Last year I wrote about the Penny Marshall movie A League of Their Own. It featured the All-American Girl’s Professional Baseball League organized in 1942 when it was feared that the men’s major league would be cancelled due to the war.
A few months afterward I was thrilled to receive an email from Kelly Candaele: “Hello Pat, I know you have written about A League of Their Own so I wanted to let you know about my doc “A League of Their Own” from years ago (which caught the attention of Penny Marshall.) Perhaps your readers would like to see the documentary that led to the Columbia Pictures movie. The real players are even more interesting than the movie ones.”
Kelly gave me permission to use parts of his story, published in the New York Times June 7, 1992.
Kelly’s Mom. Helen Callaghan, is in the front row – glove at feet and ready to play!
Mom Was in a League of Her Own
“Why didn’t I get her swing?” This is a question I ask myself whenever I look at that old black and white picture of my mother at the plate in 1945. If I had had a choice of any physical attribute my parents were able to pass on to me, I would definitely have taken her swing.
From that single photo I understand how for five years, my mother made her living playing professional baseball in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. The league, started in 1943 by the owner of the Chicago Cubs, Phillip K. Wrigley, lasted 10 years. My mom and her sister Margaret were recruited to the league from Canada by one of Branch Rickey’s scouts. While it lasted, millions of fans came out to watch the Fort Wayne Daisies, the Rockford Peaches and eight other teams show what they had. For uniforms, they wore tunic dresses to keep, as Wrigley insisted, “the feminine angle.”
Big Stuff in Little Leagues
I grew up in Lompoc, Calif., with something that no other kid in school had: a mother who played professional baseball. In Little League I would gleefully await the annual “powder-puff” game dreamed up by the city fathers. It was a midseason game in which the kids’ mothers took the field to, it was hoped, look silly and make fools of themselves by “playing like girls.”
My mother would always put on a display of hitting, throwing, running and catching that made me proud. She was clearly better than any of the men who crowded around to laugh. Kids and their parents would gather round and ask in amazement the same question every year. “Where did your mom learn to play?” I always answered quickly. “She played professional baseball in the 1940′s.” “You mean softball,” they’d say. “No, I mean hardball, overhand, stealing, sliding, real baseball.”
And now she and her teammates and the real baseball they played are the focus of a new movie, “A League of Their Own,” starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks and Madonna, to be released on July 1.
And there was always specific advice. Whenever I was in a hitting slump, which in my case was much of the time, she was there with a suggestion. “Try bunting,” she would say with conviction. “When I was in a slump, I always bunted.”
I was taught, in high school in the late 60′s, that women were only then entering forcefully into athletics for “the first time.” It was considered a major advance when girls’ softball was established on a competitive basis. This “great advance” seemed rather quizzical to me, given my mother’s experience. My friend Kim Wilson and I wanted to set history straight. In 1988 after an evening reminiscing with my mother, we decided to make a film documenting the women’s pro league.
Our greatest joy in producing our film came at the beginning. We discovered a gold mine of old 16mm film the ex-ballplayers had stashed away in basements and garages.
We shot most of the documentary film at a reunion of the league in Fort Wayne, Ind. My mom played for the Daisies in 1945, ’46 and ’48, winning the batting crown in 1945 with a solid .299 average. The reporters of her day called her the “feminine Ted Williams.”
One More Hit
The highlight of the reunion was the old-timers game in which my mom took the field once again. For five innings I watched her. The snap in the wrists was still there. She still got great jumps on balls hit to the outfield. She made a final lunge while crossing first base to beat out an infield hit. The fire was still there.
Shortly after the documentary, also called “A League of Their Own,” aired nationwide on PBS, Kim and I were summoned to the home of the director, Penny Marshall, to talk about a possible feature film based around the league.
In talking with Penny, we knew she understood how important the game and the league were to the women who played. Penny found out later from the players that the women shared a cherished common experience that forever tied them one to another. The men had World War II; these women had the All American Girls Professional Baseball League.
In Hollywood, no baseball movie is really “about baseball.” If you want to see just baseball, the producers’ logic goes, go to a Dodger game. You can get a bleacher seat for six bucks and Strawberry just might hit one out. So the rule is, you must say the movie is “really about a man’s search for meaning,” or “two sisters’ enduring love for one another.” That kind of thing.
So there had to be a story that could sustain the film for two hours in between the hitting, sliding and flailing skirts. A story meeting was set up with scriptwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Ganz and Mandel are baseball nuts, the kind of guys who know that the 1930-32 Yankees went 308 games without being shut out.
Ideas Strike Out
I sat on the couch between Ganz and Mandel and listened as the writers literally shouted potential story lines at Marshall on the other side of the room. Nothing seemed to be exciting Marshall, so after about 20 minutes I suggested that perhaps there should be a “big game” toward the end of the movie that resolves some central conflict. It was not for nothing that I’ve watched 20 years of Hollywood movies. There was dead silence. This was clearly Ganz and Mandel’s meeting.
Later, Kim and I worked up a story line that is, I’m happy to say, very close to the end product. It’s about, well, two sisters’ enduring love for one another.
I’ve seen the film, and it has got just the right mixture of laughs, tears and darn good baseball.
Casey’s Astro teammates kid him all the time now that the film is almost out. My mom used a bigger bat than he does. She stole 114 bases in one season, more than he has in his career. It’s lighthearted stuff you say only to someone you respect. But the best incident was when a young would-be starlet accosted him in a St. Louis hotel lounge in a futile attempt to get a tryout for the role that Madonna was eventually picked for. Casey suggested that the place to be discovered was at the corner of Sunset and Vine, not at Busch Stadium.
When the film opens on July 1, I’ll be at the Lompoc Theater with my mom. We’ll sit in the middle row with a big bag of popcorn, no butter. I’ll have one eye on the screen and the other on my mom, just to see if Penny got it right. I’ll also be wondering if my mom ever regretted not having a girl, a girl she could have raised to do “girl” things. I doubt it. I think that if my mother had had a girl, she would have wanted her to have had the thrills she had. The kind of high that only comes from getting a great jump on a slow-witted pitcher or cutting down a cocky base runner trying to stretch it to second on a base hit to right.
Kelly Candaele is a writer living in Los Angeles. His work has appeared frequently in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. The documentary was awarded an Emmy as part of a public television series.
Thanks, Kelly, for a great story. I highly recommend the movie and the documentary… it’s a rare tidbit of World War II era history!
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