Directed by Penny Marshall from a script by Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel and based on a story by Kim Wilson & Kelly Candaele, “A League of Their Own” tells the true story of the World War II era All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). The film stars Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Rosie O’Donnell, Tom Hanks, and Madonna.
The movie is rightly famous for its uplifting story, its wonderful acting, the athleticism of its actors, and one of the most iconic lines ever spoken about baseball: “There’s no crying in baseball.”
What is less well known about “A League of Their Own” is just how risky it was. This production nearly killed several actors. It led to multiple concussions, bruising, and skin lacerations.
Let’s head to the summer of 1991 and take a look at the risky business of “A League of Their Own.”
There’s No Crying in Baseball: Safety Issues on Set
“A League of Their Own” (LOTO) began filming on July 10th, 1991. The baseball parks used in the production were Wrigley Field in Chicago, League Stadium in Huntingburg, Indiana, and Bosse Field in Evansville, Indiana, with pick-ups, inserts, and reshoots filmed at Jay Littleton Ball Park in Ontario, California.
The final week of filming took place in October 1991 at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. By most accounts this was a work hard, play hard film shoot with cast members going through baseball training camps to learn to play the game and shenanigans happening after wrap every day.
During the four months of filming, the cast kept themselves entertained by developing and performing an elaborate spoof musical production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” called “Jesus Christ Superstar Goes Hawaiian.”
This seems like a good time to mention that a lot has changed since 1992. For one thing, if LOTO were made today, there would be hours and hours of smartphone footage of this fascinating and funny-sounding musical the cast put together. But there were no smartphones in 1992 and the only cellphones in existence were the size of meatball subs.
We hope that by examining the risks in a major, hit Hollywood movie like “A League of Their Own” we can help current and future productions avoid the same safety issues. LOTO is a well-made movie, and everyone involved had the best of intentions. In fact, their intentions might have been too good…but we’ll get to that in a moment.
But, as Rosie O’Donnell admitted at the premiere, LOTO was also a set filled with cliques and competitiveness. And as every major star of the film as admitted – both then and over the last 30 years – this was also a film filled with injuries, some life-threatening.
Based on our research, the three biggest risks in the production of “A League of Their Own,” are:
- When Old Gloves Fail: Problematic Commitment to Authenticity
- Never Slide in Skirts: When Honoring Your Subject Goes Too Far
- If You Can’t Take the Heat: The Life-Threatening Dangers of Heat Stroke
Let’s take a look at why these safety issues existed on LOTO and how risk management could have increased the safety of the production and preserved the health of the actors.
First up: a common problem in period pieces, an over-commitment to period details.
When Old Gloves Fail: Problematic Commitment to Authenticity
Penny Marshall and company did an outstanding job recreating the period details of the film’s 1940s setting. From the authentic wool uniforms (more on this later), the attire of the extras, the ball fields chosen, and – sadly – the gloves used in the film.
As the actors recount in ESPNW’s oral history of the film, they trained with modern baseball gloves which have a reinforced webbing that make for easy, pain-free catches. But once production started, the actors switched to vintage, period gloves whose webbing is far less sturdy.
This led to several actors getting hit in the face with baseballs. When they held their gloves up to catch the ball, their gloves’ webbing would give way and the ball would slam into their faces.
This led to concussions for many of the actors. And at least one actor – Anne Ramsey – got a broken nose and multiple concussions. We know so much more now about the short-term and long-term side-effects of concussions than we knew in 1991. This was and is a serious health risk that could have delayed production. But it also could have permanently affected the health of the actors. All of this because of old gloves.
This issue is common; we have seen it time and again on period films. The production’s commitment to authentic period details leads them to make choices that put their actors (and crew) in danger. In this case, the gloves are too authentic.
Let’s look at how we can make them safer.
Teach Old Gloves New Tricks
The fact that this happened so many times is troubling. Once the first actor falls victim to the poor stitching of the period-accurate baseball gloves is when someone should have decided to make a change.
In all actuality, this issue should have been flagged during pre-production. As risk managers, we encourage our clients to on-board safety and risk management as early as possible in the process to help identify problems just like this one.
The safety issue is self-evident: One of the reasons the modern baseball glove exists is because the older version led to people getting hit in the face with baseballs. Production should have prepared for this known risk.
