The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies
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A League of Their Own - 1992

Most baseball seasons don’t play out according to plan. Key players are injured and have to be replaced. Lineups are juggled and sometimes it turns out for the better. It can be the same way with baseball movies. Take A League of Their Own, for instance.

When Columbia Pictures began production on its film about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), Debra Winger was cast in the role of Dottie Hinson, the star catcher of the Rockford Peaches. But Winger suffered a back injury and dropped out, so producers Elliot Abbott and Robert Greenhut had to find a replacement. They brought in Geena Davis.

It was a tough break for Debra Winger, but it worked out well for Columbia.

Watching the film now, it is hard to imagine anyone other than Davis, the statuesque, red-haired beauty, in the role of Hinson. She was the pinup girl of the AAGPBL, “The Queen of Diamonds,” whose combination of baseball ability and good looks helped to sell the girls’ league in America during World War II.

Winger may have been able to catch and throw, but she would not have looked as regal on the cover of Life magazine, and it is unlikely she could have played off co-star Tom Hanks as effectively as Davis. The on-screen chemistry between the leads—Davis as the star player, Hanks as the drunken slob of a manager—is one of the film’s real strengths.

Davis joined the cast only days before filming was due to start. The other actors—Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna, Ann Cusack among them—had already completed the Hollywood equivalent of spring training. They worked with professional baseball coaches, including Joe Russo, the coach at St. John’s University, to learn the fundamentals. “It sounds silly,” Russo said, “but what I have to do is get them not to throw like a girl.”

The cast bonded as a team during the experience. When Davis came in, she was a bit of an outsider. She auditioned for the part by playing catch with director Penny Marshall in Marshall’s backyard. Davis proved to be a good enough athlete that she was able to outperform the other actors within a matter of weeks. There never was a question about her acting ability: she won an Oscar for her role in The Accidental Tourist in 1988.

The script was written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel,who have a way with witty dialog, as they demonstrated in City Slickers, Splash and the underrated Night Shift. As a director, Marshall tends to smear sentimental goo over her projects, and the result is like eating a cake with about eight inches of icing. Big, Awakenings and The Preacher’s Wife are so sugary, they should come with a warning for diabetics.

A League of Their Own has its too-sweet moments—especially the bracketing device of opening and closing the film with a reunion of the AAGPBL alumni 50 years later at the Baseball Hall of Fame—but for the most part, Marshall keeps the sappy stuff in check. The result is a very pleasant two hours at the ballpark.

Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it “one of the year’s most cheerful, most relaxed, most easily enjoyable comedies . . . a serious film that’s lighter than air, a very funny movie that manages to score a few points for feminism in passing.”

The film is a fictional account of the AAGPBL, a professional league for women which helped fill the void created when most major league stars went off to military service in World War II. There were four original teams—the Rockford Peaches, the Racine Belles, the Kenosha Comets and the South Bend Blue Sox. League focuses on the Rockford team, which is managed (sort of) by Jimmy Dugan (Hanks).

Dugan is a former major league star whose career was cut short by alcoholism. He takes the Rockford job because he needs the money, but he has no intention of actually managing the team. “Girls are what you sleep with after the game,” he says, “not what you coach during the game.”

So while Dugan gets drunk and dozes in the dugout, Dottie Hinson (Davis)runs the team. Hinson is a no-nonsense Oregon farm girl. A married woman whose husband is at war, she has no patience for the dissolute Dugan. She also has ambivalent feelings about baseball. She was talked into joining the league by her kid sister Kit (Lori Petty), a pitcher who knew she could ride Dottie’s coattails into the AAGPBL.

But there is a part of Dottie that enjoys the game, more than she is willing to admit even to herself. Dugan sees it and it helps bring him around. He sobers up (he never does get around to shaving) and he begins to function as a real manager, encouraging his players and, when necessary,chewing them out.

The most famous scene from League is Dugan ripping outfielder Evelyn Gardner (Bitty Schram)for throwing to the wrong base.

“Start using your head,” he says. “That’s the lump that’s three feet above your ass.”

Evelyn’s lip quivers, then she begins to cry. Dugan, the hard-boiled baseball lifer, is aghast.

“Are you crying?” he says. “There’s no crying in baseball!”

The American Film Institute put the “no crying” line on its list of the 100 greatest film quotes of all time. It placed 54th ,but there is no doubt it is repeated more often than half of the quotes ranked ahead of it. It is very funny, and the story Dugan tells about how he didn’t cry when his manager Rogers Hornsby called him “a talking pile of pig shit” is a hoot.

There’s no crying in baseball.

Thanks to Jimmy Dugan, we’ll never forget that cardinal rule.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the understated way the relationship between Dugan and Dottie evolves. From the early scenes when Dugan is in a drunken haze and Dottie can barely tolerate the sight of him, they develop a respectful manager-player relationship and,finally, they become friends. They bond over baseball. Dottie keeps insisting the game isn’t that important to her, but Dugan has seen her play and he knows better.

“I gave away five years at the end of my career to drink,”Dugan says. “Five years, and now there isn’t anything I wouldn’t give to get back any one day of it.”

“Well, we’re different,” Dottie says.

Dugan doesn’t buy it.

“Baseball is what gets inside you,” he says. “It’s what lights you up, Dottie. You can’t deny that.”

When Dottie says the game is too hard, Dugan answers like a man who has been to the big leagues and won a home run title or two.

“It’s supposed to be hard,” he says. “If it wasn’t hard,everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

League was the No. 1 film in America when it opened in July 1992. It made $107 million domestic, and another $25million overseas. Nice return for a film that cost just $40 million to make.

Copyright © 2011 by Running Press