If you, like me, have watched A League of Their Own, directed by Penny Marshall, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of 75, more times than you can count, you’ll know the scene I’m about to reference. Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) visits candy-bar mogul and sports financier Walter Harvey (Garry Marshall) on the verdant grounds of his mansion. Dugan is a little drunk, and he’s got a shred of toilet paper plugging a razor cut on his cheek. He’s trying to impress Harvey, who wants to offer the former star baseball player turned down-and-out alcoholic a job coaching a professional team, despite Dugan once screwing up a similar gig by selling off his players’ equipment for booze money. Dugan isn’t thrilled, however, when he learns that his second chance will be coaching in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which Harvey is bankrolling as a replacement for men’s ball clubs while, instead of squaring off on the field, the Yankees and Red Sox are away fighting the Nazis. Dugan gets this look on his face, a cross between bewilderment and disgust with just a dash of intrigue, at the prospect of women playing a man’s game.
This was basically the look on my face the first time a friend suggested watching A League of Their Own. The movie came out in 1992, and my friend’s mom rented it a year or so later from Blockbuster, on a night when I was over for a sleepover. This friend — her name was Chelsea — was insistent that we watch. She’d seen it once already with her older brother. Girls don’t play baseball, I thought. I told her I wasn’t interested. Chelsea wouldn’t give up. “There’s a hilarious scene about peeing,” she coaxed. (This, for the record, is true.) Nine-year-old me was curious enough about the purportedly scandalous content to watch the movie, sprawled next to Chelsea on a four-poster bed in front of a small TV-VCR combo.
I loved it — like really loved it. I rooted for Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) and her sister Kit (Lori Petty), even when Kit was being a brat and Dottie was egging her on. I cried when — spoiler alert — Betty “Spaghetti” Horn (Tracy Reiner) finds out that her husband has been killed in combat. What I remember most clearly, though, were the adrenaline rushes I felt every time a game scene came on. I wanted to play. Early the next morning, I insisted that Chelsea and I dig through her family’s garage for a dented metal bat and a ball. I then marched Chelsea to her backyard to train like we were the Rockford Peaches.
A League of Their Own was my unwitting introduction to feminism, a word I didn’t have in my fourth-grade vocabulary. The notion of women unapologetically doing things they weren’t supposed to do was revelatory. Here were dirty, sweaty women playing their hearts out in skirts foisted upon them by the patriarchy — another word I didn’t know, but would in time. They were talented, passionate, and demonstrative. They acted sad when they felt sad, angry when they felt angry, even lustful when they felt lustful. I wanted to be friends with them. I wanted to be them. In the early evenings, I started playing catch with my dad, transmuting the ultimate father-son bonding ritual into a father-daughter concern. I had my own mitt, a cherished Christmas gift I wore in by obsessively bending and punching the leather.
The movie became my go-to comfort watch when I was sick with the flu and a staple of Friday nights planted in front of network TV, which seemed to run it on repeat alongside The Shawshank Redemption. As I got older, I found the words and wisdom to explain why I loved Marshall’s masterpiece so much. A League of Their Own is a buddy movie for women. The ball players get in trouble together, hatch plots together, dance together, win together, cry together. They stand up for each other when men are being jerks. The film is also a romantic comedy, but the love affair is between women and their profession. Baseball is the means by which many of the players extract themselves, even if only for a few years, from dull, abusive, poor, or otherwise circumscribed circumstances. And while there’s sexual tension between Dottie and Jimmy Dugan, it never comes to anything. Whatever feelings exist are superseded by the two characters’ respect for each other’s talent and by Marshall’s interest as a storyteller in the relationships among the women onscreen.
With the exception of Dugan, men are bit players in the movie: managers, scouts, hecklers, fans, bus drivers, offscreen husbands, fathers, flings. Women do the work, in every sense of the word, which makes the film’s commercial victory all the sweeter: As Vox explained after the announcement of Marshall’s death, A League of Their Own broke the $100 million line at the box office, making Marshall the first woman in history to direct two movies that grossed so much money. (Her other $100 million-plus feat was Big.)
I readily admit to having a halcyon view of the film. There are tropes and caricatures and maudlin moments in it, but the best parts of the story blunt the edges of the weakest ones. Twenty-five years after I saw it for the first time, even with the cynical eye of an adult, I feel unadulterated joy and might when I watch it. I can recite pretty much the entire script, a skill put to the test when I turned 32. My husband threw me a surprise party, the theme of which was A League of Their Own. He decked out our apartment with red, white, and blue bunting and ordered a Rockford Peach hat off the internet. His sister glued cutout photos of some of the real women who played in America’s female baseball league, which lasted from 1943 to 1954, onto birthday candles, then planted them in the shape of a diamond on top of a pie.
My closest friends watched the movie with me, some of them for the first time. If they were skeptical like I’d been at Chelsea’s, they didn’t let on, maybe because my pitch for A League of Their Own’s greatness went beyond a promise of funny peeing. I lay sprawled in front of the TV, rapt and 9 years old again, except now the women whose lives unfolded in front of me felt like old friends. I recognized them and their struggles. I hoped, however trite it sounded, that I’d lived up to what they’d taught me. Maybe I’d become a woman who liked to get dirt in her skirt. Cue tears and that iconic song.