Sports movies and TV shows have had mixed success over the years. For every Rudy there is Angels in the Outfield. For every Friday Night Lights there is a Necessary Roughness. One small slice of the fictional sports universe that has had sustained success is the combination of women and baseball. Starting with Bull Durham (1987) and League of the Their Own (1992) and continuing today with Fox’s new hourlong Pitch, women taking on America’s pastime tends to make for great drama. What makes these stories work?
We associate baseball with America. Hot dogs, fresh cut grass, and an organ playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”: these things feel as American as apple pie. Due to this close association between America and baseball, storytellers see baseball as a readymade symbol for our country, a subject that allows for penetrating comment on American life. Since the days of “Casey at the Bat,” the 1888 poem about overconfidence leading to defeat (something very American there, eh?), American morality plays set on the diamond have had a very particular resonance. Richard Greenberg’s 2002 play “Take Me Out” took on racism and homophobia by placing a biracial player coming out of the closet at the center of the action. A monologue from Take Me Out puts it like this:
“And baseball is better than democracy – at least than democracy as it is practiced in this country – because unlike democracy, baseball acknowledges loss. While conservatives tell you, ’Leave things alone and no one will lose,’ and liberals tell you, ’Interfere a lot and no one will lose,’ baseball says, ’Someone will lose.’ Not only says it – insists upon it! So baseball achieves the tragic vision that democracy evades. Evades and embodies. Democracy’s lovely, but baseball’s more mature.”
You may not agree that baseball is better than democracy, but it is undeniable that these baseball stories are a reflection of progress in our democracy. It’s easy to see the American parallels in films like The Natural, an clear metaphor for the idea that in America, you are never truly counted out, and Field of Dreams, which reflects on how Americans can atone for the sins of our fathers. What about these stories of women and baseball? What do they tell us about America?
If you look at beloved projects chronicling women in baseball, a steady commentary on the progress of women in society comes into view. Bull Durham is not about a woman, but it features a woman helping a man combat toxic masculinity. While Susan Sarandon plays a bit of a manic-pixie-dream-MILF, her Annie plays the foil to Kevin Costner’s Crash. The two of them mentor an emerging pitching prospect, Nuke (Tim Robbins). As Crash tries to get Nuke to improve as a player, Annie takes a more holistic approach, mentoring him with sex, poetry, and other things that the hard-nosed, embittered Nuke can’t provide. The result is a confrontation between the old school masculine approach of Nuke and the broader emotionally grounded mentorship from Annie. The ultimate realization is that you need both to make a complete man, and part of Crash’s failures may have been that he never met an Annie during his playing days. While not exactly a feminist statement, Bull Durham offers a version of womanhood that is a far cry from the standard 80s movie actresses who wore neon bikinis on yachts as stockbrokers did bumps of cocaine off of their panty line.
After the retrograde chauvinism of the 1980s, when not only was greed good, but sexual harassment was too, the 90s brought some slow and steady progress. A League of Their Own, a film about a group of women recruited to play in the major leagues while men were away at war, not only told the story of women playing a man’s game, but proved that a female ensemble film could gross $100 million. With last summer’s Ghostbusters controversy not far in the rearview mirror it’s easy to see what kind of achievement that is.
While A League of Their Own was about women who could play baseball because men were off at war, and Bull Durham was about a woman who is baseball adjacent, Pitch finally features a woman (Kylie Bunbury) who gets to make a major league start on her own terms. This time there is no workers’ strike, war, or Space Jam style invasion that gives her the opportunity. She gets there on her own merit.
The story is grounded and realistic. Ginny is more of a Michael Sam than a Michael Phelps: a barrier breaker who won’t likely be an all-star, getting by on the finesse of her trick pitches rather than Kenny Powers level speed. The aim here is to truthfully interrogate this particular smashing of the glass ceiling in a year where it seems particularly appropriate. We probably won’t see a woman on the diamond any time soon IRL, but god willing we’ll see a woman in the Oval Office. Yes, we’ve come a long way from the sexism of the World War II as depicted in A League of Their Own, but we still have a long way to go before a woman can stride through the club house wearing a uniform without anyone batting an eye.
Though Pitch is a promising pilot, it is hard to say whether it will weather the storm that is the modern network season. In an increasingly crowded market, many more network shows sink than swim. Regardless of how Pitch performs over the long haul, it’s mere existence is another mark of progress in these stories about women in baseball. While we wait for the day when a female ball player story is remarkable because a players gender is considered unremarkable, we’ll take solace in a series like Pitch. This is progress to be celebrated because ever since the days of “Casey At the Bat,” progress in fictional baseball has reflected progress in America.