Are You in a League of Your Own?
Sometimes a movie is just a movie. Sometimes, it speaks to far larger societal issues. For my part, this the case with the sweet, sentimental, very funny but also bittersweet 1992 movie A League of Their Own, which tells the true story of the beginning of women’s professional sports leagues in America.
I ordered it from Amazon last week. When it arrived, I promptly played it. And remembered why I loved it the first time around.
If you missed this lollipop of a good time, don’t. Find it and watch it. Not only are Madonna (you wanna see an athlete? watch the bar dance scene) and Rosie O’Donnell gut-busting hilarious and, forgive me, pitch perfect, but the story speaks to the price so many women have paid to follow their dreams. To be athletes. Different.
When our patriotic boys, including professional baseball’s top player like Joe DiMaggio, signed up to take Hitler on in the 1940s, America was in sore need of good news. Suddenly our summer past time was in danger of being cancelled. Some wag got the idea that since girls were already working in the factories, perhaps they could also play ball.
They sure as hell could. Of course they could. You could try out: at least if you were young, white and pretty at least. Mostly.
That story, of course, is now baseball Hall of Fame history. However League speaks eloquently to some of the larger, underlying issues that this movement began. Women had to sell their sexiness to get spectators when the point was that they were damned good baseball players.
The Rockford Peaches, and all their sisters, effectively paved the way for the best soccer team in the world. Ours. All these other teams.
When I was growing up in Central Florida, only a few years after the nascent AAGPBL had folded in 1954 (after all, we don’t need them any more do we?), I could throw one mean forty-yard spiral with the best of the boys. There was nowhere for a girl like me to go. It cost me dates. I was expected to do what the film’s lead character Dottie Henson did: play a little, not seriously, then go back home to the kitchen when her husband returned from the war.
Men weren’t the only ones to return from the war. In a piece of very little-known and acknowledged history, some 1100 badass female pilots also flew. Most had to wait, if they lived that long, until 1992, before the Air Force was forced to formally acknowledge they even existed. The rest got Medals of Honor. Damned right.
But back to sports.
Today, there are some 65 women’s professional football teams. Interestingly, in the first women’s team (in 1924) to play my favorite sport, the Frankford Yellow Jackets (which went on to be come the Philadelphia Eagles) had a women’s football team play at halftime. For a goof.
Careful what you make fun of, fellas.
Ice hockey. Football. Soccer. Baseball. Golf. Horse racing. Basketball. Wrestling. MMA. Race car driving. That’s the short list.
These women are fucking terrific. As we keep on finding out, there are certain sports, like endurance racing, where women actually are better.
Who knew? We have kids. We carry that weight and all the demands of our bodies for nine months. That’s just the beginning of that long inning.
We just had to scratch and claw and catwalk our way to our own sports legitimacy.
Not only this. Older women like the Colorado Peaches are also playing. They can’t sell sex. But they can pitch, hit run and play. Frankly, why the hell not?
Girls just wanna have fun.
They also want to beat the pants off the folks who want to take them on. How did that work out for ya against Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs?
There is a moment in League that is so exquisite, so prophetic that it still makes me cry. At one point a ball rolls next to the stadium where a tall, stately Black woman picks it throw it with such deadly accuracy and speed back to the pitcher, that the pitcher has to shake it off. Henson, playing catcher, looks at the Black woman with respect. This talented woman, banned from play AND relegated to the colored stands, nods back, all pride and grace and dignity. She should be on their team, and they all know it.
All that wasted talent. All those extraordinary athletes barred from competition and play because of color or gender.
Women who choose to be outliers when society has determined (with or without their permission) their proper role pay a hefty price. My personal muse, Beryl Markham, was one of the first female pilots in the world. Based in colonial Kenya in the ’20s, she flew throughout the bush and delivered medicine and acted as an ambulance, landing her tiny plane in places that no fool today would even consider attempting.
