The Real Story Behind ‘A League of Their Own’

To mark the 30th anniversary of the film's release, here is a look at the real story behind A League of Their Own.
A League Of Their Own Real Story

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story behind Penny Marshall’s 1992 classic, A League of Their Own.

Few films epitomize the moniker of “classic” better than Penny Marshall’s 1992 movie, A League of Their Own.  The film features the all-star trio of Geena DavisTom Hanks, and Madonna. Marshall’s film follows the Rockford Peaches, an all-women baseball team formed as part of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) at the outset of the Second World War.

Naturally, the fictionalized account of the AAGPBL takes its inspiration from real events. Here is a look at the true stories and people who inspired, A League of Their Own. 

Forming The League

The 1942 entry of the United States into World War II posed a threat to Major League Baseball. Many prospective and current players were drafted or volunteered to serve in the war. Teams were disbanded. And owners, fearful that the league may collapse, began looking for alternatives.

Enter: Phillip K. Wrigley. If his last name sounds familiar, that’s because Wrigley was the heir to the famed chewing-gum fortune of the same name, and the owner of the Chicago Cubs, who play at Wrigley Field, the country’s second-oldest professional baseball park. Wrigley served as the inspiration for Walter Harvey in Marshall’s film. Harvey is played by the director’s brother, Garry Marshall.

Wrigley, according to the league’s official history, directed Ken Sells to look into alternatives to the MLB. This led to the formation of the All-American Girls Softball League in the spring of 1943. Sells was the league’s first president. As ESPN noted, he probably served as the inspiration for Ira Lowenstein (played by David Strathairn) in Marshall’s film.

Softball to Baseball

Though the women in the league were playing a game that looked more like softball, halfway through the first season, they changed the league’s name to the All-American Girls Baseball League. However, according to the league’s history, the reference to “baseball” caused a bit of a controversy. This, in part, came from the fact that the league featured under-hand pitching and larger bases. And so, the league changed its name to the more ambiguous, All-American Girls Professional Ball League.

But then, in 1945, the league underwent another major change. The league adopted overhand pitching and made the bases smaller. The game began to resemble the MLB more. And so, the league became the All-American Girls Baseball League. The name would stick until 1950.

Scouting for Talent

One of the best parts of Marshall’s film is the search for talent to play in the newly formed league. In the film, we watch as scouts make their way through small towns in search of young women eager and willing to play baseball. A similar search actually happened.

A seasoned baseball veteran named Jim Hamilton, according to the league’s history, was hired to head scouting. The goal was to find women from all over the United States and Canada and sign them to contracts. In Marshall’s film, a scout is played by Jon Lovitz.

One of the league’s key signings included Mary “Bonnie” Baker. A catcher, Baker was an All-Star for the South Bend Blue Sox. According to the AAGPBL history, Baker was a standout in one of the many popular softball leagues in Canada at the time. She would also go on to inspire a key figure in movie history.

The Inspiration(s) for Dottie

The duo at the center of Marshall’s film is Dorothy “Dottie” Hinson, the catcher of the Rockford Peaches, and “All the Way” Mae Mordabito. Dottie is played by Davis and Mae by Madonna.

Neither character actually existed. But each is rumored to be based on actual players. Baker is one of the many players cited as an influence for Dottie. According to Baker’s AAGPBL obituary, Davis’ character “most resembled Baker.”

Other inspirations for Davis’ Dottie include Dorothy “Dottie” Kamenshek. A left-handed first baseman, in 1999 she was named by Sports Illustrated as one of the 100 greatest female athletes of all time. In Kamenshek’s New York Times obituary, her friend and fellow player Lavonne Paire Davis is quoted as saying:

[Kamenshek] could hit with power, she could lay the bunt down and steal the base. She was a great first baseman — she could go off the ground three feet and grab it, or dig it out of the dirt. She was a tough lady, and she was as smart as they come.

The Inspiration for Mae

As for Mae, “All the Way” Faye Dancer served as the inspiration for the character, her New York Times obituary notes. Known for “home runs and spontaneous cartwheels,” Dancer became a fixture of the AAGPBL.

According to the Times, she was the first player in the league to hit two home runs in a single game. Sportswriters described her as a “fly-catching genius.” As for her fielding ability, teammate Davis said:

I never saw any woman or man do it any better.

The events of the Second World War loom over Marshall’s film. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, the outfielder Better (played by Tracy Reiner), receives a letter that her husband was killed in action. It’s a moment many of the women fear. Similarly, Dancer, her Times obituary notes, lost her fiancé in the war. According to Davis, Dancer “never really considered marrying anybody else.”

The Inspiration for Jimmy Dugan

Of course, no discussion of the film would be complete without the manager of the Peaches, Jimmy Dugan, played by Hanks. Like Mae and Dottie, no real Dugan existed. However, the character certainly took inspiration from real ex-ball players.

The most-cited inspiration for Dugan is Jimmie Foxx, a Hall of Fame player turned manager. Foxx played for a host of MLB teams, including the A’s, Red Sox, and Cubs, and hit more than 500 home runs during his career.

In 1952, he took a job managing the Fort Wayne Daisies, an AAGPBL team. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, his time with the team “was an enjoyable one.” His daughter, Nanci, worked as a batgirl. SABR notes Foxx’s resemblance to Hanks, but adds that ” the women who played for him remember him only as a true gentleman in every way.”

Foxx managed the team for only one year, citing the “many long bus rides” as a reason for his departure.

Enshrinement in Cooperstown

Those who have seen A League of Their Own will remember that the film begins and ends decades later when former AAGPBL players gather in Cooperstown, New York to celebrate an exhibit dedicated to the league at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Such an event actually occurred on November 5, 1988, when, Matt Rothenberg of the Hall of Fame writes, “the memories, artifacts, stories, and recollections alone … could have filled an institution at least twice the size of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.”

About 150 of the more than 500 women known to have played in the AAGPBL attended the opening of the “Women in Baseball” exhibit at Cooperstown. In the years prior, a committee of former players, including former pitcher Dottie (Wiltse) Collins, began advocating for recognition of the league. Her work helped inspire the exhibit and served as an inspiration for Marshall’s film. Collins even served as an advisor on the project.

In the report for the Hall of Fame, Collins is quoted as saying:

At the time we were just kids having fun. Not until it was all over did we realize that we had been pioneers as far as women’s sports are concerned. This is the thrill of a lifetime for us.

Will DiGravio: Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.