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How ‘A League of Their Own’ impacted the way people see women in sports

The late legendary director Penny Marshall brought the AAGPBL to life in her fourth feature film.

“There’s no crying in baseball” is the quote, and A League of Their Own is the movie. It comes when Tom Hanks, in the role of usually-inebriated manager Jimmy Dugan, is berating one of the players on his team, the Rockford Peaches, and she starts crying. She starts crying, because all the players were women — just as they actually were in the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League.

The ubiquity of the phrase speaks to the 1992 movie’s impact: before the WNBA, before the NWSL, before U.S. women had become nearly unshakable internationally in soccer, basketball, and softball, there was a Hollywood blockbuster film about women playing professional sports that was based on a true story.

Actor and legendary director Penny Marshall rose to fame as Laverne of TV’s Laverne & Shirley. She died today at the age of 75. For her fourth feature film, she chose to tell the tale of the then little-known AAGPBL. Despite the fact that even the studios she had contracts with were reluctant to fund the project, she saw spreading the story as imperative.

“I saw a documentary about [the AAGPBL], and I didn’t even know it existed. And if I [didn’t] know, that means other people didn’t know, and I was going to change that,” Marshall explained in 2005. “And, yes, I had a deal with Fox at that time. But then I got signed to Sony from Fox, and they said, ‘We’ll even let you do that girls’ movie.’”

Sports movies were a well-established genre by the time A League of Their Own was released — one that almost completely excluded women. With the exception of Goldie Hawn as a fish-out-of-water high school football coach in 1986’s Wildcats, women in these films were mostly wives, sisters, mothers — any supporting figure that could stand and watch while men found absolution and camaraderie through sports.

In contrast, A League of Their Own told a story about women in sports that had little to do with men. In fact, men weren’t much more than set pieces. It was a real story about women and friendship and competition, told convincingly enough that the movie has become an enduring favorite outside of its status as a landmark for women in film. The movie frankly addresses sexism, from the distinctly unhelpful short skirts AAGPBL players were required to wear, to how the men managing the teams had an overt preference for women they found attractive, to the dispiriting combination of hecklers and scant attendance the league faced in its early days. (Needless to say, it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.)

But its tone is rarely didactic, which makes the issues addressed — many of which are still relevant for women in professional sports today — even harder to ignore. At a time when Title IX was just 20 years old and any enduring women’s professional league was still years away, suddenly the challenges facing women in sports had Hollywood-sized heft. Plus, it gave women in sports some of the historical context they still sorely lack — evidence that women have loved and played sports for a long time, and people have enjoyed watching them play for just as long.

Marshall explained that the film was intended to make women’s issues everyone’s issues. “I hadn’t worked with so many women before,” she told the New York Times when the movie was released. “I thought it was something I should do. But I wasn’t doing it just to do a women’s picture. The problems as they’re presented in the movie apply to both men and women. It’s about, ‘Don’t be ashamed of your talents.’ It’s a universal thing.”