Reel Life: 'A League of Their Own'
By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 2

Maybe there's no crying in baseball, but there's lying in baseball -- especially in baseball movies.

"A League of Their Own" is a movie about the first season of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which ran from 1943 to 1954. While the movie doesn't use real names, director Penny Marshall seemed to be aiming for realism -- the movie includes fake newsreel footage and pseudo-documentary "present day" scenes at the beginning and end of the film.

Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks, Rosie O'Donnell and Madonna recreate the AAGPBL in "A League of Their Own."
What's the verdict? Former baseball player Doris Sams said, "I thought it was about 30 percent truth and 70 percent Hollywood."

In baseball, a .300 batting average is good. In telling a "true" story, .300 is not so hot.

So, which 70 percent is Hollywood fiction? Read on.

In Reel Life: "Candy bar king" Walter Harvey decides to start a women's baseball league, fearing that World War II would force a cancellation of the 1943 MLB season.

In Real Life: Chewing gum magnate and Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley decided, in 1942, to start a women's pro softball league, concerned that the 1943 major-league season might be canceled because of World War II.

In Reel Life: During a newsreel clip, the narrator (Harry Shearer, who you may know as Spinal Tap's Derek Smalls or as the voice of Monty Burns, Smithers, Ned Flanders, Principal Seymour Skinner, Otto Mann, Reverend Timothy Lovejoy, Dr. Julius Hibbert, Kent Brockman, Jasper, Lenny, Eddie, Ranier 'McBain' Wolfcastle, Scratchy, Kang, Dr. Marvin Monroe and others in "The Simpsons") says, "Harvey's promotional wiz kid, Ira Lowenstein, has been given the task of how to keep baseball going."

In Real Life: Cubs assistant GM Ken Sells, who became the league's president, was probably the model for Lowenstein.

In Reel Life: Geena Davis plays Dottie Hinson, who becomes the biggest star in the league.

In Real Life: Davis, a late pick for the role of Dottie, wasn't much of a ballplayer, but she is an accomplished archer. She took up archery in 1997, and competed in the 1999 Olympic trials. She is also a board member of the Women's Sports Foundation. At the Foundation's website, Davis says, "It wasn't until 'A League of Their Own' that I realized I had a natural, but untapped athletic talent inside me."

In Reel Life: Sisters Kit Keller (Lori Petty) and Dottie Hinson play fast-pitch softball for a Lukash Dairy team in the "Willamette Valley League," and there's a pretty good crowd.

In Real Life: Women's softball was enormously popular in the 1940s, and often drew good crowds. In June 1943, Time magazine estimated there were 40,000 women's softball teams in the U.S., including popular touring clubs such as Barney Ross' Adorables and Slapsie Maxie's Curvaceous Cuties.

Tom Hanks, Geena Davis
Geena Davis, right, discovered her natural athletic talents on the set with Tom Hanks.
In Reel Life: During the softball game, Dottie tells Kit there's a big hole on the right side, and advises her to pull the ball.

In Real Life: Kit's a right-handed hitter, so if she pulls the ball, she ain't hittin' it where they ain't, she's hitting it to the left side.

In Reel Life: Ernie Capadino, a baseball scout (Jon Lovitz), likes what he sees at the softball game, and comes to the dairy to offer Dottie a job. "They'll pay you $75 a week," he says. "We only make $30 at the dairy," says Kit.

In Real Life: The average full-time worker made $1,299 a year in the 1940s, according to one estimate -- or about $25 a week. Players in the AAGBBL made between $50 and $125 a week during a three-month, 108-game season. Phyllis "Sugar" Koehn, who played for the Comets, told the Chicago Tribune that she made $60 a week: "Twice the money I made on my job as a secretary at Oscar Mayer."

In Reel Life: Kit and Dottie take the train east and try out at "Harvey Park," with its ivy-covered outfield wall.

In Real Life: Even non-baseball fans can recognize that "Harvey Park" is Wrigley Field, where the league's final tryouts were held. The ivy was there in 1943 -- Bill Veeck, in 1937, had planted the 350 Japanese bittersweet plants and 200 Boston ivy plants at the base of the wall. Many of the outfielders are shown making catches near the ivy during tryouts, but, during one player's dramatic grab, the fence all of the sudden sheds its ivy, turns to wood, and fronts a stand of trees, rather than bleachers. Movie magic!

