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redeyechicago.com

How Penny Marshall made 'League' pass muster

Steve Rosenbloom

The RosenBlog

9:39 AM CDT, August 19, 2013

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Baseball was very important to Penny Marshall in her baseball movie. Now, that might sound obvious, but if you’ve ever seen, I don’t know, "The Pride of the Yankees"’ or "The Babe Ruth Story,"’ then you know how stupid baseball can look in a baseball movie.

But not in "A League of Their Own."’ Marshall, a massive Yankees fan, wouldn’t allow it. She made sure the women didn’t "play like girls."

In fact, shooting for the movie started a year late on the 1992 classic film in part because Marshall had trouble finding women who looked skilled enough to portray members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

"Ballplayers that I know have said that was a great movie,"’ Marshall said in a Tribune interview recently. "Because I could get busted on the baseball part. The girls had to be able to play.

"I had the late Rod Dedeaux, the baseball coach from USC, try out all the girls. I wouldn’t read an actress unless they passed the baseball test because I couldn’t double everyone.’"

For actresses on the East Coast, there was then-St. John’s baseball coach Joe Musso. He tried out and/or trained Madonna, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, Joan Jett, Brooke Shields and Uma Thurman.

Musso told Madonna to "take her stance," according to a Sports Illustrated story during the making of the film, and Madonna asked, "What’s a stance?" Russo said his main job was to "make sure they don’t throw like girls. A lot of them do, you know."

Marshall knew it and would have none of it.

"If they could not play, I wouldn’t read them," Marshall said. "If they were trainable, then they came in and I read them."

Or sometimes she just had one over to the house. Marshall is like that. In my experience, she’s honest, funny and guileless. I interviewed her during a Lakers-Pistons NBA Finals game nine years ago, and in the course of talking about her love of sports and acquiring such things as Christy Mathewson’s old chess table, she invited me up to the house to see everything. Of course she did.

I have loved this woman since her scene-stealing turn as the wonderfully nasal secretary for Oscar Madison, role model for everyone in my business, and I loved that she was inviting me to her house to show off her sports collectibles.

That’s sort of the way Geena Davis landed the female lead in "A League of Their Own." After Demi Moore turned up pregnant and Debra Winger quit, reportedly because Madonna was cast in the film, the role of Dottie Hinton remained open, and there was no film without Dottie Hinson.

But it couldn’t be just any actress. Marshall needed someone attractive but also someone who could pass the baseball test. And so, Marshall invited Davis up to her house and ran her through a tryout in her backyard. I guess Davis passed.

I love that story. Very Penny Marshall. Very Hollywood. Like Marshall casting her daughter as Betty "Spaghetti" Horn. And Ann Cusack of the acting Cusacks playing Shirley Baker, the left fielder who can’t read.

The movie resounds today, more than a generation after its release, and it resounds for more than Tom Hanks screaming the deathless, "There’s no crying in baseball."

"Parents come up to me and say, 'My daughter loves your movie. She plays softball all the time,'" Marshall said. "At least they get off the computers and go out and play a game."

I love Penny Marshall and I love "A League of Their Own." I love that we're showing it Wednesday night at the Music Box and I’d love for you to get off your computers and join Tribune Film Critic Michael Phillips and me. But only after you go here to buy tickets.

Time’s running out, and $15 is a bargain for a big-screen showing of a classic movie in a way you haven’t seen it for decades. A deal for the whole family. The price also includes Phillips’ full Skyped interview with Marshall and a post-screening Q&A in which we’ll be joined by Ellie Weingardt, the Highland Park actress who portrayed the charm school teacher in the film.