'League': three cheers for the girls of summer

July 01, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Here's a fundamental truth of baseball: the ball doesn't care who hits it.

It goes, according to the laws of physics, where it's supposed to go and the whimsy of its destiny is determined by the strength of the blow that launched it, a gust of air, a pebble on the field, the sun in the sky -- and never the gender of the hitter or the pitcher.

So when the women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League pitched and threw and hit, what they were playing was not girls' baseball, but baseball baseball, country hardball, the national pastime, as "A League of Their Own" makes clear.

The movie takes off from an obscure bit of game arcana: that in 1944, Chicago Cubs owner Philip Wrigley worried that further manpower needs of the war effort might cut so deeply into major league baseball that the season would have to be suspended. Thus he created an alternate attraction, hoping to prevent his audience from losing contact with the game: the woman's hardball baseball league, which played a competitive (skirts and all) variant on the game in a number of minor league parks in the rTC Midwest. The league lasted until 1954.

Penny Marshall's new movie is an evocation of that time and those places, and it chronicles the events of the league's first year with a light whitewash of fiction. (The Waspy drone Wrigley, surely Chicago's least charismatic citizen, becomes a Bronx dynamo named Harvey, founder of a candy, not a chewing gum, fortune.) But basically, this is a pure sports movie, following the well-worn path of other such films, beginning with the recruitment of a couple of players and taking them through tryouts to the season to the world series. And of course, it maneuvers us toward an ultimate confrontation straight out of sports-movie canon. But the movie has been constructed with such grace and joy and such a high degree of psychological acumen and all of its elements so seamlessly melded that it's a thing of beauty.

Of course the overall thrust is feminist: this is a coming-of-wisdom parable, somewhat like (though much better than) Goldie Hawn's "Swing Shift." It's about a group of women who suddenly begin to explore pleasures and powers known only to men and therefore begin to understand that such things aren't the exclusive rights of any one gender, particularly as their sense of competence and self-worth soars.

The movie focuses on the Keller sisters, two strapping farm girls from Oregon who could throw and hit as well as another natural, Roy Hobbs. Dotty Keller Hinson, the eldest, has a bit more talent and strength; Kit, the youngest, has consequently developed a chip on her shoulder the size of Gibraltar. The sibling tension gives the movie its emotional core. The two women are played by Geena Davis and Lori Petty in two super performances, especially Davis, whose strength carries the whole project.

Writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, two .350 hitters in the Hollywood comedy league, do a wonderful job finding the poignancy and the humor in the league. It was entirely sexist in conception, of course, preferring players with good legs to players who could hit a curveball and this irony is never far from the surface, but anyone who watched the games soon came away with nothing but respect for the guts and talents of the players. The writers get a great, but sad, laugh out of Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh), with the hand-eye of Mr. Ruth and the face of Mr. Ed; they have a sweet little moment where a black woman, still excluded, picks up an errant baseball and fires it back with enough velocity to strike out Murderer's Row, and Dottie and Kit catch just a glimpse of how much talent lurks in other exiled precincts of America.

Another superb touch finds Tom Hanks as a drunken Jimmy Foxx-clone, a 58-dinger alkie given the manager's job as a gimmick; like all the other exiles, he finds his own private salvation in green fields of possibility that is the AAGPBL. Director Penny Marshall is savvy enough (and unintimidated enough) not to make too much out of Madonna; the pop singer is an agreeable minor presence, part of a Mutt n' Jeff act with Rosie O'Donnell that makes for a few good laughs but never gets out of control.

But the best thing about "A League of Their Own" is how vividly it re-creates the great American tribal passion of the game, and ++ draws us all in, and makes us celebrate our common purpose and our individual differences. It's a wonderful summer movie.

'A League of Their Own'

Starring Tom Hanks and Geena Davis.

Directed by Penny Marshall.

Released by Columbia.

Rated PG.

*** 1/2

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