The Girls Of Summer

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THE BOTTOM LINE: A basebelle movie finds humor in a feminist footnote.

When his star catcher threatens to quit the team, complaining that the game is too hard, manager Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) snaps, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great."

His words apply to movies as well as baseball. If the people responsible for A League of Their Own had tried just a little harder to avoid easy laughs and easy sentiment, they might have made something like a great movie. As it is, they have made a good movie, amiable and ingratiating.

Ordinarily, that would not be a cause for complaint. But the fact is that they have an extraordinary subject, and you can't help wishing they had been completely up to it. For that reluctant catcher is a woman named Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis). She is the star of the Rockford Peaches, which belongs to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, an organization that remains one of the fascinating footnotes in the history of sports and feminism.

Founded as a wartime improvisation in 1943, when the military had taken most of the male ballplayers and thereby virtually wiped out the minor leagues, the women's circuit managed to persist for 11 seasons. Its initial appeal was a combination of the freaky (Hey, Herb, you think maybe they chew tobacco too?) and the sexy (You should see them little skirts fly up when they slide!). But there were a lot of frustrated tomboys out there who loved the game and were good at it, and who were willing to brave male haw-hawing (and genteel feminine disapproval) in order to strut their skills.

% For most of the well-cast Peaches lineup (which includes Madonna as a sexually outre outfielder), playing in the league is pure pleasure, a larkish flight from hometown constraints. But Davis, an entrancing mixture of wariness, reserve and quiet gumption, finds something more in it, an authentic awareness of the ambiguity of the women's position -- they are being exploited, after all -- which requires a lifetime for her to resolve. That's good, and so is her abrasive relationship with a kid sister (Lori Petty), a pitcher on the team who resents her elder sibling's cool, dispassionate competence.

Hanks plays an alcoholic former major leaguer who is given a last chance for redemption as the Peaches skipper. As a traditional male placed in a distinctly untraditional role, he is given a lot of bluster and vulgarity to play. Too much of it. It forces him away from the reality he's also trying gamely to find. The same could be said of the whole picture. Energetic, full of goodwill and good feelings, it never quite attains the graceful nonchalance and self-confidence with which finely tuned athletes -- and comedies -- move and enchant us.