Film & Television

Reimagining ‘A League of Their Own’

What a difference three decades make.

Thirty years ago, Penny Marshall directed a movie about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The League was created by chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley and other baseball executives to fill stadiums while the men were off fighting in World War II. In the twelve years the AAGPBL existed, more than 600 women played across 10 teams. In 1948, the League’s most popular year, nearly one million people attended games. Although it may have been started as a marketing stunt, the women proved themselves to be talented athletes, as skilled and tough as the men they were standing in for. However, just a few years after the war ended (and the men returned), the League disbanded and was all but forgotten. It wasn’t until 1988 that it was honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame.

A League of Their Own starred Geena Davis, Lori Petty, and Tom Hanks with Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, David Strathairn, and Bill Pullman rounding out the cast. It focused on two sisters, Dottie and Kit (Davis and Petty), who travel from Oregon to Chicago to try out for the new women’s league. They’re both chosen for the Rockford Peaches. Dottie, the catcher, becomes the team’s de facto coach when she realizes that retired player Jimmy Dugan (Hanks) is not interested and/or too inebriated to do his job.

The movie was appealing on many levels and to many audiences. It was a sports movie filled with realistic baseball sequences. The cast had to go through baseball boot camp and there were multiple injuries including a broken nose. If you remember the huge scrape and bruise on the thigh of one of the players after sliding home, it was a moment of cinéma vérité. In other words, there was no makeup required.

It was also an empowering feminist story. Being a Rockford Peach was a dream come true for the women. Despite being under the watchful eye of a chaperone, they had more independence and freedom than they had known back home. They were also paid particularly well and given the opportunity to travel.

Although the characters are fictional, much of the film is historically accurate, making it educational as well as entertaining. And, finally, there’s a baseball-centered love affair between Dottie and a reformed Jimmy that, although never acted upon, is deeply satisfying.

A League of Their Own was a critical and commercial success, grossing $132 million worldwide against a $40 million production budget. The film was chosen to be preserved by the United States National Film Registry. And, thirty years on, it has aged remarkably well.

So, why did the powers that be at Amazon Prime feel compelled to create a new adaptation? Read on.

First of all, while Marshall’s cast included women of different shapes and sizes, varying educational and socioeconomic levels, they all had two things in common. They were straight and they were white. The League (whose acronym is certainly long enough already) could have been called more accurately the All-American All-Caucasian All-Heterosexual Girls Professional Baseball League. Marshall did make a subtle comment on segregation when one Black woman, turned away from the tryouts, throws an impressive fastball to Dottie. But, the issue of sexual orientation was skirted completely; even O’Donnell, arguably the most butch of the Peaches, has a boyfriend back home.

The new limited series, also titled A League of Their Own, has many of the elements of the 1992 version. However, the focus here is on precisely what that movie missed. Across eight episodes, there are two parallel stories. Carson Shaw (Abbi Jacobson) is a housewife, who literally runs way from home when she learns her husband will soon return. She becomes the catcher for the Rockford Peaches and, like Dottie in the original film, has to become a coach when the man hired for the job defects. Maxine “Max” Chapman (Chanté Adams) is a preternaturally gifted pitcher, who can’t join the League because she’s Black.

Oh, and both women prefer the company of women.

This is not only problematic (Carson is married to a man and Max is under the watchful eye of a deeply religious mother, who has shunned her own trans sister), but illegal and dangerous. The stakes are shockingly high. A few episodes in, an underground gay bar is raided and the so-called “inverts” who aren’t able to escape are severely beaten before being arrested. Their names will be listed in the local paper the next day to “protect the community.”

Carson has her first lesbian experience — and falls in love — with glamorous player Greta Gill (D’Arcy Carden). Meanwhile, Max cuts her hair and begins wearing men’s clothing before eventually meeting Esther (Andia Winslow).

Jacobson, best known for her Comedy Central series Broad City, co-created A League of Their Own. A fan of the original, she was determined not to produce a remake, but instead to reimagine “the stories that were not able to be told in 1992 in a two-hour time slot.” As she explained recently to Screen Rant, “I hope that we’re carrying on the legacy of the movie by continuing the spirit and the joy that’s represented in that film, but I think it’s more about opening it up a little bit.”

Her costar Adams agrees, “I think the movie needs no help with carrying its own legacy. It’s been 30 years and people still talk about how it’s their absolute favorite movie, as it should be. So, what we’re doing is just expanding that world and creating our own legacy that we hope we can uphold just as well as they do.”

A League of Their Own starts a bit slow, but builds momentum by the second or third episode. The cast is uniformly excellent with standout supporting performances by Dale Dickey as the Peaches’ often humorless chaperone and Gbemisola Ikumelo as Max’s best friend Clance. O’Donnell has an interesting and sympathetic cameo. And, Nick Offernan is the has-been pro hired to coach the team. A thoroughly miserable character, he leaves when he’s offered a chance to manage a men’s team, and the show is better off without him.

Although they share a setting and, of course, a title, A League of Their Own, the movie, and A League of Their Own, the Amazon series are very different experiences. While Marshall’s 1992 blockbuster is still great fun, the new show gives you much more to think about. The challenges faced by Carson and Max can’t be solved by a triple in the ninth inning.

But, it’s impossible not to root for them. After all, “There’s no crying in baseball.”

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