Sunday, July 01, 2012

In a League By Themselves

I have always been a devotee of history.

Even as a child, I read biographies (beginning with a series of biographies that were written especially for young people that I discovered in the public library in my hometown), and, as I got older, I branched out into other types of history–oriented books.

By the time I was in high school, I was reading scholarly treatments of important periods and events in history — works that probably were well beyond my years (certainly well beyond the years of most of my peers).

Anyway, this fondness for history extended into movies. I have never been able to resist a movie that was a re–creation (or at least perceived to be a re–creation) of an actual event — especially if it is an event of which I have little or no prior knowledge.

(That must be the reason why I liked "Quiz Show," the story of the quiz show scandal in the late 1950s. It was about an event that occurred before I was born. So, too, was "Eight Men Out," the story of the Chicago Black Sox scandal.)

"A League of Their Own," which made its debut 20 years ago today, thoroughly fit my bill.

Ordinarily, I suppose, I prefer a movie that tells the whole truth and doesn't invent anything for dramatic effect. I make allowances for small details, and I don't mind a fictional story using an actual event as its setting (i.e., "Titanic" in 1997) as long as the depiction of the actual event takes few, if any, liberties with the truth.

Tom Hanks' character in the movie was fictional, but it was inspired largely by two real–life ballplayers, Jimmie Foxx and Hack Wilson. Foxx actually did manage a team in the All–American Girls Professional Baseball League, but that was after World War II, and Hanks' character did have the same first name (but not the same surname).

Hanks' character probably had more in common with Wilson, though. Wilson struggled with alcohol like Hanks' character, he was considered colorful because of his off–field activities (read: fights) and his marriage ended in divorce.

When I saw "A League of Their Own," I already knew the stories of Jimmie Foxx and Hack Wilson. I worked on a metropolitan sports copy desk for more than four years, and some of the older guys on the staff were diehard baseball fans who never hesitated to share their recollections of the old–timers.

Through them, I even knew that Foxx had managed an AAGPBL team, but I didn't know any more than that. For that matter, I didn't know anything more about the girls' baseball league — other than the basic facts that it had existed in the 1940s and 1950s (again, before my time) and it didn't exist anymore.

So I enjoyed learning something about the league, even if the story was almost entirely fictional.

Something else was fictional, too.

I guess everyone remembers Hanks telling a sniffling player, "There's no crying in baseball!" The American Film Institute ranks it 54th on its list of the Top 100 movie quotes.

It's a good line, and Hanks delivered it well, but it isn't true. I played baseball as a boy, and I saw other players — in baseball and in other sports — break down in tears following a loss, be it narrow or decisive.

The "thrill of victory and agony of defeat" wasn't just some promotional line. If you want to see just how emotional people can get about victory and defeat, tune in to the Summer Olympic Games in about four weeks.

I suppose, though, that "There's no crying in baseball!" line would be entirely appropriate if applied to Geena Davis' character, the star player and Hanks' virtual co–manager. She really didn't care about winning and losing. She only came to the AAGPBL's tryouts so her kid sister would get the chance.

The thing she did care about was the safe return of her husband from World War II. When he did come home, she dissolved into tears in his arms and left the team the following day.

But she also had her moments of regret.

I'll admit, there were times when I thought the story was a little too predictable, but, in general, I thought Penny Marshall did a decent job of directing. And the presentations of women who felt torn by their changing roles in society were honest and faithful to the women of that time.

When your project is the re–creation of an historical event or period, you can only take liberties for so long and with so much. (In the early 1990s, I remember hearing the politically correct folks of that day complaining about all the smoking in "JFK," and, a few years later, the same people complained about the smoking in "Apollo 13" — but the truth was that you couldn't do a realistic portrayal of those time periods without showing many adults smoking.)

Marshall could have used the opportunity to present an alternate reality, to make a feminist statement, but it wouldn't change the truth about life in the 1940s. That's a story that needed to be told.

And the truth was that, during World War II, women did take on new tasks and responsibilities that, previously, had been reserved for men.

But the men were in Europe or the Pacific. Someone had to, er, uh, step up to the plate.

When the AAGPBL was formed, it was filling a void left by the pro baseball players who had entered military service. When it became clear that the baseball players would be returning, many of the women of the AAGPBL went back to their homes and their domestic duties. And, for them, I suppose, their lives went on pretty much as they had before the war interrupted.

Some were not satisfied with that, though, not after experiencing life as a bread winner.

"A League of Their Own" was about a step forward for women — before anyone really knew about feminism.

To present it as a time of something that it really was not — a radical shift in societal gender roles, say — would have done the league and the women who played in it a disservice.

It wouldn't have been honest. It wouldn't have told the truth — and, in this case, at least, truth really was stranger than fiction.

The fiction that was written for the story was the harmless kind of fiction that, by and large, contributed to (rather than detracting from) the facts.

And, even after two decades, it is still a great summertime story — as just about any movie about baseball is, in my opinion.

On a hot summer night, I can do worse than watching something like "Bull Durham," "Field of Dreams" or "Pride of the Yankees."

Likewise, I can do worse than watching "A League of Their Own." Much worse.