Remembering Penny: What You Don’t Know About “A League Of Their Own”
At times like this, all you can really do is recall with a sincere level of appreciation what a great treat Penny Marshall was to the world of entertainment. She made us laugh. She made us cry. She played bit roles in major television shows. She was a headliner in others. Marshall died in her Hollywood Hills, Calif., home on Tuesday due to complications from diabetes. “Our family is heartbroken over the passing of Penny Marshall,” a family statement read. “Penny was a tomboy who loved sports, doing puzzles, drinking milk and Pepsi together and being with her family.”
Marshall Is Forever Laverne
What we remember most about Marshall’s television career was her remarkable role in Laverne & Shirley, a couple of working-class gals from Wisconsin. She was Laverne DeFazio. Never in the history of primetime sitcoms had roles written just for two women produced such television magic. And it ran on ABC from 1976-83.
But she did so many other things, beginning with a guest star role on NBC’s The Danny Thomas Hour in 1967 and later as Myrna on the Odd Couple with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. During her career, she was nominated for three Golden Globes for best performance by an actress in a TV series for her role in Laverne & Shirley.
The $100 Million Woman
But there was much more to Marshall than acting. She was also a marvelous director. She directed “Big,” starring Tom Hanks, in 1988 and that resulted in her becoming the first woman to lead a film that grossed more than a $100 million. Her career was underway.
Over her directing career, she worked with Geena Davis, Robert De Niro, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Madonna, Denzel Washington, Rosie O’Donnell and Whitney Houston. She gave Mark Wahlberg his first job. But she just didn’t do comedy. She directed “Awakenings” in 1990, starring Williams, and in 2001 directed “Riding In Cars With Boys”
“League Of Their Own” In Its Own League
But in the minds of many film lovers, Marshall, a girl from The Bronx, will always be remembered for the foresight and genius that went into creating “A League of Their Own” in 1992. If you saw it, you never forgot it. It was one of those movies that lives with you.
So in honor of Marshall, let’s take a look at what made “A League of Their Own” a special film, one of that helped form the career of Hanks, introduced Madonna as a screen star and introduced baseball fans to a chapter in the game’s history few knew existed.
Why Not An All-Girls League?
Here was the concept: In the midst of World War II, there was a moment when many thought Major League Baseball might have to be suspended. It’s best players were enlisting, the mood of the nation seemed too somber for baseball to continue.
With this in mind, a candy magnate named Walter Harvey, who was played by Penny’s brother Garry, starts discussions with a number of other money men about starting a league featuring only female players. A guy named Ira Lowenstein (David Strathairn) is put in charge of the league and he hires a scout, Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz), to look for players.
Scene Setting: Baseball Hall Of Fame
The scene for the movie is immediately set when we see Dottie Henson, one of the stars of what was known as the All-American Girls Professional League (AAGPBL), attending the opening of an exhibit honoring it at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.
As she walks around the Hall, she stops to say hello to many of her friends, some of whom were former teammates. And as she begins to remember things, Marshall immediately takes us back to 1943 when it all began. That’s when the magic of this film begins to shine. The characters, uniforms, the humor.
Fox Makes Critical Error
Marshall’s inspiration apparently came from watching a 1987 television documentary about the league, ironically also named “A League of Its Own.” This was the first time she’d ever heard of it existence. Marshall contacted a cast of producers as scriptwriters and put together a screenplay for 20th Century Fox.
Turns out Fox made a major mistake. It passed on the project. Marshall turned to Sony Pictures and they were eager to make the movie. There was also a soundtrack released on CD and cassette tape in 1992. It peaked at No. 159 on the Billboard chart on July 25 1992.
“League” Was In Big Leagues Financially
The movie was an enormous success. After its release on July 1, 1992, it grossed $13.2 million in its first weekend, second only to Batman Returns. It dropped just a bit in week No. 2, making $11.5 million, but finishing first. It ended up making $107.5 million in the United States, $132.4 million worldwide. It cost only $40 million to make.
The critics absolutely loved it. The ratings site Rotten Tomatoes gave it a upbeat rating of 78 percent on the basis of 63 reviews. The site described it as “sentimental and light, thoroughly charming, buoyed by solid performances by a wonderful cast.”
