The Underrated (II): ‘A League of Their Own’ is a Must-Watch Sports Film

There is something familiar and very warm about this film, a nostalgia that seeps into you as the film is unfolding sweeping us back to a simpler time, a gentler time, a time when it seemed all the worlds troubles could be solved with a good game of baseball. It brings to mind that magnificent monologue James Earl Jones speaks in Field of Dreams (1989) about the depth of baseball in the American experience, how the smell of the grass, the sound of a bat cracking a ball, the sound of a ball being caught in a leather mit could ease any troubles quickly.

During the Second World War, there was a genuine threat professional baseball would be shut down as the players flocked to join the war effort. Indeed, the war impacted most of pro sports, but the Americans had a novel way to approach the potential lack of baseball, they would create a professional women’s baseball league, gleaning women from across North America to play in the new league. In the early days it was a gimmick that was not working, but once audiences saw the women played with as much gusto and often talent as the men, the stands were filled with cheering fans.

Dotty (Geena Davis) and her sister Kit (Lori Petty) are found on a dairy farm in the mid­west and recruited to play in the league. The older of the two Dotty is married, her husband overseas, and she is by far the best player in the league, landing on the cover of Life magazine for her gifts on the field, and it does not hurt that she is gorgeous. Very much in her sisters shadow, Kit is very good, and could be better if she did not rail against the world about her sister.

Coaching the Peaches is former baseball star and MVP Jimmy Duggan (Tom Hanks) now a drunk, angry at having blown out his knee so young which ended his career, angry about being a drunk and very angry at coaching a girls ball team. In the beginning he can barely stay awake for the games, spends most of them passed out, and has nothing to say to any of his team members.

But something happens when Jimmy sees how committed the girls are, how good they are, something in him shifts and he becomes as dedicated to them as they eventually are to him. It is Jimmy who tells a young woman her husband has died overseas, it is Jimmy who holds her and comforts her, and it is Jimmy who finds the love of the game again through the women he coaches.

The team is made of a cross section of women from all walks of life, including a Bronx babe who cannot keep her clothes on, Mae (Madonna), her mouthpiece friend, portrayed by Rosie O’Donnell (typecasting??), and a group of often very funny women make up an excellent ensemble.

Geena Davis is outstanding as Dottie, realizing the game is so much more than just a game to her, even after her husband comes home. She befriends Jimmy, but it is never anything more than a friendship and pure love of the game that bonds them, never anything sexual or romantic.

One can see clearly that they each wonder about that, perhaps even think of one another in those lonely nights on the road, but she is married, in love and never crosses that line and Jimmy respects her too much to even make a move in that direction. Davis is terrific as Dotty, and deserved an Oscar nomination for her performance.

Tom Hanks is magnificent as Jimmy Duggan. The quaking rage he expresses to one of the players after she makes a bad play is hysterical because we just know the tears are going to erupt and when they do he is speechless for a second before thundering for all to hear, “There’s no crying in baseball….there’s no crying in baseball !” The growing awareness of how good the girls are, and how much the game means to him comes through in the films second half, when Jimmy is as committed to the girls as they become to the game, and him.

Lori Petty is outstanding as kid sister Kit, to whom the game means everything but who is not blessed with her sisters God given ability. She tries, to works hard, but is often so jealous she gets caught up in her own garbage and cannot see the truth staring her in the face.

There is a lovely cameo from comic Jon Lovitz as a scout sent out to find the best girls he can. Small part but he is hysterically funny, and I missed him when he was gone.

Neither Madonna nor the wretched Rosie O’Donnell ruin the film, and to be fair, Madonna is quite good as Mae. I cringe whenever I see O’Donnell in anything, but admittedly she did alright in the picture.

Penny Marshall directed the film, her third major work after Big (1988) and the Oscar nominated Best Picture, Awakenings (1990), more than proving her mettle as a filmmaker, yet once again was snubbed by the Academy for what would have been a well deserved Oscar nomination. She deserved one for Awakenings (1990) no question, and her gentle hand guides this wonderfully nostalgic movie without a false move. I daresay this might be the best film ever made about the game because in the eyes of each player we feel and see the pure love of the game.