When Penny Marshall directed A League of Their Own, she didn’t realize she was creating a cinematic classic that would become the most successful baseball movie of all time — grossing over $132.4 million — or be selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Marshall simply wanted to tell a story that spoke to her and to create more roles for women.
Marshall, a Bronx native, was a lifelong New York Yankees fan. Marshall has learned about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) via a 1987 documentary, also called “A League of Their Own,” produced by Kim Wilson and Kelly Candaele, whose mother had played in the league. Marshall felt called to tell more of the story of the AAGPBL and the women who played in it.
“My mom found out that something she had dreamed of doing herself — playing professional baseball as a woman — already existed,” said Marshall’s daughter, Tracy Reiner, who played left fielder Betty "Spaghetti" Horn, in the original film. “So she made this movie as an anthem and an homage to those ladies.”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the film. In the three decades since the world was introduced to Dottie Henson, Kit Keller, Marla Hooch, and the rest of the Rockford Peaches, A League Of Their Own has become more than a movie. It became a movement.
“It made girls realize they weren’t alone in loving baseball,” Reiner said. “Fathers and grandfathers would tell us that they picked up a baseball and threw it with their daughter or granddaughter or another woman they loved [after seeing the film]. We started talking about creating a farm league for women. It created permission for women to dream, to imagine: What if I want to do that?”
Marshall also made a point to reach out to — and ultimately include — some of the actual women who had played in the league in the film.
“When you see the real women come back and play at the end of the movie, that’s where you cry,” said Patti Pelton, who played second baseman Marbleann Wilkenson. “When Penny put that in, that just made the movie. “We thought, ‘They’re amazing. They’re still playing ball.’ We’re so lucky as actors to have been part of something that was bigger than ourselves, part of this legacy.”
That legacy lives on via a new adaptation of the beloved original. Three decades after they first appeared in theaters, the Peaches and the AAGPBL have returned to the screen via a new Prime Video series of the same name that broadens the lens to include new storylines about gender and race.
Marshall, whose other main motivation was to create more female representation across film, would approve, said Reiner.
“My mom, as someone who was born in 1943, wanted the stories [about the AAGPBL] known – but she also wanted more women to have jobs in show business,” Reiner said. “There weren’t very many women ensembles. So she created one. She would be pleased to see how it lives on.”
The co-creators of the series, Abbi Jacobson — who also stars as catcher Carson Shaw — and Will Graham, were both avid fans of the original film. They knew that they didn’t want, or need, to remake it, and that appreciation informed their approach to the series. But when they studied the history of women in baseball, they realized there were other stories to tell, even beyond the AAGPBL.
They talked with Marshall before her death in December 2018 and Marshall told them that her original cut of the movie was four-and-a-half hours. They explained that they wanted to explore some of the stories at which the film only hinted. Marshall gave them her blessing.
“We had so many more stories. But we had to cut it down to two hours,” Reiner said. “There’s only so much ground a feature film can cover.”
The original film contains a brief-but-powerful scene in which a Black woman (played by DeLisa Chinn-Tyler) picks up a stray ball during warm-ups. Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) motions for her to throw it back, but the woman instead fires it over Dottie’s head and across the outfield to pitcher Ellen Sue Gotlander (Freddie Simpson). The throw is so hard that it leaves Ellen Sue wringing her hand.
“The woman who throws the baseball doesn’t say one word,” Pelton said. “The scene lasts all of 20 seconds. But it’s so powerful.”
The AAGPBL was established when baseball, like everything else, was still segregated. Black women weren’t even allowed to try out for the league. Chinn-Tyler was the only woman of color to appear in the film. Several of the actors, including Reiner, lobbied to keep her scene.
“We fought to get that in [the final cut],” Reiner said. “I’m known for my big crying scene [when Betty Spaghetti finds out that her husband has been killed in combat]. But that scene without any words was the only thing in the movie that actually made me cry. It gets me every time.”
