A League of Their Own is widely regarded as one of the best sports films of all time. The 1992 film, which was directed by Penny Marshall, who passed away on Monday, left its mark as a funny and poignant female-driven story of friendship and the fight to play ball. It grossed $130 million worldwide, coming in right behind Marshall’s 1988 hit, Big to become the second female-directed film ever to do so.
Beyond proving that an movie starring almost exclusively women could strike box-office gold, Marshall’s commitment to her characters and to the story A League of Their Own told paved the way for future narratives that focused more on women’s careers than their relationships.
In the wake of Marshall’s passing, the Cut asked seven women to reflect on how A League of Their Own informed their own lives, and what Marshall’s legacy means to them. Here are their responses.
Marlee Matlin, actress and activist:
I had seen Penny on the red carpet over the years and always admired her pluck, wit, and humor. It’s why I once wore a sweater with the letter “M” on it like the classic “L” emblazoned on the sweater she was so well known for wearing on Laverne and Shirley. She was one of my heroes. I finally had a chance to sit and chat with her when we both played on a celebrity baseball team for the World Series All Star game being held in Yankee Stadium. “Mah-lee” she said through my interpreter because she was too hard to lip-read with that Bronx accent, “I have a movie you should know about.” I found out later she was developing a film about the winning girls’ basketball team for Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the world.
Though the film never materialized, I always admired her chutzpah to consider doing a film about a deaf anything. So many in Hollywood never saw the winning stories that could be told with deaf characters. But she did. Like her desire to break convention and do a film about an all women’s baseball team in A League of Their Own, Penny was willing to tackle a story that the deaf community knew was worth telling, but that not many were willing to listen and learn about. And that’s what Penny was all about; she was willing to listen. She heard what many women already knew and took that to break barriers as one of the few women to produce and direct successful mainstream films. In the end, she inspired future directors and producers who happened to be women, many of whom are working today.
Evette Dionne, editor-in-chief, Bitch Media:
I watched A League of Their Own for the first time when I was 8 or 9 and bedridden with pneumonia. It was 1998, so the film’s initial wave had come and gone, but the movie sat with me for a long time after I’d watched it. I believe the film is so important to me because it showcased an oft-forgotten part of women’s history and showed fiercely independent women getting their fair shot to play the sport they loved. Beyond that, the movie is just really entertaining and engrossing. I always cry when Dottie and Kit face off in the World Series because I’m so deeply invested in their sisterhood and that of the other women on the Rockford Peaches. I credit my intense love and dedication to reading and chronicling women’s history to A League of Their Own. The movie made me curious about the other stories I’d never heard about, so even now, I’m always reading biographies, academic papers, and memoirs about the women I should’ve learned about but never did.
There are two moments from the film that are really memorable for me. When the ball gets away from Dottie during a game, a black woman dressed in her Sunday’s best and sitting in the “colored” section of the field retrieves and throws it forcefully back to Ellen Sue. Though there are no black women or women of color in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, it’s clear that this woman, whose name we never learn, has the talent and the skill to be on any team in the league. Unfortunately, segregation kept black women and women of color from participating in the AAGPBL, though some real-life black women played in the Negro Leagues. The scene didn’t move me when I initially watched the movie, but now, it sticks with me because her exclusion is so emblematic of the ways in which black women and women of color were treated historically.
The induction of members of the AAGPBL into the Baseball Hall of Fame is also memorable to me. I get chills just thinking about the players singing their “Victory Song,” especially the lyric, “The time has come, for one and all, to play ball.” The movie’s final moments help the audience, myself included, reflect on everything these women endured just to play baseball. They were told that “there’s no crying in baseball,” even as they were forced to hide their relationships, wear costumes that were better suited for runways than dugouts, and take etiquette classes. Their hall of fame induction is the moment when all of their sacrifices really pay off.
Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher, Women and Hollywood
As a girl who played sports, any sports film that had women in it was of interest to me — and I remember that the women really played and that it wasn’t faked. It was a really important movie because it was commercial, had stars in it, and showed that women could play sports and have been playing sports and were good, even when they had little to no support. It really excited the Title IX generation; we were the girls who were pushing into the sports leagues and realizing that we could play like girls and didn’t have to play like boys. I haven’t seen the film in a while, but I remember that it was either Geena Davis or Rosie O’Donnell who caught a pitch in her bare hand and didn’t flinch. I loved that. I loved how it showed competence and toughness.
Penny Marshall’s career as a director is one of happenstance. She didn’t seek it out, it found her. When James Brooks asked her to direct Big, she had no idea that every other director has turned it down. But in some ways that was good, because she had no pressure. She understood that she opened doors to women, but also understood that it was not intentional. She will always be the first woman director who grossed $100 million, and she paved the way for other women to direct studio films.
Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor, Teen Vogue:
I was about 14 years old when A League of Their Own came out; I was just starting to form my sense of feminism and this movie played a major role in that. (I was also a huge Madonna stan which is probably why I went to see it in the first place.) The idea that women can do what men can do and should be able to have access to the same things men have access to was a point my teen self needed to see and experience. “There’s no crying in baseball!” is something my girlfriends and I have said over the years as a joke because men cry all the time about baseball!
Penny Marshall had a way of making narratives about women but doing it so artfully that you didn’t even realize the incredible statements she was making. I watched reruns of Laverne and Shirley as a kid but no one every explained to me why that or any of her work was feminist, they were just cool or funny stories about quirky or interesting women. Looking back on her legacy and thinking about how much we’re still struggling for representation of women, especially behind the camera, her legacy as a groundbreaker becomes that much more apparent.
Natalie Walker, performer and writer:
My mom is a huge jock, and despite her very best efforts, I have never been athletically inclined. These aforementioned efforts included coaching my sister and me in rec league softball for years, which could often be utterly harrowing. The best part of the season, though, was always when she would invite the team over to watch A League of Their Own at our house. To this day, I never feel closer to my mom or my sister than when we are watching it or just quoting it. My sister and I decided months ago to get ALOTO tattoos — “mule” for her and “nag” for me.
Madonna’s entire “you go tell ol’ rich Mr. Chocolate Man he ain’t closin’ ME down” monologue is vital. Tracy Reiner does some of the most criminally underrated cinematic crying of all time with her “GEORGE!” During the reconciliation scene toward the end of the movie, Kit thanks Dottie for getting her into the league. “You got yourself into the league,” Dottie responds matter-of-factly. “I just got you on the train.”
Penny Marshall seemed, to me, far too humble to take credit for the countless artists she inspired, but I hope she is always remembered and celebrated for getting a hell of a lot of women on the train.
Sarah Spain, host, ESPN Radio:
When I was a kid I thought A League Of Their Own was just a fun movie with great characters and clever dialogue. Now, as an adult who regularly endures the misogyny of a male-dominated industry and spends much of her career detailing the fight for gender equality in sport, the film is so much more. Not only did Penny Marshall shine a deserved light on the amazing women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, she also gave girls and women watching everywhere permission to see themselves as the star of life’s game, not just a woman cheering on the sidelines.
Anne T. Donahue, writer:
A League of Their Own is one of those rare movies that makes you not just start to believe in your own dreams, but in the dreams you’ve never had before — almost to the point of delusion. After seeing it for the first time when I was 11, I realized I wanted to grow up and do something that challenged me. And while I eventually realized it didn’t have to be baseball (mainly because I couldn’t play to save my soul), Dottie’s story taught me that to pursue something difficult could be worth it. Or, in the immortal words of Jimmy Dugan, “It’s the hard that makes it great.”
Especially since you didn’t have to do it alone. Penny Marshall was so wonderful at telling stories of people navigating something so overwhelming, but finding their way (and themselves) because of the friendships formed. Which is also part of Penny’s own story and something I love so much about her success: She brought her friends with her, she cast women she liked and wanted to work with, and she made it fun. She found an industry that is very hard to work in, and she kept going and made her work great.