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A League of Their Own
Nostalgia and Baseball
A League of Their Own was released over 30 years ago in the summer of ‘92. The first George Bush was in office with Bill Clinton waiting in the wings. Gas cost just over a buck a gallon. On average, the stars (Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna, and Tom Hanks) were in their early 30s, about half their current age. Like most baseball movies, this one is steeped in nostalgia. It works even better now that enough time has passed to feel sentimental about the 90s, when these actors radiated almost implausible youth and beauty. There are compounding layers of nostalgia in this movie, like a dream within a dream in Inception. Yet the movie is about Dottie, the Queen of Diamonds and the best player in the league, who does not feel nostalgia for baseball. “It was never that important to me,” she says coldly, like a serial killer. “It was just something I did.” This is because she’s a winner, and in A League of Their Own, baseball is for losers and misfits.
Now a grandmother, Dottie (Lynn Cartwright/Geena Davis) is packing her bags to reunite with All-American Girls Professional Baseball League players at the Baseball Hall of Fame. We see black and white photos of her husband and children on her dresser and the walls of her room. None are from her baseball days. She means it when she says baseball is not important to her. Dottie arrives in Cooperstown, sees her old teammates in the ballpark, and we flash back to 1943, the year women’s professional baseball was created after the cancellation of the men’s season due to WW2.
Director Penny Marshall gives us a Disneyfied, Lake Woebegone version of the 40s, capturing a time that never was. Americans are good and noble. Men dutifully leave their families to fight Hitler abroad, and there are no enemies at home except for a drunk heckler who is quickly dispatched by a well-aimed ball.
Women are required to play in short skirts, but there’s no sexual harassment in Marshall’s 40s. The recruiter (John Lovitz) doesn’t use his authority to gain sexual favors from the girls he plucks from farms and unenviable circumstances. Even when he is falling-down drunk, the coach, Jimmy (Tom Hanks), keeps his hands off the players. Men at bars are well-behaved and swing dance like they’re in wholesome Gap commercials. All the Way Mae (Madonna) runs amok sexually, but with no ill consequences (abusive men, unwanted pregnancy, back-alley abortions, venereal diseases) except for a few extra Hail Marys assigned by sweaty, titillated priests.
Racial inequality is ignored or glossed over. Black musicians provide entertainment at dance halls, but black patrons are absent from those venues. Black baseball fans are missing from the stands. There are no black women on the baseball teams. This absence is emphasized when a black woman standing with black ballpark workers hurls a wayward ball back to the players. The movie shrugs at racial inequities. The hallmark of nostalgia is to ignore anything that detracts from the imagined greatness of the times.
It’s fascinating that Dottie, the main character in a baseball movie, doesn’t care about baseball. She sees her time in the league as an interesting yet ultimately inconsequential year of her life. She doesn’t change or learn anything. The course of her life is unaltered by baseball, and this is because she doesn’t need it. Dottie already has everything. She’s a natural athlete, the best ballplayer in her dairy town and then the league. She carries the respect of her teammates, serving as interim coach while Jimmy is stupefied by alcohol. She’s also married to a capable, handsome man (Bill Pullman) with a promising future at a dairy farm. (“He’s good-looking and smart. There’s so few of us,” Jimmy says about him.)
Baseball is for the broken, for those yearning for something better. They are the ones who need it. Baseball cures Jimmy of alcoholism and gives him purpose. Baseball finds a doting husband for Marla (Megan Cavanagh), who the recruiter initially rejects because she isn’t pretty enough. Baseball teaches Shirley (Ann Cusack), who can’t find her name on a roster, to read with an assist from Mae and the pornographic literature she uses as a primer. Baseball gives a well-deserved sense of self-worth to Doris (Rosie O’Donnell), who discards her emotionally abusive boyfriend and swears off broke dick for good. Baseball gives Mae an escape from taxi dancing. She earns better wages, but more importantly, she gets to choose her dance partners.
Baseball changes everything for Dottie’s younger sister, Kit (Lori Petty). It allows her to step out of her big sister’s long shadow and find her own identity. (“Did you ever hear Dad introduce us to people? This is our daughter, Dottie. This is our other daughter, Dottie’s sister. Should’ve just had you and bought a dog.”) Baseball gets her off the farm and gives her independence, adventure, and eventually, kids and a horde of redheaded grandchildren who look like the American branch of the Weasley family. Baseball gives her an escape from bitterness and envy. She smiles joyously when she reunites with Dottie in Cooperstown. Baseball gives Kit her sister back.
Dottie only needs baseball as a welcome distraction when her husband is at war, and when he returns, she’s done with it. (“It’s only a game, and I don’t need this. I have Bob. I don’t need this. I don’t.”) Her husband dies the winter before the reunion, and she seldom leaves her room. Maybe at the end, she finally needs baseball.
A League of Their Own
Written by Kim Wilson, Kelly Candaele, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel; Directed by Penny Marshall