In Reel Life: The girls look like they can, indeed, play very good baseball.

Unfortunately for Madonna, this wasn't the "stance" her baseball coach was referring to.
In Real Life: In 1991, Sports Illustrated reported that shooting on the film started a year behind schedule because "the producers were unable to find enough prospects with credible baseball skills." Debra Winger was supposed to star as Dottie, and worked out with former Southern Cal coach Rod Dedeaux. (Winger dropped out, rumor had it, when she learned that Madonna would be in the movie.) Among the actresses tutored by St. John's baseball coach Joe Russo on the East Coast, in preparation for tryouts for the movie, were Madonna, Joan Jett, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, Brooke Shields and Uma Thurman.

When Russo first told Madonna to "take your stance," she asked, "What's a stance?" But, Russo told SI, Madonna had "great potential." Russo added that his main job in working with the actresses was "to make sure they don't throw like girls. A lot of them do, you know."

In Reel Life: The players seem to be very supportive of each other, with a "we're all in this together attitude," even during the tryouts.

Once she figured out how to stand, Madonna actually had a decent swing.
In Real Life: Brenda Feigen, who helped establish Ms. Magazine (among many other accomplishments on the front lines of the feminist movement), wrote in her autobiography that Penny Marshall stole the idea for the movie from her. "The world may think that Penny Marshall is thoughtful on women's issues (but) in reality, she screwed another woman just the way the worst male directors do," wrote Feigen in "Not One of the Boys: Living Life as a Feminist."

In Reel Life: It's explained at tryouts that there will be four teams with 16 players on each team.

In Real Life: There were four teams -- the Rockford (Ill.) Peaches, Racine (Wis.) Belles, Kenosha (Wis.) Comets, and South Bend (Ind.) Blue Sox. Each team had 15 players, a manager, and a chaperone.

In Reel Life: During tryouts (and later, during a game), "All The Way" Mae Mordabito (played by Madonna) slides headfirst into third.

In Real Life: "I never, ever remember anybody sliding headfirst," said Shirley Burkovich, who played for the Peaches and other teams, in 1992.

In Reel Life: During the tryouts and in games, the players pitch overhand, and play on what look like regulation diamonds with regulation-size hardballs.

In Real Life: Play in 1943 was a weird hybrid of softball and baseball, and the league was initially called the All-American Girls Softball League (early in the first season the name was changed to All American Girl's Baseball League). The ball was 12 inches in circumference -- the same size as a softball -- and pitchers threw underhand from 40 feet away. It was 65 feet between bases. Unlike in softball, players could slide and steal bases.

The rules changed throughout the league's 11-year history. In 1948, pitchers were first allowed to throw the ball -- now 10 3/8 inches -- overhand, from 50 feet away. By the league's last season, the ball was 9 inches, the same as a regulation baseball, and pitchers threw 60 feet (not 60 feet, 6 inches) to home plate. The bases in 1954 were 85 feet apart.

In Reel Life: The players protest against their uniforms, which are short dresses.

In Real Life: Many of the players resented the charm and beauty requirements for playing in the league, including the uniforms, which (as accurately depicted in the film) often left their legs bruised and bleeding. The uniforms, which resembled the outfits worn by female figure skaters of the era (with the additions of satin tights, knee-high socks and baseball hats), were designed by Otis Shepard, Wrigley's art designer.

In Reel Life: When Mae protests that there are no pockets in her uniform for cigarettes, the rules are laid out: No smoking, no drinking, and no men. All "social engagements" must be approved by the team chaperone.

In Real Life: Those were the rules. The average age of the first batch of players was about 20, and most were away from home on their own for the first time. Many of the players were still underage.

"They were strict," Betty Trezza, who played for the Belles, told Newsday in 1992. "We weren't allowed to drink, among other things. But you have to understand when I first started I was 18, and I wasn't one to drink anyway, like a lot of the young girls. I think the wildest thing we ever did was if our manager threw us a party if we did well, he might buy a case of beer. For 15 girls, it doesn't go too far."

In Reel Life: Rosie O'Donnell, one of the world's most famous lesbians, plays tough third baseman Doris Murphy, a former dance hall bouncer. During a scene in which the girls go out to the "Suds Bucket" to dance, O'Donnell cuts in on Mae, practically tackling her (male) partner in the process. After they're done dancing, the man strokes Doris' hair and kisses her, but she seems indifferent.