She also flew from Europe to North America- against the wind, the first person, not just the first woman, to attempt this feat.
At the age of 17, she took on Nairobi’s royal sport, horse racing, and won. She was the first woman to get a Kenyan training license. She trained inferior horses and beat the men at their own game. This was after her father left her to fend for herself in Africa when he headed to Peru. Such conditions extraordinary women make.
Markham was roundly ostracized. Even today, I read reviews of her memoirs which excoriate her for her affairs, her live-outside-the-lines life. What on earth threatens people so much about extraordinary women?
Indeed. We step over the lines that somebody else drew for us and they call foul.
In League, Dottie Henson (played by Gina Davis) loves the game, but is terrified that she might lose her husband to the war. After a fellow player does get the telegram, the appearance of Dotties’ beloved (played by the very young Bill Pullman) convinces her to drop what she loves best. While she does return for the World Series game, she ultimately quits while her younger sister Kit, the hero of the Series’ final game, continues her playing career.
In a key scene, two mothers bring a clutch of kids to see Kit, who is filthy and sweaty, to get her autograph.
This moment speaks to what women like me struggled with growing up: a dearth of role models. The little girls are gobsmacked to meet Kit.
Kit tells them to “get dirty.”
When I was a kid in Central Florida, nobody needed a 14-year-old chick with a killer spiral. As a Southerner in the Sixties, getting dirty was for low folk. Today, if you’re eighteen or older and you can play gridiron, there are plenty of places to get in someone’s face.
The Mile High Blaze is blazing a trail for women everywhere. The Denver Broncos finally, grudgingly, acknowledged their existence. There are 65 teams of women’s semi-professional, full-contact football. Like it not, it’s here. The oldest woman on the Blaze is more than 50.
Where else can a middle-aged gal shrug on her shoulder pads, knock the holy shit out of her opponents and not get thrown into jail (other than MMA and professional boxing, which has plenty of female comers?)
Great news: if you’re big, that’s even better. No thin-boned model type is going to make defensive tackle.
Even better, despite the fact that too many women’s college programs struggle for parity with men’s sports, women’s teams and individual contestants are filling seats. Audiences love them.
We can no longer say that women can’t play. Much of anything, for that matter.
The Dottie Henson character in League chose to go home. I chose to go play. My way. Both are perfectly valid choices. For my generation, it really was one or the other, even as women’s lib was heralded as the end of having to make one choice or the other. Because of our biology, we are still battling that bias.
Enter one Serena Williams, who battles back from nearly dying after pregnancy, to continue to win tournaments in her mid-thirties.
While I am no elite athlete, the role models I chose informed my willingness to pay the price, buck the norm and have the kind of life that speaks to my soul. Those women who are now breaking the model, like Caster Semenya, are redefining what it means to be an athlete, to be different. She terrifies folks. She should. She’s fucking awesome.
Semenya represents the future.
But to do so she has to bear the burden of the fear, the abuse, the unfair sanctions. Because she does, others won’t have to. That’s just one reason I so respect her.
Are you an outlier? Yearn to be one? Are you willing to pay the price, deal with the trolls and the disapproval and the isolation that comes with it?
There’s a deeply emotional scene at the end of Titanic where Rose, now a very old woman, is asleep in her cabin. The camera touches its loving fingers across photos of Rose with a horse, Rose as a pilot, Rose with a huge fish….the life she was able to live without her Great Love.
I have that life. No Great Love in mine either. That may well have been a statement of my timing. I loved myself enough to not trade marriage for a magnificent life.
Do we have to choose one over the other? Is the life of an outlier invariably a lonely one?
I don’t have that answer. I truly hope not.
In 2012, A League of Their Own was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Yes, it was. While fun, funny and sweet-smart as well as street-smart, League wasn’t just a tip of the hat to what was. It was a tipoff to what was coming.
It’s time to share the sandlot, boys. We’ve arrived, and more are coming.