TV Spinoff Quickly Spun Out
As often happened in Hollywood, producers tried to capitalize on the success of the movie by spinning it off into a television series. It did not turn out well. From April 10-24, 1993, CBS aired two episodes of “A League of Their Own.” Two more shows aired that August. And that was that.
The first show was directed by Marshall. Two episodes were directed by Ted Bessell, who became a celebrity co-starring with Marlo Thomas on the sitcom “That Girl” that ran from 1966-71. His character was named Donald Hollinger. Even Hanks directed one of the shows. That didn’t help.
Original Version Lasted Four Hours
In its original form, the film ran four hours. Featured in one of the edited scenes, Marshall went to great length to evolve Dottie’s character. Kit and Dottie have a discussion about how after five years of dating, Dottie actually married her husband, Bob, the night he was drafted.
Two other scenes that were cut included one that showed a secret bar hidden behind a trick wall in Walter Harvey’s mansion. Marshall specially set up the scene to show off the bar. But she had to cut it. Another, dealing with the 1940 take on premarital sex, also hit the floor.
All The Way Wasn’t Appropriate
That might explain the following: Another scene cut by Marshall dealt with Madonna’s character, “All The Way” Mae. Dottie makes sure to tell her sister, Kit, not to hang around Mae because she wasn’t quite sure what the implication of “All The Way” was.
Do you remember the scene at the “Suds Bucket Bar?” Well, apparently that was originally much longer than it ended up to be. Kit strikes out some guy who bet her he could get a hit of her – in exchange for some sack time. Dugan finds out and gives Kit some tidbits to win the bet.
Casting Call Proved Very Popular
The original casting call brought 2,000 aspiring actresses to Marshall’s door. The women first had to show off their skills as baseball players before getting a chance to read the script for the director. Geena Davis didn’t have to bother. She had a personal workout in Marshall’s backyard.
Marshall’s brother, Garry, who died in 2016, also was a great director. His work included “Pretty Woman” “Runaway Bride” and “The Princess Diaries.” He got the role of Mr. Harvey when someone else lost interest and dropped out of the project. Garry Marshall would later play Mr. Harvey in the ill-fated TV series.
Branch Rickey Had His Hand In It
The All-American Girls Professional League was founded by a real candy man, Philip K. Wrigley, the guy who made gum. Branch Rickey and a guy named Paul Harper also involved. The league existed from 1943-54. According to the Hall of Fame, over 600 women played in it and in 1948 over 900,000 fans attended its games.
The women who played in the league were essentially the nation’s best softball players. Over 200 of them were invited to tryout and 60 were picked for the league’s first rosters. The most successful franchise was certainly the Rockford Peaches. They won four championships.
The Idea Was Girls Should Be Women
Not only did the women need to be good players, but one of the major criteria was they also needed to appear eternally feminine. Not only did that need to be athletic, they needed to be graceful and very attractive. The uniforms consisted of very short skirts.
The skirts were to be worn no more than six inches above the knee. During the spring, players attend the Helena Rubinstein evening charm school where proper etiquette was taught. The players were expected to act formally and each received a beauty kit. Hair had to be long and no smoking was allowed.
Original Game Was A Hybrid
The rules were adapted to create a combination of baseball and softball. The ball was only 12 inches in circumference , the pitcher’s mound only 40 feet from the plate. Pitchers threw underhand and the distance between the bases was 65 feet. As time went on, the ball became smaller and the mound was moved back 10 feet.
The women were paid between $45-$85 per week. That tops out at about $1,204 a week in 2018 money. Eventually, they got a raise to about $125 week for a season that essentially paralleled the men’s- from late spring to early autumn.
Lovitz Just One Of All-Star Cast
So Capadino, played by Saturday Night Live alum Jon Lovitz, heads to Oregon and immediately finds a star in Dottie, a catcher, played by Geena Davis. At first, Dottie turns down the offer, choosing to stay and home, But eventually, she and her sister Kit, played by Lori Petty, sign on with the league.
