What's a baseball movie review without at least one baseball cliché? You know, "The Babe hits a home run" or "Fear strikes out—looking." So here we go.
A League of Their Own singles through a drawn-in infield, moves to second on a sacrifice, steals third after avoiding a pickle, runs through the third base coach's stop sign and scores when the catcher drops the ball in a home plate collision. In other words, A League of Their Own, a movie about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), which opens nationwide this week, succeeds beyond expectations and despite some mawkish moments.
Both the movie and the AAGPBL have interesting histories. A League of Their Own is based on the experiences of the women's baseball league that chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley started in the Midwest during World War II to fill the gap created when so many major league players joined the armed forces. The movie, which is directed by Penny Marshall and stars Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna et al., ran into difficulties at the beginning when the appropriately named Debra Winger dropped out, reportedly because she objected to Madonna's presence in the cast. She needn't have worried about being upstaged, because the Material Girl (wearing flannel in this movie) is only a supporting player—and a delightful one at that. Fortunately for the movie, Winger's replacement, Davis, projects both grace and prowess. Unfortunately for Columbia Pictures, Penny Marshall spent $45 million to $50 million on the film, about $15 million over budget, making A League of Their Own the most expensive baseball movie ever.
If Marshall used the extra money for technical advice, it was money well spent. Thanks to the efforts of Southern Cal coaching legend Rod Dedeaux, the USC coaching staff and AAGPBL alumna Pepper Davis, nobody in A League of Their Own throws like a girl. In fact, everybody throws better than John Goodman did in The Babe. It's hard to believe that Geena Davis never played baseball before arriving on the set, because in a pickup game you would choose her as your catcher over, say, Tom Berenger, the backstop in Major League. (Think of a female Carlton Fisk, and you have her character, Dottie Hinson.) Lori Petty, who plays Dottie's kid sister, Kit, displays a nice flair for the mound. The big tryout session at Wrigley Field, with its full-tilt slides and slick double plays, is a particularly enlightening sequence for those who think girls can't play baseball.
Most of the comedic pivots are also well turned. Jon Lovitz wakes up the audience as the sarcastic scout Ernie Capadino: "It's the train that moves, not the station." Madonna, as centerfielder "All the Way" Mae Mordabito, and Rosie O'Donnell, as her third baseman sidekick, keep the team, and the movie, loose. Madonna is especially good while teaching an illiterate teammate to read from a rather breathless novel. Hanks, as down-at-the-heels manager Jimmy Dugan, has some very funny moments, specifically when he's dealing with his rightfielder, Evelyn Gardner, who keeps missing her cutoff woman.
While the movie has no trouble making you laugh, it gets bogged down trying to make you cry. The screenplay, by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (who collaborated on Splash, Parenthood and City Slickers), has enough sentimentality in it to water down a major league infield. (You'll cringe for weeks thinking about the reunion scenes that frame the movie.) Still, A League of Their Own says something nice about sisterhood, both in the relationship between Dottie and Kit and in the larger sense of team. And for one brief, sterling moment, in a scene between Hanks and Geena Davis on the bus, you have a movie rarity: a man and a woman connecting with no sex involved.
It's anybody's guess whether A League of Their Own will be the feel-good hit of the summer or a box-office disaster on the order of The Slugger's Wife. But it does deserve a wide audience, if only because the actors' joy in making the film comes through. To borrow yet another baseball cliché, A League of Their Own doesn't quite go the distance but gets credit for a victory.