kit, the AAGPBL represents a real opportunity to prove herself on her own terms — to leave her family farm in Oregon behind and do something she really loves. That makes it even more frustrating when the league scout won’t take her unless Dottie comes too. Until the war broke out and her husband was sent overseas, all Dottie had ever planned on was being a good wife and eventually a mother. Playing professional baseball was a pipe dream at best. To her, the scout’s offer sounds a little too good to be true.
Older siblings tend to feel responsible for their younger siblings. Sometimes in their protectiveness, they overstep the boundary between sibling and parent — as my brother did once and got a smack from me (sorry, Joshua). But even so, their actions always come from a place of deep love and loyalty even if it isn’t always apparent to the younger sibling. A part of Dottie really wants to play for herself because she loves it, but she doesn’t necessarily need it the same way Kit so clearly does. So she does what older siblings frequently do: puts her sister’s needs first.
Because it’s a movie, they both wind up on the Rockford Peaches. This only works for a while, because the same jealousy, resentments, and stubbornness boil to the surface. Dottie emerges as one of the league’s brightest stars, handpicked by general manager Ira Lowenstein to drum up press for the struggling AAGPBL. She even makes the cover of Life magazine while Kit is barely mentioned except, once again, as Dottie’s sister.
Tensions really begin to mount during a lengthy game where Kit’s arm on the pitcher’s mound is clearly wearing out. She’s giving up too many hits to the other team but too stubborn to give up herself. Jimmy Dugan calls Dottie out to mound for an intervention and asks her what she thinks. Dottie doesn’t want to hurt Kit, but when Jimmy presses her more forcefully for an answer, she tells him her sister’s arm is finished.
Kit angrily leaves the mound, feeling utterly betrayed by her sister. Dottie defends her decision to put the team first, but Kit retorts, “All I know is you could have backed me up today, instead of holding me back.” It feels more like she’s talking about their relationship than baseball.
Later, after Kit learns she’s been traded to Racine, she throws a ball at Dottie, who finally snaps. “I am sick of being blamed for everything that’s bothering you. I got you into this league, goddammit! I didn’t want to be here.”
Kit yells, “Then why are you still here?”
The question hangs in the air between them for a moment. For once, neither seems sure of what to do or say. The rules of sisterhood are far more complicated than the rules of baseball.
Jimmy Dugan is a mess — all bloated and unshaven with a perpetual wad of tobacco visibly protruding against the inside of his cheek. Hired to coach the Rockford Peaches mostly because of his name, he greets his team for the first time by manner of a very lengthy pee in the locker room and proceeds to spend the rest of the game sleeping, scratching his balls, and spitting chew in the dugout. His glory days are well behind him, and everyone knows it, including him.
Though Tom Hanks plays him as a loveable asshole, Jimmy is lost in an endless self-destructive cycle of addiction and misery. He gave his body to the game and then to alcohol. Then suddenly, his career was over and all that was left was his name and the memory of the man he used to be. His body betrayed him, and now he’s taking it out on himself. He can’t play, he can’t fight in the war. All he can do is drink.
Grief is a natural part of loss, forcing us to reevaluate our lives and our choices, to look deeply at who and what we’ve invested ourselves in. It puts certain aspects of ourselves in sharper relief, and if you don’t like what you see, sometimes you do whatever you can to dull your senses to it. The hard truth is the things and people that make us happiest are also capable of hurting us the most. That’s the risk you take for love. Jimmy Dugan loved playing baseball, but he can’t anymore. And yet if he could look past his grief, he’d see he has an opportunity to redeem himself and the things he’s lost — a second chance to make things right.
It’s not up to women to rehabilitate men, and yet coaching the women of the Rockford Peaches does rehabilitate Jimmy Dugan. They need one another. More than anyone, it’s Dottie in whom Jimmy finds a real friend and equal (which also helps highlight the wonderful chemistry between Davis and Hanks). She calls him out on his bullshit, and he, in turn, pushes her to excel the way he once did. It’s maybe the first time in his life he’s really seen women and their bodies as being capable of meeting the same challenges asked of men. Once he starts making peace with his past, Jimmy finds a renewed sense of purpose. He may not always hit a home run (see his infamous “no crying in baseball” rant at working mom/ballplayer Evelyn), but hey, a walk still gets you on base.
I think a lot about how women often get asked to do thankless jobs men have already turned down or to step up in precarious situations where failure seems pretty likely. Women are sometimes only promoted when they’re needed to try to clean shit up or, more frequently, take the fall for the mess. We’re perceived as being more capable of maneuvering through crises we typically had no hand in creating. It’s a real phenomenon with a zippy title: the Glass Cliff.
I think about how Penny Marshall, like so many female directors, spent most of her career on the Glass Cliff. How she took Big — a movie nobody else wanted or knew how to make — and became the first woman to gross $100 million at the box office and then did it again with A League of Their Own. How she directed a Best Picture nominee (Awakenings) but got snubbed for Best Director. I think about how when a woman director just can’t make a movie work (like Riding in Cars with Boys for Penny) by standards men are held to less rigorously, she’s put into “director jail” for an indeterminate amount of time. More often than not, her film career is over. She’s fallen off The Cliff that doesn’t exist for her male counterparts.
