Saturday, October 24, 2009

A League of Their Own--A Review

"There's no crying in baseball!"  Jimmy Dugan yells at one of his players in the iconic movie A League of Their Own. A failed major leaguer, Dugan played by Tom Hanks has just dressed down a player who stands isolated and crying--fairly typical male bluster facing female sensitivity? But the player recovers and  Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Baseball League win the game and  go on to the world series of girl's baseball in 1943.

I have lousy taste in movies, at least my children think so. But I have always loved sports movies and they remain a consistent vehicle through which Americans establish and explore our moral and  cultural stories, challenges, battles, failures and successes. They reflect the aspirations, realities and possibilities of our culture refracted through our most enduring metaphors of individals and teams, challenge and competition, victory and defeat. The dynamic of team and individual, of talent and effort, of outsider versus insider lies at the heart of America's own cultural contradictions. Sports stories provide a fallow and safe field to harvest the change. Periodically  I'm will review sports movies I like and believe illustrate the morals and culture of America in their story.

A League of their Own chronicles the beginnings the Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Baseball league which existed for three years during World War II when men's professional baseball was shut down by the war and the draft.  In the movie two sisters from Wilamette Oregon join the league. Through the course of the season they help the team and league build an intense following. The team overcomes the jeers, skepticism and catcalls of the "fans." They build a brand of baseball that is competent and enjoyable to watch.

The movie highlights the rural home of most of the players as well as the demand to have the women sequestered by a den mother.  Each player gets beauty lessons to appear their best in their short skirted uniforms (obviously not designed with sliding in mind). At the same time the lure of marriage or domestic life stalks each layer especially the star player Dottie (Geena Davis). At the end of the movie the team makes it to the "world series" of the women's teams. Dottie's younger sister and rival, Kit (Lorrie Petty) comes to bat for the Racine Belles and rips a game wining hit to win the first league championship. Kit had battled the entire time to move beyond Dottie's shadow and her intense rivalry had broken the sister bond. Kit had been traded to the Racine Bells when the rivalry started to fracture the team. Dottie says, "it's part of the game." The movie is framed by Dottie leaving her house and grandchildren to go to Cooperstown for a Hall of Fame exhibit celebrating the the league and the women's pioneering roles.

Many women who play and follow modern sports regard the movie as ionic. It captures the rarity and difficulty of playing in the shadow of men's professional sport. The derision and distrust of the ability of "girls" to demonstrated athletic excellence saturates the screen and the players. Yet the players earn the respect of fans but also the grudging respect of ex-major league manager played. It does not falsify the opposition and the sexual based marketing of the league. The women wear short skirts and have makeovers to make them more marketable. One player is initially rejected because she is not attractive enough.  For many of the women this is their way out. Finally the movie etches all too clearly the sequesterd double standard where the women have to be chaperoned and protected while marketed for their sexual allure. The movie hits home the never ending tension and theme of whether a woman of talent and excellence in sports or any field must give that up to be a wife and mother. The best player Dottie Hansen chooses that option as does the best hitter. For Dottie it truly remained just a game she could never take quite seriously her talent and skill compared to her true task of building a home.

The players are the sports  equivalent of Rosie the Riveter. The exodus of males during the war opened up the need for women in many areas of society where they would be denied or persecuted before. The window closed, and in the fifties many worked hard to expunge the memory and possiblity that women could do a "man's job." The movie reminds us that athletic excellence is not gender bound, despite what American society might prefer. It reminds us that once upon a time windows opened by war and disaster and into that window women not only stepped to run the economy, but to provide comeptitive sport. They seem odd or misfits, and the best may choose to return to the farm when her husband returns from the war, but the fact remains. The movie ennobles it in fiction and now the Hall of Fame enshrines it in memory.

The movie revives a dream, a memory, a possibility from which emerged a reality. When I watched ESPN televise the entire NCAA Women's Softball tournament, I watched skill, excellence and achievement born in the dreams of the Rockford Peaches.

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