Professional risk managers would have collaborated with the creative team and the props department to create gloves that looked period appropriate on camera but were, in fact, reinforced to make them as sturdy as their modern counterparts.
By properly reinforcing the webbing on the gloves used in LOTO, we could have helped prevent our actors getting hit in the face with baseballs and the resulting concussions. This is not the only safety issue that comes from an overzealous commitment to authenticity.
Let turn our attention to the sister issue of old gloves, period costumes, and the all-too common problem of trying to honor historical figures through film.
Now batting: how too much respect can lead to injury.
Never Slide in Skirts: When Honoring Your Subject Goes Too Far
Let’s jump right in and explain the image above, because it is at the heart of what we are talking about here: that injury is real. The bruise is not the work of the make-up department. That is not fake blood dripping down actor Renée Coleman’s thigh. That is all real.
When something is real, it is not filmmaking. Filmmaking is fake. We are in the business of selling illusions through the magic of lighting, acting, lenses, blocking, and all the other tricks of the trade. Our goal is to make things believable, not to make them real.
Coleman was not the only actor to get injuries like this. By all accounts, every baseball player in the film left bruised, cut, scraped, concussed, and in some sort of pain. Many of these injuries – including Coleman’s above – came from the actors playing in period costumes.
In a slight twist on the issue of the old gloves, the issue here not simply one of period accuracy. This has just as much to do with the production’s respect for the women whose story this is.
The Frequent Logic of Honorific Films
The real women of the AAGPBL suffered from injuries like the one pictured above. They also suffered real discrimination, real sexual harassment, and real bruises and scrapes from sliding in a skirt.
The production – and many of the actors – wanted to honor those women’s sacrifices and suffering, and so they had the actors suffer too.
We have seen this logic at play on many a period film set. Especially films that are geared toward honoring the achievements, sacrifices, and suffering of their subjects. But this should never mean the actors should repeat those sacrifices or that suffering.
Because, for one thing, the actors are not – and cannot – repeat the achievements. For another, it is not like the production is stopping the actors from using Ibuprofen which wasn’t available to the women in the AAGPBL. Nor was it stopping the actors from using sunscreen, which the women in the AAGPBL likely didn’t have access to at the time.
But mostly, the argument against this type of thinking is simple: because no one should be purposefully injured while making a movie.
Let’s look at how we can make the uniforms believably of-the-period but still safe.
How to Slide Safely
The look of the movie and the appearance of authenticity is vital, so we are not going to advocate that the production change the skirts. To make these uniforms safe to slide in, however, we would ask the production strategic questions designed to help them lean more heavily on the tricks of filmmaking, and less on the recreating the injuries these players suffered.
We would be sure to flag this issue during the pre-production discussion of the costumes and uniforms. That is the best time to prepare for the obvious issues of sliding in a skirt. Three questions we would ask might be:
- Can the sliding actors wear nude leggings during the shot? By outfitting the actors for a sliding scene in leggings made-up to look like their bare legs, we can supply solid protection from the known threat of injury.
- Can we hide protection under the uniform? By letting the costume department sew in padding into the pants worn under the skirt, we can further decrease the risk of injury.
- What about filming the slides from behind the sliding actor? If we can place the camera behind the sliding actor, we can have the actor wear whatever we want under the skirt because we won’t see it.
As the old saying goes, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Well, in this case the production team knew of the injuries suffered by the real women of the AAGPBL and chose to intentionally repeat them.
It is one thing to honor the subjects of our films. It is another thing entirely to repeat their suffering in an attempt to honor them. They really suffered. Because they had to. Having highly paid actors – who made more in a few months than most of the AAGPBL made in their entire lives, in and out of baseball – injure themselves is not a form of honor.
Take it from us. Our risk management department is made up entirely of military veterans. And war movies are the pinnacle of the honor-through-suffering film logic. But having your actors go through bootcamp or survival training or similar– while making hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions – is not the same as serving your country.
When it comes to honoring your subjects the best thing to do is tell a good story. To make a good movie that will stand the test of time. Case in point: few remember the injuries suffered by the actors in LOTO, but we all remember the film itself and the story of the AAGPBL. These injuries were foreseeable, preventable, and entirely unnecessary.
