‘A League of Their Own’ is a home run for baseball movies — Ultimate Movie Year

Tom Hanks and Geena Davis hit career highs in 1992’s “A League of Their Own.” (Universal Pictures/MovieStillsDB.com)

“A League of Their Own” has the best balance of everything we love about baseball movies.

“A League of Their Own”
Released July 1, 1992
Directed by Penny Marshall
Where to Watch

My hunch is that if “A League of Their Own” were about men, it would easily be considered the best baseball movie of all time by the general public. For right now, we only have my own personal vote for the best baseball movie of all time.

Judging by some social media conversations, I’m not the only one.

Inspired by the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that formed in 1943 after many Major League Baseball players served in World War II, “A League of Their Own” centers its story on two farmland sisters who are recruited to play: Catcher Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) and pitcher Kit Keller (Lori Petty). Both make the Rockford Peaches team, but Kit remains insecure about her abilities compared to the all-star play of her older sister Dottie. In addition to Dottie and Kit, other players on the team include Mae (Madonna), a former dancer; Doris (Rosie O’Donnell), Mae’s best friend; Marla (Megan Cavanagh), a home run-hitting tomboy; and Evelyn (Bitty Schram), whose young son Stillwell ends up traveling with the team.

Walter Harvey (Garry Marshall), a fictionalized version of former Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley, is one of the new women’s league masterminds. He recruits one of his former players, Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), to manage one of the new clubs. Jimmy, who was a star in the sport before an injury knocked him out of baseball and into bottles of alcohol, is immediately resentful, feeling that he’s above managing “a girls team.” He begins the season as the manager of the Peaches passed out drunk, but in the moments when he’s lucid enough to look up from his benders, Jimmy notices some of the players have talent. The itch of baseball begins to take over as Jimmy engages with the game more and more. The drinking slows down, but the crass remains.

A big reason why “A League of Their Own” continues to charm is that the entire cast is putting in star performances that rank amongst the best of their careers. We’re getting peak Geena Davis, peak Rosie O’Donnell, peak Madonna, even peak Jon Lovitz in his small role. Petty threads the needle of finding the sympathy and humanity of the little sister with a chip on her shoulder. And yes, this is one of Hanks’s best roles. For as long and distinguished of a career he has had, “A League of Their Own” catches Hanks right at the midpoint of his transition from comedic to serious actor. It’s a funny and entertaining performance but has some darkness to it, giving audiences the best of both. It’s an all-star team of stars rising to become the best versions of their personas, a film version of the United States Olympic men’s basketball Dream Team playing that summer.

The heart of the movie lies in the relationship between Dottie and Kit, two sisters who love each other, but their affections cannot hold back their inner competitiveness in the heat of the game. A version of this movie could have easily played Dottie as a faultless hero and Kit as the jealous sister. Still, to their credit, Davis and Petty give multilayered performances that give audiences enough to realize Kit occasionally has a point with her protests.

Their conflict comes to a head when Kit is traded off the team to keep Dottie happy (although she doesn’t realize it), and both teams end up playing each other in the championship. Dottie hits a double off Kit’s pitch to drive in runs to take the lead at the top of the last inning. Afterward, Kit has an emotional breakdown in the dugout, fearing that her sister will once again be the star, but she has one last at-bat with Dottie behind the plate.

What makes “A League of Their Own” unique amongst baseball movies is that it spends a lot of time building up one character on “our” team and then trades her elsewhere, so now the final opponent to overcome isn’t a generic antagonist; it’s somebody we know. The movie also offers an ambiguous conclusion, giving viewers a choice to decide whether or not Dottie lets go of the ball on purpose or if it’s legitimately knocked out of her hand. There are clues sprinkled throughout the movie that foreshadow the conclusion that gives audiences enough evidence to plead their case … both ways. It’s enough of a debate that even decades later, the actors are often asked to decide one way or another.

Combine the ending with how well the movie establishes individual motivations and team camaraderie, and you’ll realize “A League of Their Own” has the best balance of everything we love about baseball movies. Other great ones, like “The Natural” and “Field of Dreams,” are more focused on mythologizing the sport. “Major League” is another favorite of many, but it suffers from dated 80s humor. “Bull Durham” and “Moneyball” are the ones that come to mind that stand toe-to-toe with “A League of Their Own,” a holy trinity of cinematic ballpark fun.

The story of the Rockford Peaches is bookended by scenes in the present, as the women of the league reunite in Cooperstown as they are officially recognized in the Baseball Hall of Fame. That touches upon another attribute of the sport: its respect for history. Director Penny Marshall was inspired to direct the picture after seeing a documentary on the real-life league.

“Having grown up in the Bronx, cutting school and going to the Yankees games, I was shocked I knew nothing about this women’s league,” Marshall said in the behind-the-scenes feature, “Nine Memorable Innings.” “If I didn’t know anything about it, most people didn’t know anything about it.”

The movie received decent reviews at its release, earning 79 percent approvals from critics and 84 percent from audiences. Some popular baseball movies are rated higher, but as much as those movies are also enjoyable, I can’t imagine the general perception for “A League of Their Own” would be higher if it was about men. Even praise for “A League of Their Own” at its release can’t help itself but offer misogynist backhanded compliments.

“‘A League of Their Own’ isn’t a perfect picture, but it is irresistibly ebullient with not one, but nine babes on base,” writes Rita Kempley for The Washington Post. “Aside from several especially awkward attempts to politically correct history, it evokes the moxie of World War II America. Graced by Davis and enlivened by Lovitz and the ensemble cast, it sends us home feeling a little higher, with visions of peanuts and Cracker Jack floating in our heads.”

Still, the movie performed well at the box office. It opened at second place with $13.7 million, just shy of then-box office king, “Batman Returns.” “A League of Their Own” had remarkable staying power and good word of mouth, remaining in the top five of box office returns for seven weeks, concluding its theatrical run with $107.5 million. It finished 1992 as one of the most successful movies of the year.

“A League of Their Own” continues to remain in the hearts of many fans, not only for its depiction of baseball but also for its positive portrayal of female athletes.

“We love that it still is so beloved by people (and) new audiences all the time,” said Davis in “The Enduring Legacy of A League of Their Own.” “But we have to keep in mind that not only movies starring women can be enormous hits. They can live forever, but there’s not enough of them. Audiences wanted to see this, and they want to see more. Let’s get over this idea that men don’t want to watch women. It’s been proven over and over again that they do if the characters are interesting, so it’s time to move into the future.”

Next Week: “Boyz n the Hood”

Originally published at https://www.ultimatemovieyear.com on July 12, 2021.

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Mark Ciemcioch

Mark Ciemcioch

Movie enthusiast. Follow and subscribe for exclusive content!

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