There's No Crying Over These Secrets About A League of Their Own

You can't help but root, root, root for Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell and the other queens of the diamond in this sports classic. Now read about how the old ballgame came together.

By Sarah Grossbart Jan 21, 2024 11:00 AMTags
Watch: Happy Birthday Geena Davis: E! News Rewind

They were the members of the All-American League; they came from cities near and far. 

And their story—at least the fictionalized version told in famed director Penny Marshall's 1992 classic, A League of Their Own—was truly a hit. Starring Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Rosie O'Donnell and Madonna as athletes in the real life World War II-era All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (formed by chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley as a means of keeping parks such as Chicago's Wrigley Field filled with fans while MLB's stars fought overseas), it scored more than $107 million at the box office.

One of America's most beloved sports films, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2012. And if you've seen it, there's no chance you haven't uttered the phrase, "There's no crying in baseball!" at least once or, more realistically, dozens of times, in your life. 

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The cast knew Tom Hanks' standout line as washed up former baseball pro turned manager Jimmy Duggan, "was hella funny," Davis told USA Today in 2017. "But I didn't know that was going to be a classic. That line is a signature, right up there with 'Hasta la vista, baby.'"

Frankly, though, she never would have predicted they'd knock it so far out of the park.

"When I saw the film, I thought to myself, 'That came out well,'" Davis, who led the team as catcher and "Queen of Diamonds" Dottie Hinson, shared in ESPNW's 2017 oral history. "It was a shock to see just how well it was doing. It's always one of the top sports movies of all time. It's exciting to have been part of something that struck a cultural nerve and lived on in people's minds. It seems like everybody still grows up having seen that movie."


Because for all the stand-out one-liners ("Lay off the high ones!" "I like the high ones!") it was the film's premise that, as the tagline said, "a woman's place is at home...first, second and third," that truly landed.

"Seeing girls take up not just baseball but other sports because they were inspired by the movie is just amazing," said Davis, celebrating her 68th birthday Jan. 21, of knowing she's pretty much required viewing for any adolescent girl with even a shred of athleticism. "It's hard to even calculate how many women were impacted by this film."

So step up to the plate, because we're celebrating this game-changer of a film by throwing up some striking facts about how it all came together, including an answer to the big question: Did Dottie truly drop the ball? 

1. The Rockford Peaches were an actual team—one of 15 that existed in the Midwest-based All-American Girls Professional Baseball League before its dissolution in 1954, including the Kalamazoo Lassies, Chicago Colleens, Peoria Redwings and Grand Rapids Chicks.

As for the inspiration behind Dottie, that would be Peaches' first baseman Dorothy "Dottie" Kamenshekwho told Marquette Magazine, "In the beginning, we were only getting 500 people in the stands, and then it got up to 10,000, which is good for a town that supports minor league baseball. Eventually, we won them over. At first they just came to see the skirts, and then we showed them we could play."

Unlike the men, though, they were subjected to a slew of rules outside of the decidedly feminine uniform (designed by league founder Philip K. Wrigley's wife). Shorter hairstyles were a must, as was the etiquette training featured in the film. And if women dared smoke, drink, wear pants in public or even step out without makeup, they were subject to fines. 

2. A true labor of love, the final product took years to come together, starting with the 1987 documentary of the same name, co-created by Kim Wilson and Kelly Candaele, whose mom Helen Callaghan, was a left-handed center fielder in the league.

"We used the documentary to write the story, then to sell the idea for a feature," Wilson told ESPNW in a 2017 oral history. "We were completely obsessed with this idea. It took close to five years to sell it, to do the research on it, to film it and to write the story for the [feature] film. It didn't happen in a week."

3. Scriptwriters Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz stole an idea or two from their lives as well. "My mother-in-law lived in Sherman Oaks, California, at the time. And in her building was playwright Neil Simon's mother," Mandel recalled to ESPNW. "One day, my wife and I were going to visit [my wife's] parents, and we ran into her, and she was with Neil Simon's brother, Danny. And she introduced him as, 'This is Neil Simon's brother.'"

That moment turned into a standout line between the sisters, said Ganz, "Where Kit says to Dottie, 'You ever hear Dad introduce us to people? This is our daughter Dottie, and this is our other daughter, Dottie's sister.' It was based on that anecdote."