In Real Life: One of Wrigley's main concerns in promoting the league was to avoid the image of the best barnstorming women's softball teams -- "short-haired, mannishly dressed toughies," as described by Jack Fincher in a 1989 Smithsonian article. In other words, Wrigley wanted to distance the league from suspicions of lesbianism.

In Reel Life: The girls go to charm school, where they are given lessons on drinking coffee ("Sip. Down. Don't slurp."), walking with books on their heads, and sitting.

In Real Life: Charm school was part of spring training during the league's first three seasons. Players were instructed on the application of makeup, proper manners, and "graceful social deportment at large." Players were also given "A Guide for All American Girls," which included, among other information, a list of what should be included in their "beauty kit":

  • cleansing cream
  • lipstick
  • rouge -- medium
  • cream deodorant
  • mild astringent
  • face powder for brunette
  • hand lotion
  • hair remover

Hanks' Jimmie Dugan sounds a lot like the real-life story of Jimmie Foxx.
In Reel Life: Jimmie Dugan (played by Tom Hanks) is a "fall-down drunk" whose career was ended by a knee injury that he got after setting a fire at a hotel and then jumping out the window. Jimmy says he hit 484 home runs for Harvey's ball club, and at the end of the movie, in the Hall of Fame, there's a "tribute" sign featuring the fictional Dugan, saying that he hit 58 home runs in 1936. It also says that Dugan played third base and was born in 1906 and died in 1987.

In Real Life: Although the filmmakers insist that all characters, including Dugan, are fictional (weren't you fooled by Harvey the candy bar man?), Dugan bears a striking similarity to Jimmie Foxx, who managed briefly in the league. Foxx, a Hall of Famer, played in the majors from 1925 to 1945, mostly for the Athletics and Red Sox. Foxx was a first baseman, but played 141 games at third. In his best season, 1932, he hit 58 home runs, drove in 169, and compiled a .364 batting average and .469 on-base percentage. Foxx hit 534 home runs in his career. He was known for his drinking and died in 1967, at the age of 59.

In Reel Life: There are only a few fans at the first game, and, overall, the crowd is a hostile one that makes fun of the players. Witty heckling abounds. For example, one "fan" cries: "Hey, glamour puss, can you throw the ball?"

In Real Life: Most fans knew from the start that the girls could play, and were supportive. Still, the league handbook addressed common misperceptions that the players might have to deal with, and noted, "All of the more vigorous forms of play and exercise have been looked upon with more or less disapproval." The League felt it necessary to inform the players that there was no evidence, as widely believed, that play of a "strenuous nature" would interfere with childbearing, and no evidence that "rougher sports will destroy 'femininity.' "

In Reel Life: Dugan chews out Evelyn, his right fielder, and she starts to cry. Dugan says, "There's no crying. There's no crying in baseball. Rogers Hornsby was my manager, and he called me a talking pile of pigs---. I didn't cry."

In Real Life: Ballplayers cry all the time. Lou Gehrig cried on the day he was honored at Yankee Stadium. Mike Schmidt cried when he retired. Kirby Puckett and Bill Mazeroski cried on the day they were inducted into the HOF. Mike Hampton cried when he was honored as Houston Astros MVP. Luis Tiant cried after Bucky Dent hit his famous homer. And just about every fan of good television shed a few tears when the movie was made into a series in 1993 -- Penny Marshall and Tom Hanks directed episodes of the mercifully short-lived attempt to extend the League "brand" to the small screen.

In Reel Life: All of the games in the movie are played during the day, and a radio announcer, who is being broadcast over the stadium's PA system, laments Rockford's scant attendance. Ellen Sue Gotlander, the "former Miss Georgia" who plays shortstop and pitcher for the Peaches, keenly observes, "People better start showing up. If we don't have fans, we don't have a league."

In Real Life: Most AAGPBL games were played at night (including the first night game at Wrigley Field, an all-star game on July 1, 1943). In 1943, the league drew about 210,000 fans, or an average of about 1,000 a game. By 1948, the expanded league's 10 teams drew about 900,000 million, but by 1954, attendance dropped to only 270,000, dooming the league to extinction.

In Reel Life: Attendance soars as the players start hotdogging: Dottie does a split while catching a pop foul, Mae catches a fly ball in her cap, and Doris, leaning into the stands to catch a ball, also grabs a hot dog in her mouth.

