The new Amazon Prime series A league of its own comes 30 years after the original classic film hit a home run in audiences’ hearts. The 1992 A league of its own, which tells the story of the short-lived All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, is one of those perfect films to watch at a sleepover at 10 and on cable at 30. Every time just works. And, somewhat unlikely, the new series lives up to its predecessor.
The new A league of its own, co-created by Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham, is a shining example of what an adaptation of a classic can and is rare. It’s lovingly faithful to its source material and spirit while also aiming for an entirely new idea. The 2022 version is an adjustment that works by absence and by division. It removes one of the original’s pillars and takes place in the space that remains.
The TV show begins by offering some clear-cut analogues of some of the main characters of the 1992 original. D’Arcy Carden’s Greta and Jo and Melanie Field fill the space of Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell’s Mae and Doris – the glamorous femme and the butch, who are unlikely best friends. Nick Offerman’s Dove replaces Tom Hanks’ Jimmy, the surly coach who’s more than a little skeptical about the idea of women playing baseball.
But the new show doesn’t quite have a character to take the place of Geena Davis’ Dottie, the original film’s protagonist. New and exciting storytelling opportunities are thriving in the place where Dottie used to be.
In the 1992 film, Dottie is the heroine. The film, which centers on the women who became pro ballplayers when men fought in World War II, revolves around Dottie’s only season as a catcher for the Rockford Peaches.
There, too, Dottie is so clearly the ideal All-American League baseball player that the team managers base their press narrative around her: Dottie, they declare, will be the Queen of Diamonds. While the fastidious charm school that baseball players have to attend has criticism for the looks of almost every other player, they greet Dottie with “Lovely”. When the press seems bored with the team’s practice, Dottie is able to stage a quick photo op by doing the splits while catching a baseball in front of photographers.
A big part of Dottie’s appeal for the league is how natural it seems. Madonna’s Mae is all red lipstick and curlers, almost too feminine, but Dottie positions herself as the chaste and natural beauty alongside Mae’s unrelenting sloppiness.
The same emphasis on naturalness comes with Dottie’s talent as a baseball player. Her little sister Kit works like a demon to become a great gamer, but for most of the film Dottie outshines her without obviously trying. Dottie is so just so good, the implication is that she can afford to throw her talent away if she wants to. She’s not the kind of woman who makes a fuss when the men come home from the war and want their wives to get back in the kitchen. She is ambitious and so non-threatening.
The film’s tension comes from the ambiguity of how much Dottie really cares about being good at baseball and whether she’s actually trying — being a great player, catching press attention — and working at the same time hard to appear that she isn’t. That’s why the climax, in which Dottie loses a play to Kit and it’s not clear if she’s doing so on purpose or not, ends up so well. Any interpretation of Dottie’s actions will work with what we know about her character.
The new league for themselves, however looks at what happens to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League without Dottie, ambivalent or not. What to do if there is no perfect player?
The clearest thing about a Dottie analogue in the reboot is Carson by Abbi Jacobson. (Jacobson also co-created the new show.) Carson takes Dottie’s place as a point-of-view character, catcher, and eventually trainer for the Peaches, with a husband at war.
Still, Carson is nobody’s idea of a perfect All-American League representative. She wears makeup to look respectable but not like a great natural beauty. She’s a talented player but not the best on the team. She cannot hide the fact that she is not entirely happy in her marriage, that she does not particularly want children. She’s not the kind of person the league wants to sell to its fans.
In fact, none of the characters are new league for themselves fit easily into the ideal to which they are meant to fit, the Dottie, Queen of Diamonds. This makes it increasingly clear how unrealistic and unfair this ideal is.
One by one, the Rockford Peaches’ many butch players are being punished for not being feminine enough. One is kicked off the team for failing magic school, while another is fined for wearing pants outside the house.
The problem of players not living up to the league’s female ideal is compounded by the fact that many of them are explicitly gay here. (Every oddity in the original film was strictly subtextual.) “Why do you think they’re doing all this, Carson?” asks Greta as they make the rounds of magic school. “It’s to make sure we don’t look like a bunch of gays. That’s what it’s all about.”
Glamorous Greta, who uses her femininity as a defensive weapon to hide her own weirdness, makes it a priority to master the charm school curriculum. It’s not good for her. Misogynous fans mock her for blowing kisses at the crowd, then crow that she’s asking for their taunt. The league’s management tells her that, like her 1992 analogue Mae, she’s “a little too much.”
All of the players on the 2022 show are explicitly ambitious, and all are belittled by both their coach and their fans for trying to take their jobs seriously. And unlike Tom Hanks’ slowly redeemed Jimmy, Coach Dove won’t be swayed by the sheer hard work of his players. As soon as he gets a better job offer, he leaves the Peaches to their fate.
There is another character on the new one A league of its own who we might consider Dottie’s analogue. This is Max, a black woman who is a brilliant pitcher, played by Chanté Adams. It’s Max replicating the famous shot from the original film where Dottie plucks a viciously flung ball out of nowhere; Max, whom other characters refer to as both the most natural talent they’ve ever seen and a great beauty. However, for most of the season, Max finds no one willing to let her play. Yet Max manages best to create a space separate from the demands of the All-American League and her ideal wife.
Max is torn between the future her mother, Toni, who owns a beauty salon and wants Max to take over, and the alternative path symbolized by Bertie, Toni’s long-lost sister, who turns out to be trans she paints. In the end, Max finds her own way. She cuts off the hair that Toni has raved about; When Bertie gives her a suit, she wears the trousers and waistcoat but not the jacket. She is so rejected by every seat of power that she is forced to build her own ideal. When she finally makes it onto a real pro baseball team, she does so through the solidarity of another queer Black woman.
Meanwhile, Carson’s eventual transformation into a heroine comes not through her athletic talent or beauty or modesty, but through her ability to build a community with her teammates. With Coach Dove gone, Carson takes over as coach and is able to mold her unruly teammates into a loving and mutually supportive group. Under Carson, the Peaches start winning games, but their real redemption comes from learning how to take care of each other.
The 1992 league for themselves is a great film, in part for the attentiveness with which it explores Dottie’s own ambivalence about the ideal she embodies and her bond with gamers whom the press evidently considers less than she is. Most poignant is her relationship with Kit, who sees the world as less pretty and less gifted and less feminine than Dottie – but who wildly and unapologetically wants to be a great gamer. In the end, she turns out to be a better player than Dottie, and it’s impossible to tell if Dottie gave her that moment or if Kit wrested it away for herself.
The new A league of its own offers no similar moment of ambiguity. It knows that doing so would come with diminishing returns compared to the original. What makes this new show a great adaptation is that it instead removes the heart of the original film and builds a new one.
Because without a single Dottie to ambivalently embody the ideal demanded by the players – without a lady on the diamond – each character we see must find their own way of destroying the image of the woman they are target.