Home Run vs. Strikeout: Where Does A League of Their Own Fall in the Realm of Great Sports TV Shows?

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Home Run vs. Strikeout: Where Does <i>A League of Their Own</i> Fall in the Realm of Great Sports TV Shows?

When it comes to sports, there is almost always something to watch on TV. But what if, instead of watching any number of live sports, one wants the certainty of something scripted? Well, there are a lot of great scripted sports TV shows to choose from, too. After Disney+ returned to the popular Mighty Ducks franchise with Mighty Ducks: Game Changers last year, Amazon has joined the lineup with its own take on Penny Marshall’s iconic 1992 baseball film A League of Their Own, about the members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which existed from 1943 until 1954.

While we’ve been blessed with more than our fair share of excellent baseball films—in addition to A League of Their Own, Field of Dreams, The Sandlot, Major League, and Bull Durham all come to mind—there aren’t as many scripted TV shows centered around the sport. Fox’s Pitch, about the first female pitcher in MLB, lasted just one short season, while Brockmire and Eastbound & Down were an acquired taste for many. And no one except the journalists who had to cover it likely remember the short-lived Back in the Game. Perhaps this is why this new series, with its focus on women and its dedication to America’s favorite pastime, feels revelatory in some ways.

The show, adapted by Will Graham (sadly not the Hannibal character) and star Abbi Jacobsen, takes us back to the formation of the all-women league, which was launched in order to keep the sport of baseball going while men were fighting in World War II. While the eight-episode first season pays homage to its inspiration—you don’t have to wait long for someone to yell “There’s no crying in baseball!”—it also takes a deeper look at the social and racial issues of the day. Namely, it thoughtfully explores the Black experience, which was only ever hinted at in a blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment in the film. The series also uses its extended running time to examine the intersection of sexuality and identity amongst players and the ways in which sports allow individuals to find themselves. Using the groundwork laid out by the film, the series is able to create a solid foundation and work toward crafting a more realistic picture of the times. But where does it fall within the realm of great sports shows?

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The narrative of A League of Their Own attempts to balance the arc of the Rockford Peaches, led by catcher and eventual manager Carson Shaw (Jacobsen), with the story of Max Chapman (Chanté Adams), a talented Black pitcher who is barred from trying out for the AAGPBL. We watch as the Peaches lose their league-appointed manager (Nick Offerman) but slowly find their groove and become friends as well as teammates. Meanwhile, Max is forced to go around the clear-cut paths open to white women as she attempts to live out her own dream of playing ball. And it’s not just that she’s prohibited from joining the league, she’s initially also blocked from seeking employment at a local screw factory, which would allow her, at least in theory, to also play for the factory team.

It’d be disingenuous to refer to Max’s arc as the prototypical underdog story that dominates sports shows and movies (and not just because the Peaches are actually meant to fill that role). One cannot be an underdog when they’re barred from even playing or engaging. And it isn’t until more than halfway through the series that Max, mostly by happenstance, meets a Black female pitcher for an exhibition team led by a former Negro League pitcher that she’s finally given a real opportunity to showcase what she can do (even after she talks her way into a job at the factory, she still faces several obstacles in her attempts to play for the factory team).

In many ways, it’s easier to root for Max’s success than the Peaches’, who make it to the league championships after coaching themselves and believing in their talents when no one else would (like many fictional sports teams before them, they lose, teaching them important lessons and setting the players up to overcome adversity in future seasons). Max’s arc, which dovetails nicely with her search for identity, is the strongest part of A League of Their Own, as it gives voice to an experience that has been mostly lost to history rather than revisiting or retelling a story with which we’re mostly at least a little familiar.

This isn’t to say the Peaches and the individual players’ stories aren’t engaging, but aside from D’Arcy Carden’s Greta, Roberta Colindrez’s Lupe, Melanie Field’s Jo, and Kate Berlant’s Shirley, most of the women are relegated to the background. And even the characters who are given screen time are often boiled down to their positions on the field or basic character traits; Greta knows how to put on a show but was hurt by a former relationship, Lupe is headstrong but sharp as a pitcher, Jo is the team’s best hitter but doesn’t have a so-called traditional feminine physique, and Shirley is afraid of pretty much everything, but especially queer women (of which there are many on the Peaches). Carson and Max are the only characters given much room to grow. But because this is a television show, and because the first season is only eight episodes, it’s likely the rest of the team will be further developed in future seasons (should they exist). After all, it’s not out of the ordinary for shows to focus on only a handful of players and the relationships between them at the outset. Ted Lasso, for all that is great about it, does something similar. Friday Night Lights did it, too. However, just because something is the norm doesn’t mean we can’t hope for something different. We can still ask for the writers to spend more time building out supporting characters and giving them depth.

But that’s not what’s holding the show back from becoming a great sports series. Much like the soccer in Ted Lasso, the sport of baseball often feels like an afterthought. Games barely factor into A League of Their Own as the show attempts to service both Carson’s and Max’s storylines. And it’s hard to fault the series for placing an emphasis on self-discovery over base-running and batting practice, but the best sports shows balance the two halves. Friday Night Lights is the gold standard, as it centered high school football in its narrative and used it as a vehicle to tell incredibly powerful stories about small town life, the strength of community, and how sports can provide opportunities that might have otherwise been out of reach. Kingdom was similarly able to tell a captivating story about the complicated nature of family and the never-ending battle of addiction within the brutal world of Mixed Martial Arts. Even Heels manages to balance messy familial relationships with the trying nature of running a small wrestling promotion in the South.

A League of Their Own is ultimately striving to do all of this, too, but it doesn’t make it past second base. Many of the characters feel like sketches or symbols, while the actual baseball is less than optimal. The obvious use of CGI borders on video game-like, removing a lot of realism from the show. The actual mechanics of the sport are also questionable. I don’t (and won’t) pretend to know how women of the AAGPBL pitched in the 1940s, and pitching as an art form has changed over the years as the sport has gotten more technical and advanced, but anyone who’s spent any time watching MLB will likely find themselves taken out of the show by some of the pitching depicted. The best sports-centric shows find ways to make the sport feel integral and feel real. A League of Their Own does neither.

But despite being a .500 show, the series remains a welcome addition to the realm of sports-centric TV. Not only does it put women at the forefront of the action in a way few programs ever have, but it is steadfast in its attempts to right wrongs (or at least oversights). Women’s sports are still viewed as being lesser than men’s, and while it would be great to see a show focus on the lives of modern female athletes rather than revisit the past again, it’s still hard to argue against a series that showcases the appeal of baseball at a time when the discourse surrounding the sport is that it is either dying, or dying as we know it. Plus, the foundational pieces are all there, so if A League of Their Own is ultimately renewed, there’s no reason to believe it can’t fill the gaps in its roster and make another run at greatness next season.


Kaitlin Thomas is a journalist, TV critic, and lifelong baseball fan. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.

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