A few weeks back I realized that I’ve been remiss in a basic fatherhood duty: I haven’t introduced my kids to the great baseball movies. Over the summer we did watch The Bad News Bears, about which I’ve already written.
But there are plenty of other gems in the baseball film canon. So this offseason we’ll fill the baseball-less days with fantastic film after fantastic film.
Today we watched A League of Their Own. I went to see it at the theater with my dad and my two sisters when it came out, and I loved it. I’ve seen it a couple dozen times, but probably only once in fifteen years, if at all. So when I watched it with my youngest son and youngest daughter (the two most likely to be interested in such a film) I remembered most of it, but found new appreciation for some scenes.
My son in particular was enthralled, both with the story and the games. My daughter liked it, too, although at one point she did try to cover her ears with tape so she didn’t have to listen to any of the “crappy music” playing in the scene where the team goes dancing at night.
There are a few memorable scenes in the film. (There’s no crying. There’s no crying in baseball.) But one scene in particular is still up for debate a quarter century after the film’s release. (Stop reading here to avoid a spoiler of sorts.)
Did she drop the ball on purpose?
That’s the question that my son asked me shortly after the pivotal play. “She” referred to Dottie Hinson, of course, who’s played by Geena Davis. Dottie was the catcher, and her sister, Kit (Lori Petty)—who had just been traded to a different team due to tension between the two of them—had just collided with Dottie at the plate. Dottie caught the ball, and tagged Kit as she barreled through her, knocking Dottie onto her back, and then the ball rolled from her hand, onto the ground.
Had Dottie hung onto the ball, Kit would have been out. The game—which just happened to be the seventh game of the World Series in the first season of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League—would have been tied at the end of nine innings. But when Dottie dropped it, Kit scored, and her team—the Racine Belles—won the Series.
Without having watched the film, one wouldn’t understand the significance of whether Dottie dropped the ball on purpose or not.
Throughout the film we see the difficulty of Dottie and Kit’s relationship. Dottie is the baseball superstar. When the league forms the scout wants Dottie to try out; he’s not even interested in Kit. But Kit talks her way into tying Dottie’s availability to hers, so they both move from Oregon to undertake professional baseball.
Dottie’s been the superstar her whole life. She’s more athletic, more of a natural leader, prettier, and more level-headed. It’s obvious that Kit has been struggling to keep up her whole life. Her feistiness and determination—Dottie calls her a mule, she calls Dottie a nag—are serious assets though, and compared to any other play but Dottie she can hold her own.
Near the end of the season Kit doesn’t think Dottie is supporting her enough (Kit’s a pitcher, Dottie’s a catcher), they get into a fight, Dottie threatens to quit, and in order to get her to stay, the league trades Kit to another team. Kit’s furious, as she sees this as just another sleight upon her in favor of Dottie, and the Series begins with Kit angry at Dottie, and Dottie quitting to return home with her husband, who just returned home from World War II.
Then, with the game and the Series on the line, the events above happen.
And we’re left with the question, Did Dottie drop the ball on purpose?
Some signs point toward no. Dottie had just gone out to tell the pitcher how to get Kit out (High fastballs. “She can’t hit ‘em, and she can’t lay off of ‘em.”)
Dottie has an intense competitive drive, apparent even in small moments like when she refuses to let Kit walk faster than her when they’re on the farm back in Oregon.
And Dottie had also just put her team in the lead the previous half inning. If she had pity for Kit then, she could have just struck out when facing her, rather than lacing a two-out, two-run hit to put her team in the lead.
Other signs point to yes. Dottie has a look of contented defeat as she watches Kit’s team celebrate from the dugout.
After Kit was traded Dottie said she’d do whatever Kit wanted her to do to fix it, so she obviously felt bad.
Earlier in the film Dottie had taken a similar hit and held on to the ball.
So what’s the right answer? Did she drop the ball on purpose?
I don’t know. I haven’t spent any time investigating. I don’t want to know the answer. I suspect that Penny Marshall, who directed the film, left it ambiguous on purpose. But if the “true” answer is out there, then it can stay out there.
It’s enough for me that my son recognized the possibility that she dropped it on purpose. He understood the foundational conflict between the two main ballplayers in the film.
I’ve always liked A League of Their Own, but after watching it again, I like it more than ever. It’s got so much heart in so many different ways. So many people are trying to prove themselves.
All of the women want to prove that women’s baseball is exciting. Kit wants to prove she can keep up with Dottie. Dottie wants to prove that baseball isn’t that important to her, that’s it’s not something she needs, but rather just something she’s doing. Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), the team’s manager, wants to prove he’s not just a hopeless drunk. Ira (David Strathairn) wants to prove he can make the league a success when the owners think it’s going to fail.
By the time the critical play unfolds near the end, whether you think she dropped the ball on purpose or not, you’re right.
Simply asking the question is enough.
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