Now stepping to the plate: Heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
If You Can’t Take the Heat: The Life-Threatening Dangers of Heat Stroke
The field where they filmed much of the baseball action for the movie was over 110 degrees, sometimes reaching over 120 degrees.
Now seems like a good time to remind you that the many of the period uniforms were made of wool.
Needless to say, actors and crew members passed out and vomited from the heat. These are serious, life-threatening warning signs. According to the CDC, over 700 people die every year from heat-related illnesses. Let’s take a moment to understand heat illnesses.
A Quick Primer on Heat Illnesses
There are two major heat illnesses: heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has this helpful infographic:
People lost consciousness on the set of LOTO. This means that actors and crew members passed through heat exhaustion without treatment and were in active heat stroke.
Heat stroke occurs when your body can no longer regulate its temperature. When this happens your body’s temperature rises rapidly, you stop sweating, your body cannot cool down, and your temperature may rise to 106°F or higher within just a few minutes. Heat stroke can, and will, lead to death in a matter of minutes if emergency action is not taken.
We encourage all of our productions to familiarize themselves with the life-saving emergency procedures for someone suffering from heat stroke. But the best safety strategy is to avoid heat exhaustion and heat stroke altogether. Let’s look at how LOTO could have done just that.
Tips for Filming in Extreme Heat
The best advice is: don’t film in extreme heat if at all possible. But the nature of filmmaking requires that we sometimes film during adverse conditions because we can’t afford to wait.
In the event that you must film during extreme heat, we recommend that you do the following:
- Stock up on Ice and Water: make sure you have far more ice and water than you think you will need. You simply cannot have enough of either when filming in extreme heat conditions.
- Tighten Your Prep and Shot List: In extreme heat it is vital that you know exactly what shots you are getting and when. There is not time for extra takes or to “feel it out.” You must plan ahead.
- Provide Ample Air Conditioned, Indoor Spaces: Your cast and crew should be kept out of the heat whenever possible.
- Prepare and Practice Out of the Heat: Set up an air-conditioned space – or at least a shady one – where you can brief the cast and crew on what you are going to film and how. Everyone must be on the same page before you step out into the heat.
- Out and Back Again: It is best to pop out into the heat, shoot the take, and then get back into the a/c to go over what might need to change before you shoot the next take. Do not get stuck directing and adjusting in the heat.
- Fewest Takes Possible: It is best to do as few takes as possible when filming in extreme heat. When you think you have captured the shot you need, move on. As the saying goes, “you can always fix it in post.”
- Allow Self-Regulation and Self-Reporting: Empower your cast and crew to take life-saving action themselves. Make sure everyone knows to seek safety as soon as they feel the symptoms of heat exhaustion. No one should try to “be a hero” and tough it out. Stop and seek safety if you feel dizzy or thirsty.
- Extra Emergency Crews On Site: When filming in extreme heat, it is vital that we have extra medics, EMTs, and other emergency staff on site. Heat illness should be treated as quickly as possible and a trip to the nearest hospital might be too long. With extra safety staff on hand, we can administer treatment immediately and save lives.
Had LOTO had risk managers on set, they would have been able to educate the cast and crew about the dangers they faced while filming in extreme heat. This would have helped everyone spot the signs of heat exhaustion, which would have stopped anyone from getting heat stroke.
The truth is everyone involved is lucky no one died. Heat stroke is serious and certainly not something a person should suffer while filming.
The Hard Is What Makes It Great: Bottom Line
Penny Marshall and company deserve immense credit for creating a classic film. It is a testament to the hard work of the cast and crew that the baseball scenes are so well executed and believable as to be unremarkable. As the late-critic Roger Ebert noted in his positive 1992 review of the film, “The baseball sequences, we’ve seen before.”
Had we been hired to manage the risks on “A League of Their Own” we would have advised the creative team during pre-production about the dangers of an over-commitment to period authenticity. From the gloves to the uniforms, we would help the production find ways to keep the believability of period while increasing safety.
We would also take the time necessary to remind them that they can honor these women without repeating their suffering. In fact, it is not an honor to see someone suffer for you when they could very easily avoid it.
During production, our risk managers would have helped the cast and crew properly prepare for filming in extreme heat. We would have made sure that there was more than enough ice and water, ample air-conditioned space, and extra emergency medical personnel. With proper planning, we could avoid heat stroke.