I think about what women could do if we were put in the game much sooner and more frequently instead of the last inning when it’s tied, the bases are loaded, there are two outs, and only a home run will win the game. When everything just feels too hard. Not every woman is a Penny Marshall or a Dottie “Queen of Diamonds” Hinson, and can hit it out of the park consistently. But even if you are, you still sometimes strike out, or worse, drop the ball.
One of my favorite moments in A League of Their Own comes toward the end, just before the World Series is set to begin. Dottie and her newly returned, wounded husband, Bob, are preparing to drive back home to Oregon when Jimmy confronts her about deserting the team when they need her most. Baseball gave both of them a bigger sense of purpose, and Jimmy, sobered up and acutely aware of what it feels like to lose that sense of purpose, finally offers some real coaching to his star catcher.
“I’m in no position to tell anyone how to live. But sneaking out like this, quitting, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. Baseball is what gets inside you. It’s what lights you up, you can’t deny that.”
Dottie has to parse out her conflicted feelings and identities — wife, sister, friend, teammate, baseball player — as women frequently do when it feels like a choice must be made between what we want and what everyone else expects from us. She tells him it just got too hard
“It’s supposed to be hard,” Jimmy replies, “If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
There’s still a heated debate about the final play, pitting sister versus sister, of A League of Their Own’s World Series between Rockford and Racine. Fans have argued and dissected this moment as passionately as a play from a real game. Dottie has the ball in her glove ready to tag Kit as she comes charging at her at home plate. And then in an instant, their bodies collide, and the ball dramatically rolls out of Dottie’s outstretched right hand.
Whether on purpose or by accident, by dropping the ball Dottie gives Kit the thing she wants the most — to be seen and admired on her own terms out from under her sister’s shadow. She finally gets to be the hero, hoisted high on the shoulders of her teammates in front of a cheering crowd , no longer solely known as “Dottie’s sister” but MVP Kit Keller. Dottie looks on from the field, a satisfied smile curling on her lips.
That’s not to say losing to her little sister is necessarily easy for her. It means her other sisters, her teammates, lose too. But Dottie understands salvaging her relationship with Kit is more important than winning a game. In the end, it’s a minor loss for her but a major victory for her sister. Kit is free, and Dottie can go back to life in Oregon with her husband and a clear conscience. Baseball divided them, then brought them back together, and now Kit can’t imagine playing without her biggest rival and most loyal teammate.
She tells Dottie that she can’t give it up, that she’ll miss it too much. A part of Dottie will miss it— the heat and the pain and the dirt. The thrill of using her body for something more than she’d dared to dream for. But she knows the other part of her wants something different, and she can’t stay.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll miss,” Dottie says with a faint smile, “I’ll miss the girls. I’ll miss you, Kit.”
Kit is shocked, so Dottie explains.
“How many sisters do you think I have? I love you, Kit.”
They hug, and I cry.
The first time Penny Marshall walked into the Baseball Hall of Fame in the early 1990s, she was also disappointed with the size of the AAGPBL exhibit. In her 2012 memoir, My Mother Was Nuts, she quipped, “‘Insignificant’ is a better description.”
The version of the Women in Baseball exhibit that appears at the end of A League of Their Own is one that only a woman could dream up. It’s comprehensive, thrilling, and deeply emotional in ways typically only reserved for exhibits about men. And it takes up actual, substantial physical space in the museum — a whole floor to be exact.
As the older AAGPBL players meander through their memories by way of museum memorabilia, the tears start to flow (or in my case, simply increase to heaving sobs). It’s everything — sisters reuniting, acknowledging the loss of those who gave their lives to the game. But mostly it’s because it’s affirmation women’s work matters. Here is visible, tangible proof and acknowledgment of women’s contributions to a space once only reserved for men. It’s the kind of acknowledgement and affirmation women still struggle to receive whether on the field, in the director’s chair, or really, just in the world at large.
I love A League of Their Own for many reasons: its examination of sisterhood, Tom Hanks’ performance, the joy of watching famous women like Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell really play baseball. But mainly because it’s a movie where women take up significant space. Our hopes, our dreams, our bodies, our sacrifices are treated with respect and pride. Our work matters. Here is affirmation of it. Here, in Penny Marshall’s warm and generous movie, the lives and work of women are the main draw, not a special attraction.
What would it be like if women were given ample space to tell our stories? Space to work and play and direct. Space to fail, fall, and get “dirt in our skirts.” Space to rehabilitate ourselves and our careers the way men do. No more Glass Cliffs, no more corners in the basement, but huge ball fields and sound stages and multiple museum floors. Something more than a league of our own.
Almost 16 years after I first visited the Baseball Hall of Fame, I’m still not satisfied with the space allotted to women in most places. Thank God Penny Marshall and the women of the AAGPBL weren’t satisfied either.