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raceAhead: Penny Marshall’s Enduring Legacy

Laverne and Shirley - Opening Titles - 1976, Penny Marshall.ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

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.

On Point

Please give Riche­lieu Den­nis all the awardsDen­nis, 48, is the founder and CEO of Sun­dial Brands, which makes and distributes beauty products for women of color. This summer, as CEO of Essence Ventures, he made good on his promise to launch a $100 million fund to invest in black women entrepreneurs. And now, he’s saving what should have already been a national treasure and building on its unique promise. Earlier this year, he secretly bought the 34-room mansion that once belonged to Madam C. J. Walker, the black en­tre­pre­neur who made a for­tune sell­ing beauty prod­ucts to black women in the late 1800s. Villa Lewaro, in Irvington, NY, will be turned into a training center and retreat for black women company founders who need the support. This man…I can’t finish, I’ve got something in my eye…The Hudson Independent

The fastest growing women-owned co-working and social space raises a Series C
The Wing was already pretty happening before the raise; it launched in 2016 with one location, it now has five, with six more planned, including London and Toronto. The Series C round raised $75 million, bringing its total investment to $117.5 million. But a diverse group of bold-faced names also signed on to help build the company. Kerry Washington, Valerie Jarrett, and political consultant Hilary Rosen are all angel investors via their involvement in Time’s Up, and women pro-soccer players who also advocate for equal pay invested as well. The Wing offers programming and community-building along with their workspaces, and have launched a magazine and podcast.

We will now finally get to personally witness the magic of Bozoma Saint John
Saint John, who has become a marketing celebrity of sorts thanks to her high profile gigs at PepsiCo, Beats, Apple, Uber, and now at Endeavor, is set to star and produce an upcoming documentary series called Bozoma: Being Badass on the Starz network. She tells Fast Company to expect a cross between Anthony Bourdain: Parts UnknownMister Rogers, and The Oprah Winfrey Show, a hybrid style show which will straddle her professional life and her personal passions, including the challenges of being a single, working mother and widow.
Fast Company

A Mississippi paper vows to change the way it covers crime
The Sun Herald, a daily paper which serves South Mississippi, has long enjoyed the clicks and ad cash derived from its crime coverage, which also included a mug shot gallery. But the crime content was overrepresented from the start: While other beat reporters may have needed more time to complete stories, crime updates were the most reliable daily contributions. “So, I’ve directed our reporters to ask themselves a few questions before they report a crime story,” says the editor, including an assessment of true newsworthiness. They’ve also eliminated the mug shots. “[I]t was a popular part of our website. But the mugshot stayed a part of people’s lives forever, whether they were convicted or not.” Excellent news.
Sun Herald


The Woke Leader

The kindness of strangers are keeping asylum-seekers alive
Jamie Lynn Goodwin, a PhD candidate at the University of Indiana at Purdue, is conducting research on how immigrants and asylum-seekers rely on informal networks for information and assistance. “Whether migrants arrive in large groups or on their own,” she writes, “I believe this largely unseen generosity is keeping many of them from going hungry and homeless and enhancing their personal safety in precarious conditions.” They need the help: There are approximately 319,000 people with pending asylum cases in the US, people who are not being physically detained by the government and have no legal way to access any safety net services.
The Conversation

Here’s what teams need to succeed
Spoiler alert: You’re probably not going to like it. A six-year study released last fall has found that one skill, “the ability to manage conflicting tensions” is the best predictor of top team performance. It gets worse. Top teams also believe that conflict isn’t just unavoidable, it’s necessary. They embrace diversity and healthy debate, believing that “conflict requires conviction, and that conviction must be grounded in something worth at least listening to.”

Building more meaningful relationships with an audience
Here’s a thoughtful primer from Poynter on how to build a deeper relationship with the community you serve. The non-profit institute focuses on the future of journalism, but the advice is good for everyone: Think about stories from their perspective. Sounds simple, but it starts with the language you use to describe them. For media organizations, that means understanding your traffic, followers, subscribers, and commenters. But the tactic works across industries, particularly now that everyone is a publisher. And we can all listen better. Make sure you’re “keeping track, in some formal or informal way, of the knowledge gained when employees across all parts of the organization interact with current or potential audience members.”


I never threw an illegal pitch. The trouble is, once in a while I would toss one that ain’t never been seen by this generation.