The truth is: making movies safer is hard. But as Tom Hank’s “A League of Their Own” character Jimmy Dugan says, “the hard is what makes it great.”
Geena Davis wasn’t the first choice to play Dottie Hinson; Demi Moore was. After Moore, Debra Winger took the role, but she dropped out when Madonna was cast, saying she thought it was going to be an “Elvis Presley musical.” But Davis’s portrayal is so smart and effortless that it is hard to imagine anyone else as Dottie. In many ways, Dottie Hinson marked the peak of Davis’s film career. Though, it would be hard for anyone to top the one-two punch of 1991’s “Thelma & Louise” and 1992’s “A League of Their Own.”
Davis, like many film actors, transitioned to television in the 21st century. She starred in her own show a couple of times and made memorable appearances in “The Exorcist,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “GLOW.” In 2004 she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to help increase the presence of female characters in media. For this ongoing work, she was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. You can see her later this year on Netflix in the forthcoming TV series “Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.”
Madonna tried as hard as she could to be a good baseball player on LOTO, but by her own admission, it was not meant to be. Her fielding skills were lacking to the point that production moved her from the infield to the outfield. Her career in film has been off-and-on over the last thirty years, but her music career has continued unimpeded for decades.
She is the best-selling female recording artist of all time, with over 300 million records sold. Madonna is still the highest-grossing female touring artist worldwide, with over $1.5 billion in concert tickets. She is one of the few artists to remain popular over a four – going on five-decade time span, having been the top-earning female musician eleven times since the 1980s. Madonna was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 and she is often listed among its greatest music artists of all time. It has been almost twenty years since Madonna appeared onscreen in something other than a music video. Her last on-screen credit is a 2003 episode of “Will and Grace.”
After a career in stand-up comedy, Rosie O’Donnell skyrocketed to stardom on the strength of her performance in LOTO, her first feature film role. She went onto famous roles in “Sleepless in Seattle” and “The Flintstones,” but her film career took a backseat once her talk show career took off. The Rosie O’Donnell Show was a massive daytime sensation during its run from 1996-2002. She followed this with appearances on “The View” and her own shows on the Oprah Winfrey Network. She had a magazine, a podcast, a radio show, and several best-selling books. You can see her today on episodes of Showtime’s “American Gigolo” opposite John Bernthal.
“A League of Their Own” marks the beginning of Tom Hank’s unprecedented starring role run in the last decade of the 20th century. He followed LOTO with starring roles in: “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993), “Philadelphia” (1993), “Forrest Gump” (1994), “Apollo 13” (1995), “Toy Story” (1995), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), “You’ve Got Mail” (1998), “Toy Story 2” (1999), “The Green Mile” (1999), and Castaway (2000).
That decade of dominance netted Hanks four Oscar nominations and two wins for best actor. Since then, his career has been less consistent. Hanks has never been able to reach those heights again. But then, who could? Those are historic heights and many of those films would likely not get made today. Case in point: you can find Hanks at your local multiplex starring as Geppetto in Disney’s live-action remake of “Pinocchio.”
Penny Marshall’s career high point was already in her rear view when she directed “A League of Their Own.” She is first and foremost remembered as the star of hit tv series “Laverne & Shirley” which ran from 1976-1983. But her directing career includes such hits as “Big” and “Awakenings.” Penny Marshall passed away on 17 December 2018 in Los Angeles. She was 75 years old.
“A League of Their Own” became a smash hit grossing over $132.4 million worldwide and continues to find new fans via endless rotation on cable and streaming services. In 2012, its cultural significance was cemented by the Library of Congress which selected it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
This film shined a light on a then-forgotten moment in America. As depicted in the final scene on the film, the women on the AAGPBL were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Its legacy lives on today in the form of a new television show on Amazon Prime.
“A League of Their Own” drove renewed interest in women’s sports, inspired countless women to pursue careers in athletics, and – perhaps most importantly – made the concept of women in sports seem not only normal, but old-news.
[Film Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures]
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
Major Sources and Further Reading:
Epitome Risk is a Woman-Owned, Veteran-Run, U.S.-Based risk management company, specializing in risk management and COVID-19 safety support for tv & film productions. Epitome Risk works together with the film unions, insurers, studios, and production companies to make every project as safe as possible.