Black women didn’t get to play in the AAGPBL, but three women — Toni Stone, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and Connie Morgan — did play against men in the Negro Leagues. Their stories serve as the basis for two characters in the Prime series: Max Chapman (played by Chanté Adams), a skilled pitcher who isn’t allowed to try out for the AAGPBL because she’s Black, and Esther Warner (Andia Winslow), the ace for men’s industrial team and befriends Max. Winslow, a versatile athlete and actor who played on the LPGA tour, was thrilled to pay homage to Johnson, who was the first woman to pitch in the Negro leagues.
“I was trying to channel Peanut Johnson in this role,” Winslow said. “I’m humbled to be a part of it.”
The series features brand-new characters and themes. The series also features deep, compelling storylines about LGBTQ players who were forced to remain closeted. The producers even reached out to Reiner before they started production.
“They said, ‘We talked to your mom and we’re going to do this show,” Reiner said. “We’re going to bring up real stories about the Negro Leagues and about some of the players who were LGBTQ. And I was like, ‘Great.’ I’m so happy that anybody who felt left out [of the movie feels seen in the series].”
Getting the baseball scenes right was important to Marshall. Reiner said that the women who auditioned for the film had to show genuine baseball skills. During the casting process, former USC baseball coach Rod Dedeaux oversaw tryouts on campus.
“Everyone thinks my mom just gave me the part,” Reiner said. “That wasn’t it at all. My cousin and I had to try out. About 2,000 girls auditioned. Rod Dedeaux looked at me and said, ‘She’s trainable, and that girl’s got a great arm.’ No one was more surprised than my mom when I tested in the top 25 girls.”
The cast trained six days a week for three hours a day. Dedeaux oversaw the practices, and pro players also worked with the actors. It was equally important for the producers of the TV series that the baseball scenes looked and felt authentic. The show’s writers consulted with Reiner about how to film on-field scenes and capture as many angles as possible with limited camera equipment.
“I shared some of the technical things we learned about cinematography, like don’t shoot too many scenes on first base,” Reiner said. “The camera can only see so much of the diamond unless you’re in the booth or behind home plate.”
Jacobson and Graham asked Justine Siegal, the first woman to throw MLB batting practice and to coach for an MLB team, to come onboard as a head baseball consultant.
“I worked with everyone who touched the baseball,” Siegal said. “I advised the actors on how to move and showed them the baseball plays. And then when we started filming, I helped make sure that the baseball scenes looked right.”
For Siegal, it was a labor of love. After a coach told her that girls were only supposed to play softball, not baseball, Siegal vowed never to quit the sport and went on to coach college baseball and found Baseball For All, a nonprofit that promotes gender equity in the sport, in 2010. The organization creates opportunities for girls and women to play and coach baseball at the youth level through college.
Several of the women who once played in Baseball For All tournaments as girls served as doubles in the series. And the TV Peaches trained for a couple of months with players such as BFA alum Beth Greenwood, the first American woman to catch in an NCAA men's baseball game, and pitcher Kelsie Whitmore, who earlier this year became the first woman to play in a league associated with Major League Baseball.
Siegal also consulted with the writers about baseball-specific aspects of the storyline. And some of her own experiences made their way onto the screen.
“A lot of my life is in the script because I told them my stories,” Siegal said. “My daughter, Jasmine, used to kiss my arm as a good luck charm before I pitched batting practice.
When Greta is taunted with "What’s your bra size?” that scene came from my life. Except I was coaching first base in a men's pro baseball league (in the Can-Am League, in 2009). I was a tough scene for me to watch. But I love that Greta confronts the guy.”
Siegal, like so many others, feels a debt of gratitude to the original film.
“I was in high school when ‘A League of Their Own’ came out,” Siegal said. “I was the only girl I knew – the first girl in my high school – playing baseball. When I watched the movie and learned that there was a whole league before me, it made me feel less alone, like I was not insane for wanting to play baseball.”