Everybody eventually convenes in Chicago. The stadium was called Harvey Field, but in reality it was Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs. Marshall introduces us to “All The Way” Mae Mordabito, played by Madonna, and her best buddy, a bouncer named Doris Murphy, played by Rosie O’Donnell.
Filming Was Often Dangerous
Shooting the movie proved to be somewhat of a dangerous venture. An actress named Anne Ramsey, who played Helen Haley, broke her nose when a ball she was trying to catch deflected off her glove and into her face. Another actress, Renee Coleman, picked up a big bruise on her thigh you could see throughout the film.
In an interview with Bob Costas in 2013, Davis admitted that many of the actresses on the set suffered some type of cut or abrasion. “Some of our real cast, from sliding into home, had skin ripped from their legs. It was nutty.”
Jimmy Dugan Was The Boss
Although there are other teams in the league, Marshall tightened the focus on the Peaches, who just happen to be managed by Jimmy Dugan, a former Cubs power hitter who is played by Hanks. Dugan is an irascible guy, a perfect caricature of what the average MLB manager in the 1940s was like.
Dugan thinks the whole thing is absurd. It takes time for him to take his job – and players – seriously. The players are goaded into doing cool things when the photographers show up and Dottie complies by doing a split at the plate which makes a magazine cover.
Winger Was Penny’s First Pick
Geena Davis, perhaps the most famous actress at the time, was the last one to be cast. Believe it or not, Marshall pursued Debra Winger, Laura Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Demi Moore first. They all passed on the role. Too bad, so sad.
Winger was the first choice and would have had the role had she and Marshall not had some serious creative disputes. There are also rumors that Winger said no when Marshall said yes to the casting of Madonna. Winger is the actress who played alongside John Travolta in “Urban Cowboy.” Madonna obviously was not in that flick.
The Cast Wilted Under Summer Sun
Aside from the 2,000 women who tried out, approximately 1,700 extras appeared. During the filming, the cast was bothered by a very hot summer and to keep everyone fresh and happy, the cast entertained them. Hanks did puppet shows, obvious spring training for his new role as Mr. Rogers. Rosie O’Donnell told jokes. Lots of laughs.
Oh, by the way. Do you remember who played Dottie’s husband? Don’t feel bad if you can’t remember because Bill Pullman (think “Independence Day”) couldn’t have appeared on screen for more than a few minutes. We assume he still can collect a nice residual check?
Sliding Was Hard On The Body
As we have mentioned, some of the baseball activities took a physical toll on many of the actresses. How would you like to slide into second base wearing a skirt six inches over your knees? And if you are a guy, don’t feel compelled to answer that question. We understand.
Most of the actresses played according to the rules. But Davis actually had to be replaced by a stunt double once. Davis was a great athlete by the time the movie wrapped, but there one scene where she was required to make a complicated slide. Marshall summoned a Designated Slider.
Madonna Played The Diva
Not surprisingly, Madonna turned out to be a pain in the butt on the set. Going full diva, she refused to play along with Hanks and O’Donnell for the benefit of the extras. She didn’t sign autographs and generally walked around with a big smush on her face.
What’s worse, she always wanted to be the center of attention. When Marshall wasn’t focused on her, she often would pout. She called Geena Davis, a gorgeous woman, a Barbie doll in a letter to a friend. And she complained about the lack of good-looking men on the set. What about Jon Lovitz?
Material Girl All Hit, No Field
Madonna was also a lousy fielder. Who knew? As hard as Marshall tried she couldn’t get the Material Girl to learn how to play third base. Finally exasperated, they decided to move her to the outfield to hide her defensive – and personality – deficiencies.
In an interview to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the film, Davis did many interviews. In one, she expanded on Madonna. “She was Madonna. We wondered if we were going to be able to talk to her. Was she going to have an entourage? Were they going to put up walls around her where she stands?”
Inspiration Leads To Relief
Remember the scene in which Jimmy Dugan takes a 53-second bathroom break, the one in which he is so drunk he doesn’t seem to care he is doing it in front of all of the women? Turns out Marshall helped set the scene by making sound effects with a hose and bucket.
