From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Movie Retrospectives: Play Ball! Week
A League of Their Own

"There's no crying in baseball."

World War II affected the baseball landscape in many ways. Several of the greatest players left to serve our country in the military. Ted Williams if I recall correctly was a bomber pilot, both in WWII and Korea. The depletion of the talent level allowed for even the lowly St. Louis Browns to make their only World Series appearance during the war. It created an opportunity for a one-armed outfielder named Pete Gray to make the majors, and play extensively for a couple of seasons. And just as women were called upon to serve on the home front in factories and industry, so were they also called upon to serve on the field. Thus was born the subject of A League of Their Own: the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

We are told in mock newsreel footage of how President Roosevelt was concerned about the impact of the war on baseball. In conjunction with the owners of Major League Baseball, the AAGPBL was commissioned to insure the game would still be played. We then see scout Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) on his search to find women talented enough to compete in the league. He quickly comes to find Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis), a superb young catcher from Oregon. Dottie plays softball in a women's league with her younger sister Kit Keller (Lori Petty) as a distraction from life on their family farm. It also helps Dottie keep her mind off thoughts of her husband fighting overseas.

Dottie and Kit are brought in to compete with dozens of other women for a spot on one of four teams in this new league. Competition whittles some of the ladies away, but leaves Kit and Dottie to be members of the inaugural team of Rockford Peaches. As they weather their way through the season, they and the other women on their team work their way through the bumps and mishaps not only brought on by the growing pains of the league but by their manager Jimmy Duggan (Tom Hanks), who is a recovering alcoholic. There are also life lessons to be had as the girls come together as a team, and as a family.

Yes, this movie is something of a chick flick, and it's hard to get around that completely for some folks. There are some sappy sentimental moments that are set up to tug at the heart strings. Most center around the sibling rivalry that exists between Dottie and Kit as Kit struggles to come into her own as an individual and as a player. There are also other issues centering around boyfriends/husbands, children, and Dottie's fears that her husband might not come back from the war alive.

But at its heart, this is unquestionably a movie about baseball. More importantly, it's a movie about people who love to play baseball. Every one of these women enjoy playing the game. It helps give them identities of their own that go beyond the traditional 1940's stereotypes of what a "proper" woman should be like or do. It also helps that the actresses portraying these women all were cast partly on their ability to play. None of the actresses would accept the use of stunt doubles for the action sequences. Watching the movie, you quickly forget that these are women playing baseball, and can focus on why the game is important to them, and to the people who come to see it.

Director Penny Marshall allows her actors to be the characters as they think they should be played, and it works very effectively in letting you experience just what a diverse cross section of people the team is comprised of. You have to give kudos to any director who can put Madonna in a movie with Rosie O'Donnell and still not instill in the viewer the urge to strangle one or both of them. Well maybe you want to choke Rosie some at the end, but there's only so long that much obnoxious can be stifled. Credit should be given for keeping it to a minimum for that long.

All jokes aside though, it's a movie with some really enjoyable performances. I think Tom Hanks makes a more effective "unlikeable" character in this film than he did in The Road to Perdition. He taps into some of the less savory aspects of his Bachelor Party persona and doesn't try to soften them with the usual patented Tom Hanks good guy personality until about halfway through the film. Geena Davis is as good in this movie as she's ever been. Beautiful, savvy, and skilled behind the plate, her Dottie is a natural leader even when she doesn't realize it. Putting her as the emotional and physical focus of the team makes sense, and she lives up to her responsibilities as the team leader.

And the play on the field is fun to watch also. It's shot to mask the limitations of the actresses as players and let you appreciate the more basic fundamentals of play. In an ESPN era, when every play in real life these days seems to be done with highlight reel potential in mind, I found seeing the fundamentals executed a refreshing joy to watch. The movie really has me in the frame of mind to enjoy opening day on Monday.

Lastly, I can't help but watch this movie and think of how much these women were ages before their time. Seeing the UT Women's basketball team play, and knowing that some of our seniors will get a chance to continue playing as professionals without having to go overseas is a remarkable thing. The women of the AAGPBL made some of these things possible, even if women's professional sports didn't really take off until the last 5-10 years or so. To borrow a line from Bull Durham, the women of the AAGPBL played "with joy, and verve, and poetry." How can any true baseball fan not appreciate that? The movie is a must see for fans.

Thanks to Joe for reminding me about the film for this post. I had somehow A) forgotten to include it in the list; and B) never in my life gotten around to seeing it until tonight. Glad I did.