In Real Life: Madonna's showboat move might have pleased the fans, but it would not have resulted in an out -- for a fly ball to be an out the catch must be made in the hand or glove. In fact, the use of the cap is specifically prohibited. In any case, "Stuff like that never went on," said Dorothy Schroeder, who played all 12 seasons. "We were deadly serious about our game." But one player, Faye Dancer, was an early version of Ozzie Smith, cartwheeling and backflipping her way to the outfield.

A League of Their Own
"League" follows the travels of the Rockford Peaches through the four-team AAGPBL.
In Reel Life: After the league gains in popularity, the girls start to attract male admirers.

In Real Life: The players called their groupies, who did exist, "Clubhouse Clydes" or "Locker Room Leonards."

"Wherever we were, guys used to hang outside our hotel, hollering up to us," Helen Callaghan St. Aubin (mother of former Astro Casey Candaele) said in 1992. "We'd throw our bras down to them." All-American Girls gone wild, indeed.

In Reel Life: Madonna plays "All the Way" Mae, her nickname a reference to her "loose" ways.

In Real Life: AAGBBL veteran Marge Cryan told the Orange County Register in 1992 that one of her teammates resembled Mae: "She had a beau in every town, and she liked to entertain them in her room. That caused some problems."

In Reel Life: In a very short scene toward the end of the movie, a black woman on the sidelines picks up an errant ball and throws it hard and straight to Dottie.

In Real Life: Black women were banned from playing in the AAGPBL throughout its 12-year existence, even though Major League Baseball was integrated in 1947. Apparently the "All" in "All-American Girls" was just a figure of speech.

In Reel Life: Betty Spaghetti gets a telegram from the War Department telling her that her husband, George, has been killed. The Western Union delivery man, noting the awkwardness of the moment, says, "The least they can do is send someone official."

In Real Life: During World War II, the person designated by the soldier to be notified in case of emergency would receive a telegram from the Army Adjutant General, with a short note of regret and basic facts about the death. Often telegrams would arrive weeks after a death had occurred. It wasn't until the Vietnam War that survivors would receive a personal visit from a military "casualty notifier," after which they'd receive official notification via telegram.

In Reel Life: Near the end of the movie, Dugan softens up and signs a baseball for a kid, who reads it out loud: "Avoid the clap, Jimmy Dugan."

In Real Life: Gonorrhea ("the clap") and other sexually transmitted diseases were a major concern for the military during World War II, and someone like Dugan would have been well aware of the affliction, and its prevalence. According to the American Heritage dictionary, the term probably comes from the Old French term "clapier," meaning brothel.

In Reel Life: Before a World Series game, Dugan leads a prayer. "Uh, Lord, hallowed be Thy name. May our feet be swift; may our bats be mighty; may our balls ... be plentiful. Lord, I'd just like to thank You for that waitress in South Bend. You know who she is -- she kept calling Your name. And God, these are good girls, and they work hard. Just help them see it all the way through. OK, that's it."

In Real Life: Dugan, like many semi-religious folk, came up with his own variation on the "Our Father" prayer. As paraphrased by St. Francis of Assisi, what's asked for in the standard prayer are less material things: a better knowledge of God, greater love for neighbors, and so on. The prayer usually ends with the familiar refrain, "And lead us not into temptation: hidden or obvious, sudden or unforeseen. But deliver us from evil: Present, past, or to come. Amen."

In Reel Life: Racine beats Rockford in the first "Women's World Series," which goes seven games.

In Real Life: Racine beat Kenosha to win the league's first championship in a best-of-five series.

In Reel Life: In the film's nauseating "coda," we're brought back to the present. AAGBBL veterans reunite at Cooperstown for the opening of an exhibit about the league. A man named Bob gives a short speech before a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and says, "It's taken many years, but you are the first women ever to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame."

In Real Life: The Baseball Hall of Fame recognized the women with a permanent "Women in Baseball" exhibit in 1988. None of the players were "inducted" into the Hall, although some would like to think it was so:

"Some (players) are granting to themselves a status not officially conferred," writes Susan E. Johnson in "When Women Played Hardball." "They routinely refer to themselves as having been 'inducted into the Hall of Fame.' This is not so on several counts, and the Players Association attempts to educate players about this, often to little avail." Perhaps the impact of a major motion picture erroneously proclaiming their induction has had an impact.

"Closer Look" will be a regular Page 2 feature, exploring a hot sports topic in greater detail.



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