Well-deserved tributes are pouring in for Penny Marshall, the comedic television star who became one of Hollywood’s most enduring and profitable female film directors. She died at 75 of complications from diabetes.
Her accomplishments are legion.
She was loved from the start, as the hilarious working girl-best friend Laverne in the 1970s sitcom hit Laverne and Shirley. Later as a filmmaker, she broke new ground and delighted crowds. In 1988, she became the first woman to ever direct a film that earned a $150 million gate (Big). In 1990, she became the second woman to ever direct a Best Picture nominee (Awakenings).
But many fans, including this one, remember with fondness the small ways Marshall forced us to look at the truth of the world, even as she made us laugh.
For me, one of the greatest of those Marshall moments came during A League of Their Own, the 1992 hit which may be one of the most undersung sports movies of all time.
If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s a bold and funny fictionalized account of the real women who played for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which started during World War II and hung on until 1954.
The real League’s only job was to keep the sport of professional baseball alive while the menfolk were at war, but it actually did much more for girls, women, and the future of sports. The film version was a great reminder of that background, plus it packed a real girl power punch, bringing Geena Davis, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, and Tom Hanks together with a host of others into a perfect ensemble cast. In period costumes!
Here’s the moment I treasure: The players are warming up before a game, and a ball gets past Dottie Hinson, the star catcher played by Davis. In the distance, we see three women and several men who are watching the pre-game maneuvers behind a fence; one of the women steps onto the field, picks up the stray ball, then fires it back like a rocket over Dottie’s head to another player downfield. The players are in awe.
The woman is black.
In the middle of a romp of a mainstream Hollywood movie, Marshall delivers an unexpected history lesson. Turns out the Girls Professional League, for all its trailblazing drama, was segregated.
The woman with the rocket-launching arm had to have been Mamie ‘Peanut’ Johnson, one of three black women who were good enough to play professional ball alongside the men in the Negro Leagues. She was the only female pitcher. “Those were some of the most enjoyable years of my life,” she said in a 1998 interview, according to The Washington Post’s most excellent obituary of Johnson. “Striking out the fellows made me happy.”
She was 17-years-old when she tried to earn a spot on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. “They looked at us like we were crazy,” Johnson said. “They wouldn’t even let us try out, and that’s the same discrimination that some of the other black ballplayers had before Mr. Robinson broke the barrier.”
In 1953, she was invited to try-out for the Indianapolis Clowns, the Negro League team that launched Hank Aaron’s career. She was on her way, but not alone: I’d like to think the two other black women in the film were meant to be the two women she eventually played with, infielder Toni Stone and Connie Morgan.
“Mamie could pitch, and Toni could hit,” former teammate Gordon Hopkins told The Washington Post in 1999. “It was no joke. It was no show. Somebody hit the ball down to Toni, Toni threw you out. Mamie, she was good.”
Toni Stone was so good, that when Hank Aaron was called up to the majors, she replaced him as the star infielder. She was so good, she once was the only batter who kept Satchel Paige from a no-hitter. (You can learn more fun facts about Toni Stone in this mini-documentary with her biographer, Martha Ackermann.)
There were many poignant moments in the cinematic League that discreetly commented on important truths like class, misogyny, even illiteracy. But Marshall must have known about the real League’s segregation policies. And she must have known these women’s names.
I admired her decision to include, albeit briefly, the people who should have been co-stars if the world were a slightly fairer place.
And I’d like to think that one day Marshall would have gotten around to a sequel starring Mamie, Toni, and Connie, three women who never got a league of their own but deserved one. Or maybe she thought that would be best left to someone else.
Either way, I sure hope someone makes it, and I definitely hope it’s as funny as the first one because Lord knows, there’s no crying in baseball.
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