4. While some of the stars had an in (director Penny Marshall joked Tom Hanks, "asked for the job because he had several flops right before"), picking the right Peaches took some time.

"We were trying to get actresses who actually played baseball, so that narrowed down the field right away," producer Robert Greenhut told ESPNW. "In some cases, it wasn't that crucial because maybe their scenes didn't require that much playing. But for others, they really had to display some sort of athletic prowess. So we all quickly learned how hard it is to throw from first base to third to get somebody out. It looks so easy when you see it on television."

5. Fortunately,"best darn ball player in the league" Geena Davis was able to step up to the plate and was "very clearly a talented athlete," said Candaele. "She could throw and swing the bat." 

Though, as the actress remembers it, her audition, in Marshall's backyard, was a quick hitter. "I threw the ball to her, competently got it to her, she caught it and said, 'OK,'" she recalled to USA Today in 2017. "That was the whole audition." Before that, the 6-foot star admitted to ESPNW, she had long avoided organized sports: "I assumed I was uncoordinated. I was always so tall and awkward. That changed my life—learning how to play a sport." Seven years after the film's premiere, Davis competed in archery at the U.S. Olympic trials. 

6. That split behind home plate? All Davis. After Marshall asked if she could manage it, "I said to put it later in the shooting schedule to give me time to work up to it," she told USA Today of the Sports Center-worthy catch. "It's hard to learn that quickly. But I did." All that time loosening up before hand in a hot tub couldn't help her get right back up, though: "There was no popping up happening," she admitted. "I was stuck there and had to be helped up."

7. Madonna was desperate to be on the roster, as producer Greenhut recalled, "And I told her, 'You know, it's very little money.' She explained that she wanted to be diverse in her career. And she took it seriously. She might have come in late a few times, and maybe I had to bring her to the principal's office kind of thing. But ultimately, she was a sweetheart. She was just so enthusiastic about doing a good job."

One of her toughest scenes as dancer turned center fielder "All the Way" Mae Mordabito involved sliding into third, he recalled, "That took a while to get right." During training, the actresses reportedly practiced by using a Slip 'N Slide.

8. Hanks training was markedly easier. To realistically portray washed up former pro Jimmy Dugan, "I had to get fat," he told Entertainment Tonight in 1992. "I had to gain some weight. I had BBQ pork ribs and enjoyed the desserts of America."

9. A little bathroom humor: While Hank's 53-second on-screen leak wasn't authentic, to get the right reaction from the women, Marshall apparently stood just off camera with a hose and a bucket. 

10. Davis was definitely eager to play ball. Fresh off 1991's Thelma & Louise, "Once I read the script and saw the part I was going to get to play, it was an ABSOLUTELY," she told ESPNW. "I have always sought characters that got to do interesting things, from a selfish point of view as an actor. I didn't want to just be the girlfriend of the person who is having all the interesting things happen. And this is the ultimate example of that. I bring it up when I give speeches because I say, 'I would rather play the baseball player than the girlfriend of the baseball player.' And I'm lucky that I've had the opportunity to do that."

11. Marshall's daughter Tracy Reiner (left fielder Betty "Spaghetti" Horn) earned her role the hard way. When she and her cousin Wendy turned up to the open call, "There were about 2,000 girls auditioning at USC with [former baseball coach] Rod Dedeaux, and his coaches and trainers were going to evaluate the girls to see if you were trainable. I was somewhat prepared because I played softball on the weekends," Reiner remembered. "Dedeaux looks at me and says, 'That girl has got an arm.'" 

Having just had her wisdom teeth removed, "I get home after popping stitches in my mouth and spitting blood, then my mom was upset," she recalled. "I thought for sure it was about my teeth. I thought she'd liked that I had tried out [with the casting call group]. She goes, 'No! [How'd] you two [end up] testing in the top 20 girls!'"

12. As for Marshall's brother, director Garry Marshall, he scored the role of league founder Walter Harvey when another actor dropped out. 

13. The actresses truly had to play hardball, training some eight hours a day, six days a week for seven-and-a-half months. "That bruise on Renee Coleman [backup catcher Alice Gaspers] from [sliding into base]—that was real," said Reiner. "That was not one pinch of makeup. She had that bruise for, like, 10 years."

