Just last week, 30-year-old Alyssa Nakken became the first woman to coach on the field during a Major League Baseball game. It’s a noteworthy milestone for its empowering inclusivity, and Nakken acknowledged that her role forever means that “girls can see there is a job on the field in baseball.” It’s also noteworthy, of course, that things like this shouldn’t have taken the better part of a century to come about in America, though that unfortunate reality shouldn’t overshadow the positive progress inherent in Nakken’s achievement. The glass ceiling is still intact, perhaps, but there’s a meaningful new chip in it.
When — not if — that ceiling is finally good and shattered, we might also look back on Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own, which brought to light the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League of the ’40s and ’50s. Now recognized as the forerunner of women’s professional sports leagues in the U.S., the AAGPBL was conceived as a societal distraction, more or less, while a sizable number of male American ballplayers were off at war. Four teams were formed, which eventually expanded to ten teams, and what might have been a single-season distraction grew and grew to a legitimate sport.
After the league was dissolved in 1954, though, it quickly slipped into obscurity and was disregarded by baseball archivists. It wasn’t until the 1980s when real efforts were made to track down surviving players, and it wasn’t until A League of Their Own hit theaters in 1992 that the AAGPBL regained its rightful place in history. “If it had not been for Penny Marshall, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League would still be unknown,” Shirley Burkovich, one of 79 surviving members of the league, told USA Today after Marshall’s passing in 2018. “It would have been known only to those who lived in that area at that time.”
One would hope that the AAGPBL would still have reentered the cultural lexicon one way or another even if A League of Their Own had been a lesser film or a box-office bomb. But it wasn’t, and to this day League stands as one of Marshall’s finest films. It’s less emotionally powerful than Awakenings and perhaps lacks some of the childlike wonder of Big, but it’s a much tighter narrative effort that juggles ten times as many characters as those earlier stories. And damn near every one of those characters is exceedingly memorable, cast perfectly and given ample time to shine amongst the ensemble.
If it seems overly quaint to label League as simply the best of the seven films Marshall directed, it’s likely due to the fact that League might also just be the best baseball movie ever made. So many films in that category focus on the single individual — male, of course — and the ultimate drive to be seen by the world as a “winner”. There’s incredible variance within that descriptor — Moneyball, The Natural, Field of Dreams, The Rookie, Rookie of the Year, etc. — but the general thrust is typically the same. Any straying from that character formula almost inexorably results, for whatever reason, in zany comedy: Bad News Bears, The Sandlot, Angels in the Outfield, Air Bud. This is all a major oversimplification of the genre, but the point is that A League of Their Own managed to retain real dramatic heft while still being an uproarious comedy, all while straying confidently away from the typical baseball movie narrative and focusing on an ensemble instead of a single character.
Although that familiar thread of the main character wanting to be seen by the world as a “winner” — that’s probably true of League, in a sense, if we were to psychoanalyze the idea of “winning” and hold it up against the idea of being fully, truly, unreservedly accepted by society. League depicts a too-short window of time where women stormed a supposedly-agreed-upon gender role reserved for men. It depicts society balking at the audacity of such a thing (men roll their eyes, of course, but the prim housewives of the ’50s are particularly aghast at the notion of a sportswoman). But in the end — even if it took decades after the AAGBPL was dissolved — the recognition those women deserved finally came around. The 9-inning games were won, yes, but these winners will forever hold up the normalcy of women’s baseball as their true trophy.
Alyssa Nakken’s break onto the field of the MLB is another step along the same path. While many young women today choose (or are encouraged toward) softball instead, the existence of that path to baseball is vital; as with any path, the more traffic treading along it, the more defined and easy-to-find it becomes for others. “She just loves to play,” someone says of one of the ballplayers in A League of Their Own. Knowing that this was all the rationale anyone should ever need to play a game, Penny Marshall revived a period of space and time, bound by packed bleachers and lit by stadium lights, where we could all catch a glimpse of equality.