The truth about “A League of Their Own” isn’t necessarily stranger than fiction but it might be more interesting.
Definitely not as entertaining, though.
This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the premiere of the movie that gave us “There’s no crying in baseball,” a reliably funny and adaptable line (take out “baseball” and substitute any sport, or any endeavor or situation) that never gets old.
Purists might complain “A League of Their Own” is fiction posing as fact, and highly glossed, Hollywood-style fiction at that, loosely based on the World War II-era All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and often resembling a TV sitcom with one-liners galore, broadly drawn characters and farcical confrontations.
Film buffs might counter with “Chill, dude” or some similar response. A good baseball movie is a good movie, and “A League of Their Own” is at least as genuinely laugh out loud as “Bull Durham” or “Major League,” as sentimental as “Field of Dreams” and as melodramatic as “The Natural.” Plus, its story is socially progressive, about female athletes way ahead of their time, transcending gender stereotypes and making their mark in the world (or at least in second-tier Midwestern towns).
Applied to “A League of Their Own,” it would seem there’s room to appreciate both fact and fiction.
In 1988, Kelly Candaele and Kim Wilson wrote a nonfiction account of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and Candaele produced a documentary, called “A League of Their Own,” which was shown on PBS. (Incidentally, Candaele is the son of Helen Callaghan and nephew of Marge Callaghan, sisters who played in the women’s baseball league. Candaele is also the brother of Casey Candaele, who played in the major leagues from 1986 to ’97.)
Penny Marshall picked up the story and produced and directed a 1992 theatrical movie out of it, also called “A League of Their Own,” with a script — a potboiler with charismatic characters — by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel.
Fact: Philip Wrigley, chewing gum mogul and owner of the Chicago Cubs, founded the women’s baseball league in 1943, when the major leagues were largely drained of talent by the war’s military manpower requirements.
Fiction: In the movie, Wrigley becomes Walter Harvey, a candy bar mogul and big-league team owner, played by Garry Marshall as a hard-core businessman with a heart.
Fact: With the war coming to an end in 1945, Wrigley cut his ties to the league, and public relations executive Arthur Meyerhoff took it over.
Fiction: In the movie, David Strathairn plays Ira Lowenstein, a league PR man who cajoles Harvey not to shut it down.
Fact: Former major-league stars and future Hall of Famers Max Carey and Jimmie Foxx managed teams in the women’s league.
Fiction: In the movie, Tom Hanks plays Jimmy Dugan, modeled after Foxx. While Foxx may have been as profane as Hanks’ Dugan, it’s unlikely he was as adept at broad comedy (Hanks competing with the Geena Davis character in giving signs to a batter; as a hung-over Dugan spending more time at a clubhouse urinal than in strategic thought; Hanks chewing out a player for throwing to the wrong base, then delivering the “there’s no crying in baseball” line).
Fact: Even though the women’s league was created as a wartime stopgap until the “real” ballplayers returned from war, the league lasted 12 seasons (and through another war, in Korea), with its peak year coming in peacetime 1948, when the combined paid attendance nearly reached one million.
Fiction: In the movie, only the inaugural season of 1943 is dramatized, with hardly a hint that the league would last another 11 years.
Fact: Claire Schillace, Faye Dancer, Dorothy Ferguson, Joanne Winter and Dorothy Kamenshek were unglamorous and virtually unknown even in their prime as pioneers and superstars of women’s baseball.
Fiction: In the movie, team leaders are either glamorous (Geena Davis), wise-cracking (Rosie O’Donnell) or glamorous and wise-cracking and fabulous dancers (Madonna).
Fact and Fiction: Where the movie got it exactly right were the so-called charm classes the female ballplayers were required to attend and the mandatory short-skirt uniforms that exposed players’ legs to scrapes, bruises and bloody abrasions.
The movie also got it right in that the Racine Belles defeated the Rockford Peaches for the league’s first championship, although it’s unlikely that the series ended when a player completed an inside-the-park homer by crashing into her rival older sister, who’s trying to tag her out at home plate.
So here’s a question from one of the film’s biggest fans who has often wondered: Did Kit Keller (played by Lori Petty) force the ball out of the catcher’s glove with her aggressive slide? Or did Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) let her kid sister have her longed-for and hard-earned moment in the sun?