Penny Marshall, director of the movie “A League of Their Own” and many others, died Monday night. I met her in 1989 when she contacted me after she watched a documentary I made about my mother and my aunt who were both professional baseball players in the 1940s. They were part of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, which filled a gap when the players in the men’s major leagues went to war; the women’s league lasted from 1943 to 1954. Marshall turned the AAGPBL story into the highest grossing baseball film in Hollywood history.
Marshall loved baseball and understood that while Major League Baseball is big business today, there remains something pure and playful about the game. She wanted to capture that, along with making a statement about women and their talents. In her autobiography, whose cover showed Marshall outfitted in catcher’s gear, she described the barriers and sexism she faced from the male executives who doubted her abilities.
Studio executives, according to Marshall, at first dismissed “A League of Their Own” as “that girl’s movie.” Marshall saw it as a film about empowerment and pride with wide appeal. “Greatness wasn’t a men’s only club,” she wrote in her book. “A League of Their Own” went on to take in more than $100 million and was picked by the National Film Registry as an American “treasure.”
Marshall approached directing like a good coach. She wanted a “team” with the same passions she had.
Marshall recruited USC’s Rod Dedeaux, one of the greatest college baseball coaches ever, to “audition” hopeful actresses by running them through drills at the Trojans’ practice field. If they couldn’t throw and run and slide, they couldn’t be in the movie. Eventually Geena Davis, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell and some local female athletes were given a chance to display their skills. Madonna got her role because she was “trainable,” Marshall said.
The final scene of “A League of Their Own” takes place at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Marshall had decided to bring a number of the former women’s league ballplayers there to shoot at the Hall of Fame’s exhibit honoring the AAGPBL. She built up the set into a much larger and significant shrine than the one that actually exists at the hall. She invited the former players to be in the film to make sure the audience understood the story was real, the league was real, and that real women played real baseball professionally.
My mom, Helen Callaghan — Geena Davis’ character Dottie Hinson was loosely based on her — was the AAGPBL batting champion in 1945. She didn’t keep much memorabilia from her playing days, but she did have a worn-out leather glove that she liked to use whenever we played catch together when I was young. I took her to see Marshall’s film when it came out in the summer of 1992, not long before she died of cancer. She loved it and felt that Penny had “got it right.” But she added that she would never drop a ball on purpose — not for anyone — as Dottie does in the movie’s big-game climatic scene. It would have been a betrayal of her teammates.
Justine Siegal, founder of Baseball for All, which organized tournaments for 500 girls in 2018, told USA Today that her players have “memorized the movie.” One of the last surviving team members from the AAGPBL told the newspaper that “young, young girls” come up to her and say thank you.
All because of a movie, and Penny Marshall.