I am going to give you all, beloved readers, a slice of the life of a starving writer. I was lying in bed last night thinking of all the ways I had failed in life – failed at relationships, jobs, writing, you name it. I was racking my brain for a single thing in my life I had ever done well. Do you know what came to mind? A catch. A really sweet catch.
In the words of Sophia Petrillo, “Picture it. Northern Virginia, mid-1990s.” An eight-year-old Margaret Perry was playing first base in a Chantilly Youth Association softball game. I couldn’t tell you the score if I wanted to, but at some point the batter hit a solid line drive my way. Without batting an eye I reached across and caught the ball with a backhand. Out! It was an awesome catch and everybody on that field knew it.
So, here I am – a twenty-something struggling to make ends meet in a world that does not celebrate history/English lit. liberal arts graduates. And the one moment of personal glory I can claim without hesitation is an epic catch I made on the softball field over a decade ago. As I write this, I am remembering a dozen or so other examples of great plays I made on that field. Like that sweet grounder I hit into left field, right past the short stop. Or that time I got a huge strawberry sliding into third. Or the time I lobbed it from third to first, making an amazing double play.
Baseball teaches youngsters a plethera of lessons. Baseball teaches kids how to work together as a team. It teaches how hard work leads to success. Success in baseball is always based on merit, and the rewards are immediate. A good play gets cheers from teamates, the coaches, your parents, everyone in the stands. Baseball crosses socio-economic class boundaries – kids playing stickball on the backstreets of the inner city get just as much thrill out of a home run as any major-league hitter.
There are dozens of movies about boys’ baseball, from THE SANDLOT (1993) to THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES (1942) to MONEYBALL (2011), but precious few about women. There are some really great films about girls in sports, generally, my personal favorites being PAT AND MIKE (1952) starring Katharine Hepburn, BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM (2002), and BLUE CRUSH (2002). If you want to also include horse movies, you can add NATIONAL VELVET (1944) and WILD HEARTS CAN’T BE BROKEN (1991). But no other sport has so much of a gender lockdown than American baseball.
As with the great gender divide across most forms of media, the percentage of film representations of women in sports does not reflect reality. Today 360,000 female athletes between the ages 4 and 18 participate on more than 24,000 softball teams in over 20 countries in Little League Softball. That’s a lot of little sluggers! I am proud to have been one of them.
The most famous historical example of women overcoming the gender divide in baseball was in 1931. 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell was signed as the first female professional baseball player. In an exhibition game against the New York Yankees, Mitchell consecutively struck out Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. The Babe was not happy about being struck out by a girl, saying,
“I don’t know what’s going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball. Of course, they will never make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball everyday.”
The big wigs of baseball must have agreed with him, because Mitchell’s contract was voided and in 1952, women were officially banned from Major League Baseball.
Though not allowed to play in the MLB, the women who played in what is now known as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943-1954) proved that the game of baseball is not “too strenuous” for women to participate in competitively. (National Women’s History Museum)
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (1992) is a fictional story inspired by the very real All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), which existed during and immediately after WWII, from 1943-1954. The movie features a star line-up of strong female performers. Director Penny Marshal, of “Laverne and Shirley” fame, deliberately cast strong female personalities in this movie about women ballplayers.
Geena Davis, founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, has long been devoted to featuring more strong women in film and television: “If she can see it, she can be it.” She is cast alongside comedy heavy-hitter Rosie O’Donnell, a long-time advocate for LGBT rights. “Queen of Pop” superstar Madonna is also on the team. Beside being an amazing singer-songwriter, Madonna also has a reputation as a business woman, film producer, director, actor, children’s book author, fashion designer, and entrepreneur.
When I watch the wonderful women of A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, I get homesick for the softball field. I miss the sun on my cheeks and the silt in my socks. Most of all I miss the scrapes and bruises and dirt and sweat. Since the beginning of time, girls and young women have been told to be clean, quiet, and take up as little space as necessary. Physical strength in women has been associated with becoming sexless or masculine. With time and a better understanding of health, attitudes toward sport and exercise have finally begun to change. But it was necessary for the women of the AAGPBL to blaze the way, proving that women could and should and will play sports. The best line in the movie is when Kit is signing baseballs for some of her young fans, and she gives them some advice: “Get dirty!”
The actresses in the film did their own stunts, and many of them walked around with cuts and bruises for months after shooting. I particularly love Rosie O’Donnell’s character in the film, Doris, because she is a recognizable fixture on any softball field. Every league has one or two players who are a little bit bigger, a little more loud-mouthed, and a little fiercer in the sport than the rest of the girls. If you come from a quieter team, these players can be a bit overwhelming. There’s not usually anything malicious in these players – most of the time you just take them with a grain of salt. But when you realize you’re up against a team with a “Doris,” you sometimes wish you could switch sides for the game.
Doris actually has one of the more touching scenes in the movie, one that really gets at the heart of why the AAGPBL was so important for these women. The players are on a bus travelling between games and they get to talking about their boyfriends.
Doris (O’Donnell): “He’s stupid, he’s out of work, and he treats me bad.”
Kit (Lori Petty): “Then why…?”
Doris: “Why? Why do you think? Because, you know… None of the other boys never, uh… [they] always made me feel like I was wrong, you know? Like I was some sort of a weird girl, or strange girl, or not even a girl, just ’cause I could play. I believed them, too, but not any more, you know. I mean, lookit. There’s a lot of us. I think we’re all all right.”
Thinks a minute, tears up picture, throws it out bus window. “So long, Charley!”
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN shows audiences that communities of women don’t spend all their time thinking and talking about men. The relationship between sisters Dottie (Davis) and Kit (Petty) shows how women can compete for something other than the affection of the man. Like our male counterparts in the human race, women can care deeply about activities outside of the home life of husband, children, housekeeping, cooking, etc. However, something this film also brings out is how much women, so much more than men, do have to work that much harder to accommodate the societal pressures of family. The question “can you do/have it all?” has been a problem women have had to consider for many years – it is not a recent construct. It is also a question that is seldom put to men.
Girls today need A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN as much as they need the opportunity to play sports. It’s healthy for our bodies and minds. Society is stronger when every member of its population, male and female, is able to experience situations where teamwork, practice, and strength are celebrated. Such situations have been badly lacking for women for far too long. Movies like this one have two purposes. One is to prove to a patriarchal society that women have, can, and will participate in arenas that have been previously reserved for men. Not only that women can and will, but that we should. Films like A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN also teach girls that their desire to participate in these activities is legitimate and should be defended against opposition from any quarter.
Umpire: “What’s the matter, Jimmy?”
Jimmy (Tom Hanks): “She’s crying, sir!”
Umpire: “Perhaps you chastised her too vehemently.”