At the heart of both the film and series are the true stories of the actual women who played in the AAGPBL in the 1940s and ‘50s as major leaguers served overseas during World War II — “the ladies,” as Reiner and her castmates still call them. One of the main consultants for the film was the late Lavonne “Pepper” Paire-Davis, who played in the AAGPBL from 1944 to 1953. Paire-Davis shared her songs and her scrapbooks, and even lived with Reiner in Evansville, Indiana, where the movie was filmed. Even “All the Way” Faye Dancer was an inspiration for Madonna’s character, “All the Way” Mae Mordabito.
“They were the coolest women in the world,” Reiner said. “They had the greatest stories and the funniest songs.”
The actors began to form bonds with the former players that continued long after they finished filming. Maybelle Blair, a pitcher for the Peoria Redwings, is one of those ladies. Now 95, Blair is one of the few surviving players from the league and perhaps the most well-known, and served as a conduit between the two productions.
“About three or four years ago, Will and Abbi came to my house in Sunset Beach, (Calif.), and told me what they were thinking about doing,” Blair said. “And I says, ‘Oh, get started immediately!’ They asked me a bunch of questions about what happened in the league and my experiences.”
Blair soon signed on as an official consultant and noted the similarities between the film and the eight-episode series. Both are rooted in the real stories of women who overcame obstacles and discrimination to play baseball. Both tell a fictionalized account of the real-life AAGPBL, which debuted in 1943 and operated until 1954. And both focus on the Peaches, who were the most successful team in the real league.
Blair is pleased that the series explores additional topics, including the LGBTQ players in the league and the Black women who were excluded from it, that the original version couldn’t.
“Penny would have loved to have shown it (in the film), but it wasn’t accepted in 1992,” Blair said. “People weren’t ready for it. The series doesn’t replace the movie. But it tells the whole truth about the league that Penny couldn’t tell.”
Blair even had a star turn in one of the opening scenes of the pilot episode of the series, which includes a sassy character named Maybelle. She and Shirley “Hustle” Burkovich — another AAGPBL alum who played for the Peaches and had a speaking role in the final scene of the original film — are shown watching from the stands during a tryout in Chicago.
“Blink and you’ll miss me,” Blair joked. But no one could miss Blair this summer as she charmed fans and fellow players everywhere from the ESPYS to the Los Angeles Dodgers broadcast booth to the Tribeca Film Festival, where Blair came out publicly as gay for the first time during a Q&A after the show’s premiere.
“There was no way I would ever come out of the closet [when I played]. If someone found out, I would be fired from my job,” Blair said. “So I hid for 75, 85 years. It was a relief to come out. I can be my true self. And I knew it would help some of these girl ballplayers who are gay realize that they aren’t alone.”
Perhaps nowhere is Blair a bigger rock star than among the girl ballplayers she has dedicated her post-playing career to helping and she is a frequent presence at Baseball For All events. When more than 500 girls from across the U.S. and Canada convened at the organization’s national tournament in Mesa, Arizona, in late July, Blair, sporting her big glasses, her signature baseball bat cane in hand, made her way around fields, occasionally stopping for a game of catch with an awestruck player or to sign autographs.
“All these girls want to do is have a chance to play baseball,” Blair said. “And that’s what we’re trying to give them.”
Blair joined a few hundred of the players for a screening of the Prime “League of Their Own” pilot, then took the stage along with Siegal, Reiner, and Pelton for a Q&A moderated by Baseball For All’s Lena Park, who served as the series’ baseball co-coordinator. When Blair and Burkovich appeared briefly on the screen, the audience burst into raucous applause.
Leg injuries limited Blair to one season in the AAGPBL. But it “was the best time of my life,” Blair said. Burkovich, her longtime friend and fellow champion for women’s baseball, died in March 2022 at 89. Blair misses her friend dearly, but has vowed to continue their work keeping alive memories of the AAGPBL, and advocating for giving girls and women the opportunity and resources to play baseball.
Blair isn’t planning to slow down anytime soon as she is busy raising funds to build the International Women’s Baseball Center in Rockford, Ill., right across from the original field where the real-life Peaches once played. Blair hopes it will honor female baseball pioneers and inspire the next generation. Blair added that the museum has raised about $1.5 million so far.