14. Meanwhile Anne Ramsay (first baseman Helen Haley), broke her nose about two weeks before filming started. "It was the first day that we switched from modern-day mitts to authentic, vintage mitts from the '40s. The mitts were restored a little bit, but they were the original deals. We were in Chicago, the coach throws me the ball...and maybe the fourth time he threw it, it just slips and hits me," Ramsay shared. "They took me to the hospital, and we had to reset it, and my nose has never been the same. But who cares!"

15. There were a few soft balls, though, for the sake of the crew. "You're actually hitting in the direction of the camera crew," Davis told USA Today. "For close-ups, those balls were squishy. They looked like real baseballs, but they were all spongy inside so we wouldn't clock anyone."

16. Rosie O'Donnell had on-the-field skills. "I played with my brothers and in little league," she told Entertainment Weekly in 1992 of being able to realistically star as former bouncer and third baseman Doris Murphy. But it was her comedic timing that was best remembered by her castmates.

"She suggested to the production company that they hire a stand-up comic friend of hers to keep the stands [of extras] happy because there was a lot of downtime," recalled Megan Cavanagh (second baseman and ace slugger Marla Hooch). "And Rosie would come out and sing Madonna songs." 

And two stars shared a dynamic as friendly as their characters'. "Rosie was not afraid of Madonna. She did what she wanted to do, and I think Madonna loved that," said Cavanagh. "Rosie would sing all of 'Holiday,' and Madonna would get mad at her and say, 'Don't ever sing one of my songs again.' And the next day, she'd come out and sing 'Vogue.' It was so fun to watch her do that."

17. Hanks would also chip in to amuse the extras, forced to endure the 100-plus degree summer heat. The two-time Oscar winner reportedly performed puppet shows behind the dugout. 

18. Another highlight of the months-long shoot, says Cavanagh, "I remember one night, Madonna had a birthday party that we all attended at her house. She made Rice Krispies treats for herself."

19. To trim the flick from its original four hours to just more than two, quite a few scenes were edited out, including one that would have been a real curveball. After Dottie watches Jimmy hit batting practice, he goes in for a kiss, the moment being the real reason the league's star attempts to quit.

However, "It was very upsetting to the real women players, apparently," Cavanagh told ESPNW. "Davis' character was married, and it upset the [former AAGPBL] players that she would kiss another man while her husband was at war." Another trimmed scene had Dottie revealing she had married her husband Bob the night he got drafted. 

20. The girls' night at the Suds Bucket was also heavily redacted. In the original version, Jimmy shows up and helps talk Kit through a bet she made with a man who thought he could get a hit off of her in exchange for a few minutes of action in his truck. 

21. This bit of fun on the farm made the cut, however. Apparently Jon Lovitz' line, "Will you shut up?!" during the scene in which his scout Ernie Capadino visits Dottie and Kit in Oregon was an ad-lib. Unbeknownst to the Saturday Night Live star, a cow was giving birth at the time. The farm's owners named the calf Penny after director Marshall. 

22. No, that's not Davis playing an older version of herself in the flash-forward scenes. Lynn Cartwright, a then-65-year-old actress, was picked to play an older Dottie with the other Peaches receiving a more mature double as well. "We felt it was a gamble," producer Elliot Abbott admitted to the Los Angeles Times in 1992, but they worried the aging makeup wouldn't appear realistic enough. "We didn't know whether or not it was going to work, which scared us to death."

Though Cartwright studied Davis' work to nail her mannerisms, production chose to dub in the star's voice "because Lynn's voice is so different, so deep, it would have pulled you out," said Abbott. "It's all you would have thought about."

23. Score one for Kit: Petty and O'Donnell were seen as the two most skilled actresses in the cast. Though six inches shorter than Davis, Petty was fully able to, as O'Donnell's Doris cracked, make like a bread truck and haul buns, meaning she had to intentionally slow down her pace in the scene where she and Davis were racing. 

24. The great debate: Did Dottie really drop the ball? Bitty Schram (right fielder Evelyn Gardner) believes so: "I would say subconsciously yes because she knew how much more it meant to Kit, and she was too good of a player."

But when it comes to spilling that detail, Davis isn't willing to play ball. "I'll say two things about that. No. 1: I know the answer. Because it was me, of course, I know the answer," she shared with ESPNW. "And No. 2: No, I'm not going to answer that question. I never have, and I never will."

(Originally published July 1, 2020, at 12 a.m. PT)