In that famous first scene, the one where Dottie Hinson is seen walking around the Hall of Fame at the reunion, some people think its Davis in elaborate makeup. Nope, not true. That was Lynn Cartwright. Not even makeup artists would do anything to make Davis look less beautiful.
Short Stay In The Minors
Aficionados of the movie will likely recall that Dottie and Kit were not promoted directly to the Major Leagues, kind of like Gleyber Torres and Kris Bryant. They served a stint with in the minors with the Lukash Dairy team, obviously time well-spent considering how they both raked in the big leagues.
Unfortunately, even news organizations as powerful as ESPN have been unable to find any trace of a website that dabbles in Dairy duds. Not hats, no shirts, bumpers stickers or coffee mugs or refrigerator magnets or bobbleheads. This seems like something Amazon should be able to help with.
Imagine The Movie Without Capadino?
We have always had a spot in our heart for Lovitz, perhaps one of the most underrated SNL castmates every. Yeah, yeah, that’s the ticket. We all know the movie wouldn’t have been the same without him, like “Caddyshack” without Bill Murray or “Gone With The Wind” without Clark Gable.
Marshall also recognized this. The role of Capadino was written for Lovitz. Remember when he visits the farm looking for Dottie and Kit and he sees them milking the cows? The cows are mooing and Capadino shouts, “Will, you shut up!” The farm later named the cow Penny. That’s respect.
Rosie And Madonna Paired Perfectly
Rosie O’Donnell was perfect her role. She was the wiseass counterpart to the Madonna’s wiseass Mae. They played of each other perfect, two peas in a Brooklyn pod. Turns out, she actually tried out for another part, that of Marla.
O’Donnell probably would have landed that roll had another actress, Megan Cavanagh, not come in and blasted it out of park. So Marshall did for O’Donnell what she did for Lovitz. They wrote a new part for her. If you were stuck in Grand Central in 1945 waiting for a train to Canarsie, why not grab a beer with Doris Murphy?
It Was A Family Affair
There is an emotional scene in the movie that features the character, Betty “Spaghetti” Horn. Horn is played by Tracy Reiner, Penny Marshall’s daughter. Remember when we told you about Garry Marshall getting the role of Walter Harvey? Well, that was because Christopher Walken wanted too much money for the part.
Tracy Reiner got the roles after appearing in Laverne & Shirley, Big, Die Hard and When Harry Met Sally. She had a cameo in Pretty Woman. If you looked closely, you’d have seen her with Hanks in Apollo 13 as an astronaut’s wife. Garry’s daughter, Kathleen Marshall, was cast as Mumbles Brockman.
Tough Loss For Betty Spaghetti
The Peaches ended the first season in league play qualifying for the league’s World Series. But as you’ll recall, in the locker room, Jimmy hands Betty a telegram telling her that her husband was killed in action in the Pacific Theatre.
Grief-stricken Betty leaves the team. Later that evening, Dottie gets a big surprise when her husband, Bob, serving in Italy, shows up after been discharged. That sets up the scene where Jimmy finds out Dottie is leaving and tells her she’ll regret not playing in the series. You got the sense that Jimmy might have had feelings for Dottie.
Jimmy And Dottie Under A Tree
There were some discussions about writing the script is such a way that Dottie would end up with Jimmy, a match made in baseball heaven. But that soon ended and much effort was made to discourage anyone in the audience from thinking it was even possible.
One scene was cut in which Dottie watches Jimmy take some batting practice swings at night. Jimmy admits he loves watching Dottie play, says she reminds him of Ted Williams and Ty Cobb. Dottie tells him she loves baseball. He kisses her. And then she runs into the clubhouse and packs her things. Cut!
The Real Dottie Hanson Was A Legend
Lavonne “Pepper” Paire-Davis, the mold in which Dottie Hanson was created, died in 2013. She played 10 seasons in the league and wrote a memoir called “Dirt In The Skirt,” which when you think about it, might be the best book title ever.
In terms of historical accuracy, the mansion that served as Mr. Harvey’s home in Chicago was actually the former home of Robert McCormick, who once owned the Chicago Tribune. If you are ever in Chicago, go visit. It’s now a museum and you can’t pretend you lived in the 1940s. The Tribune Company once owned the Cubs.