Penny Marshall and the lasting impact of ‘A League of Their Own’
The resonant line carries an extra note of sadness today because today, it’s OK to cry in baseball.
Who wouldn’t shed a tear in memory of Penny Marshall, the director of one of the greatest baseball movies ever made? We temporarily lift Tom Hanks’s seminal decree — “There’s no crying in baseball!” — as we remember the magnificent achievement of Marshall’s “A League of Their Own,” a movie that stands up against any of its sporting contemporaries for pure cinematic genius, and has particular resonance with girls and women who saw themselves on screen in a new and thrilling way.
That scene Marshall directed in which Hanks, as Rockford Peaches manager Jimmy Dugan, yells so vociferously at fictional outfielder Evelyn Gardner (played by Bitty Schram) that she is brought to tears, prompting him to react incredulously at the out-of-place display of emotion, is usually the first one quoted or remembered by fans. And it deserves to be so — the line was included as No. 54 on the American Film Institute’s “100 years, 100 movie quotes” compilation.
For me, however, the most memorable line is a different one delivered by Hanks, coming later in the film when Dottie Hinson, the star baseball player portrayed by Geena Davis, chooses to leave the team on the cusp of a championship to return home with her war-injured husband. Dugan, banished to managing in this curiosity of a wartime women’s pro baseball league after throwing away years of his own playing career in a haze of alcohol, can’t believe she’s going. “I thought you were a ballplayer,” he sneers. When she pleads her case saying, “It just got too hard,” he delivers the most potent verbal punch in the film.
“It’s supposed to be hard,” he says. “If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
What Penny Marshall did was hard.
She busted barriers and broke glass ceilings. She directed “A League of Their Own” to the greatest box office success of any baseball movie ever made (still true), making it one of her two movies to eclipse $100 million in revenue (“Big,” also with Hanks, is the other). She made the seamless transition from great comedic actress (best known for “Laverne & Shirley” but best remembered here for “The Odd Couple”) to highly accomplished director, her combination of humor, wit, and empathy infusing her work with a level of humanity that makes its commercial success unsurprising. She did it in an industry we’ve watched get continually unmasked for serial sexism and punitive misogyny, with instincts and ability that rose above the swamp.
When “League” came out in 1992 (watching old interviews with Marshall and the cast where they refer to it by the single name is delightful), the movie industry was in the midst of a baseball renaissance, fueled by similarly excellent movies tapping into so many of the sport’s enduring themes. There was the pull-back-the-curtain minor league brilliance of “Bull Durham” (1988), the father-son magic of “Field of Dreams” (1989), the ridiculous irreverence of “Major League” (1989), the seriousness of purpose in “Eight Men Out” (1988), the grainy nostalgia of “The Sandlot” (1993) or the mystical nostalgia of “The Natural” (1984). As sports movies go, all of them belong in the company of the greats such as “Hoosiers” and “Rocky.”
Yet as much as it was “Bull Durham” that captured my youthful imagination the most, recitations on fascist strikeouts, stewardess-traveling home run balls, china patterns, opening presents on Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and the value of a dying quail still alive inside my head, “A League of Their Own” lives on in ways I never realized it would, visceral connections to what women are capable of, what women were once denied, what women can overcome, and how women can connect.
The depiction of friendship between Mae and Doris. The competition of sisterhood between Dottie and Kit. The balance of motherhood for Evelyn. The pain of separation and loss for war widow Betty Spaghetti. The nod to society’s shortcomings, where one player can’t tell if she made the team because she never learned to read, but another knows she should have made the team but is excluded because of her skin color.
The respect between Jimmy and Dottie, unspoiled by what so many other filmmakers would have insisted ended in romance. Marla Hooch’s single dad apologizing for her tomboy appearance. One incredible dance scene and a shameless baseball scout whose every line is a lesson in comedic timing (thank you Jon Lovitz). The did-she or didn’t-she drop the ball ending. (I say no way — if Dottie made all that effort to return for the championship, no way she would throw it for her kid sister).
The bookending scenes at the Hall of Fame, reminding us this all really happened.
The film managed to be ahead of its time despite a story that came from decades past. When Marshall spoke of her motivation of turning a small documentary about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League into a feature film, of picking up a dormant project based on history she admitted she never knew (and if she didn’t know, she mused, then no one else knows either) she ensured future generations would always have a way to remember the women who helped shepherd our national pastime through the war years. She is the reason Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), along with Representative Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), in November proposed a concurrent resolution asking Congress to honor the 75th anniversary of a league that included “at least 29 women from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
What Marshall created defies simple classification. A baseball movie? Sure, but this was so much more, especially for a recent college graduate with a dream of balancing a burgeoning family life with a fledgling career as a sportswriter.
I knew the life might be hard. But if it wasn’t hard, anyone would do it. The hard has helped make it great.