“But we need another million,” Blair said, before they can begin breaking ground. “It would be such a thing for women’s baseball – and baseball in general. We need a home of our own, just like the boys have in Williamsport. We want our own batting cages and museum. That’s what I’m working for.”
And that’s not all, Blair told the crowd of ballplayers gathered in Mesa.
“We are going to form a women’s professional baseball league again,” Blair said. “I hope to heck that I’m still living so that I can come out and throw the first pitch at the first game.”
That vision is what has driven Reiner, Pelton, and the other actors since the film debuted. They have thrown out countless first pitches and appeared at card shows alongside Blair and the women whose stories they portrayed. And now they are showing up to support the next generation at events like Baseball For All’s national tournament.
“People weren’t interested in watching girls play baseball at the time we made the film,” Reiner told the crowd. “Even the coaches were kind of teasing us: ‘This is just for a movie, right?’ But it actually ended up changing all of our lives … and now it’s changing yours.”
The original cast formed lasting bonds during nine months of filming. Many of the actors remained close throughout the years.
“All the girls (in the movie), we still talk to each other,” Pelton said. “We're like sisters. We still see each other at birthdays, at Christmas. That camaraderie has lasted for all these years.”
Rosie O’Donnell, who starred as third base player Doris Murphy in the film and appears in a small role in the series as a local bar owner named Vi, is the only actor from the film to appear in the reboot. But many of the original Peaches have watched the new series and exchanged text messages and calls about it.
“Megan and I chatted right after the series launched. She loved it,” Reiner said. “I had a blast watching it. It was fun seeing where they went with some of the stories we didn’t get to delve into. And it was really fun for all of us because it was almost like a personal extension for us. They actually have some scenarios, some things that happened between the cast members.”
Like her mom, Reiner provided just a hint of what those scenarios might be. But Reiner said that the camaraderie will serve the new cast well.
“I don’t know another movie where the cast have stayed so close,” Reiner said. “Megan and I talk and text all the time. Our sons grew up together. I hope that the new cast can experience some of that.”
Reiner also lauded the look of the new series which, unlike the film, was shot on digital cameras, like most shows today.
“They did such a great homage to the feel of the film,” Reiner said. “And they had to compete with [legendary production designer] Bill Groom and [cinematographer] Miroslav Ondrícek [who created the original] while shooting on digital. … It’s an extension of the film, and it’s beautiful.”
For all of the momentum and progress women’s baseball has made, it’s clear there is more work to be done, and the misogyny and racism that the reboot addresses head on remain. A true league of their own for women remains elusive.
“For 30 years, we’ve done everything we could to help with the creation of women’s leagues,” Reiner said. “And in those 30 years, 39 countries around the world – including Pakistan – have created government-funded girls baseball. But not one [U.S.] state has done so.”
Siegal and her Baseball For All supporters have taken matters into their own hands in an effort to provide a path forward for women who want to play the sport. This year, the organization hosted its seventh annual national tournament.
A future tournament in Los Angeles will honor Marshall. Baseball For All created a tournament for women’s college baseball club teams. Greenwood is one of at last 14 women who are playing college baseball alongside men. Women are breaking barriers in MLB front offices as minor league managers and, like Whitmore, on the field.
“I met Justine Siegal more than 20 years ago,” Reiner said. “She told me, ‘I have a dream. We have to start a farm league.’ Pepper Davis said the same thing. Justine said, ‘I’m going to start one.’
And she did.
“We weren’t really doing it for ourselves,” Reiner said. “We were doing it so that those who were remembered and honored could have a legacy in these girls.”
Reiner, who sat courtside along with her mom for years as season-ticket holders at Los Angeles Sparks games, imagines a star-studded future for women’s baseball not unlike the WNBA and other established women’s sports.
“I want to see the Serena Williams of baseball. I want to see the Lisa Leslie of baseball,” Reiner said. “I believe it will happen.”
In the meantime, said Blair, the film and its worthy successor, the Prime series, have given female baseball fans of all ages license to continue dreaming.
“They remind girls that they aren’t alone in loving baseball,” Blair said. “I grew up loving baseball and I’ll die loving baseball.”