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An Overlooked Baseball Movie to Begin a Season of Outdoor Films

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 13, 2011 6:40PM

2011_06_league.jpg Mere moments after the Dallas Mavericks defeated Lebron James and his hated Miami Heat to win the NBA Championship last night, television cameras caught the victorious Dirk Nowitzki and the defeated Chris Bosh trying to mask their tearful faces on their way to their respective locker rooms. Even in this relatively-enlightened era, professional athletes are loathe to display that kind of emotion, and we are likely to forgive only the tears of the champion. As if on cue, Chicago's summer of outdoor movies kicks off with an important message for Cubs fans: there's no crying in baseball.

Tom Hanks' delivery of that line is one of the most memorable baseball moments in movie history (along with Roy Hobbs home run into the lights in The Natural, Lou Gehrig's "I consider myself (myself) the luckiest man (man) on the face of the earth (the earth)" from Pride of the Yankees, and every frame of Bull Durham), but it should not overshadow the rest of what Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own has to offer. The story of an female professional baseball league created initially to maintain interest in the sport as the MLB's talent pool was thinned out due to World War II, both A League of Their Own and the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League captured much more attention than was anticipated. Nearly twenty years later, Geena Davis, Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell may not sound like a murderer's row of acting talent, but the film holds up among the better baseball movies ever made and remains remarkably enjoyable.

Hanks may lay it on a little bit thick (and we're not talking about the 30 pounds he is said to have gained for the role) as the washed-up star picked to manage the team as it competes in the four-team league, but like everything else Marshall orchestrates here, he somehow gets to the other side of the tightrope without falling into outright cliche or upsetting the balance of the ensemble. There may be Norman Rockwell-esque smudges of dirt on Geena Davis' baby doll face, but her embodiment of the no nonsense American sports hero, in complete command of her exceptional talents but disinterested in using them for any but the noblest goals, is pitch-perfect. Lori Petty plays Davis's overly competitive sister, with O'donnell's as a brash but good-neatured loudmouth, and Madonna as her precocious pal. The baseball on display is very convincing, the result of St. John's baseball coach Joe Russo's extensive training.

The women protest at the impractically feminized uniforms, bristle at having to attend charm school, are forced to drug a chaperone as like a bunch boarding school troublemakers just to have a night out to themselves, and have their jobs threatened once men start returning from the war. Yet the obvious primacy of their underlying motivation to play and win keeps the serious gender issues from weighing down the movie's lighthearted feel. While there is a real battle for equality played out on the diamond, it never feels heavier in tone than Major League. There is an undeniably gooey patina of sentimentality over the film and a some Greatest Generation "Aw shucks"-ist downplaying of wartime accomplishments, but Marshall keeps the ball racing around the horn. When motherhood and marriage find their way into the dugout, they are no more threats to success or the pursuit of the one's dreams than a well-executed double play.

The real-life mastermind of the AAGBL was Chicago's own P. K. Wrigley, and some important sequences in the film are appropriately filmed at Wrigley Field. Madonna famously hated her time in filming in Chicago, giving the city a rating of "double yuk" and quipping that "when God decided where the beautiful men were going to live in the world, he did not choose Chicago." We're glad she and everybody stuck it out. They ended up with an enjoyable film that doesn't turn its politics into a punchlines but also doesn't elide them for the sake of entertainment, a true rarity.

A League of Their Own screens outdoors at The Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., on Wednesday June 15 at dusk. Two other recommended outdoor screenings this week include Hitchcock classic North By Northwest tomorrow at Belmont Harbor and Peter Yates's thoroughly enjoyable teenage bicycling movie Breaking Away on Thursday at Balbo and Columbus. Download a PDF of the complete listing of Movies in the Parks schedule.