Dalila Ali Rajah
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How A League of Their Own Is Changing the Game for Queer and Black Women

A league of their own

Partway into the pilot of the hotly anticipated Prime Video series A League of Their Own, Max Chapman — a ringer of a pitcher — arrives at the field where tryouts for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League are under way. On that Midwestern field in the 1940s, the women are literally hitting it out of the park, sliding into home, and catching pop-up balls behind their backs with ease. There’s a sense of joy among them, some housewives, others young women just out of school, for whom ballplaying was purely avocational, something they couldn’t take seriously if there were a meal to cook, laundry to fold, dishes to wash — that is, until the major leagues were gutted during World War II. With the male players off to war, they finally got their chance.

While players like Abbi Jacobson’s Carson and D’Arcy Carden’s Greta revel in the hope of becoming among the first women to play ball professionally, Max is turned away without a shot because she’s Black. Before exiting without a tryout, she fires a ball a few hundred yards over the heads of the women, umpires, and executives trying to make a buck off “girls’ baseball.” (“Who was that?” Carson exclaims.)

It’s the first scene in the series from creators Jacobson and Will Graham and queer executive producers Desta Tedros Reff and Jamie Babbit (who also directs) that signals to the audience that this is not your mother’s A League of Their Own. The 1992 Penny Marshall film that starred Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Rosie O’Donnell, and Madonna is a beloved piece of nostalgia that did much to tell the story of the forgotten women who played professional ball for a time. But the series goes deeper than that slice of all-American apple pie and hands back narratives to Black women who were barred from the AAGPBL, Latinx women who were a part of the league but not amplified, and queer women who found an abiding community with one another, whose stories were just under the surface in the film (O’Donnell confirmed to The Advocate in 2020 that she considered her character Doris to be gay, even if it wasn’t explicitly said).

A league of their own

Light spoilers ahead...

 

“I haven’t put anything out into the world that felt like I put so much of myself into it in a number of years. I’m feeling all the things and very excited because I feel really proud of it,” says Jacobson, whose married Carson falls for Greta while her husband is away at war. Jacobson — perhaps best known as one half of the hilarious, charming duo of best friends in Broad City (along with Ilana Glazer) who smoked weed, got into shenanigans, and loved each other deeply above all — says she’s nervous about League dropping because she cares so much about the show that’s been in the works since before the pandemic.

“This one is about a lot of big, important things — stories [that are] inspired by real people. And there’s a responsibility behind that,” she says.

“It’s also, you know, a reimagining of people’s favorite movie,” she adds with a knowing laugh.

For Jacobson, who first spoke publicly about being bisexual in 2018, the queer series is personal. It features queer femmes, butches, Black queer characters, trans folks, and several characters on a gender spectrum like the players and friends Jess (Kelly MacCormack) and Lupe (Vida and Fun Home’s Roberta Colindrez), one character representing Latinx players denied their stories.

A league of their own

Abbi Jacobson as Carson Shaw 

Jacobson was just a kid when the film came out, but she remembers it fondly. It was the first time she felt validated in movies or TV as a girl who was into sports. For fans of the movie who may have trepidation about a “remake,” Jacobson assures the series isn’t that and it’s so much more.

“This movie does not need to be remade, but the stories of this generation of women who not only dreamed of playing baseball but were fucking good at it were not fully told in the film, right? The real estate of a two-hour film versus [that] of a television show to really show those marginalized stories and the stories that the film overlooked [makes a difference],” Jacobson says. “Some of the aspects of that league that were overlooked in the film, we thought were really important. I don’t think of it as a remake…the movie will be right over here whenever you want to watch it. And ours, hopefully, can exist right next to it. [The series] is expanding the lens a little bit to show more stories of athletes at the time.”

A league of their own

The Rockford Peaches 

For Chanté Adams, who plays Max, a church-raised young woman who works at her mother’s hair salon while dreaming of the big leagues (and has a fling with the preacher’s wife on the side), A League of Their Own is part of her mission to share untold stories.

“When I envision my perfect career, this is the type of work that I want to continue to keep on doing,” Adams says about playing a character who pays homage to three Black women ballplayers in the Negro Leagues who never got their due — Toni Stone, Connie Morgan, and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson.

“Through this story, I feel like I’m honoring my family. I feel like I’m honoring my ancestors. I’m from Detroit. I’m a Midwestern girl. My dad is a historian, our family historian, and so [our story] involves the great migration and moving up from the South to find a better life in these factories,” Adams says.

A league of their own

Gbemisola Ikumelo as Clance and Chanté Adams as Max 

Max is also queer and later discovers that her mother’s sibling was ostracized by the family for being trans — a story that resonates with Adams.

“When we [Adams, Jacobson, Graham] sat down and talked, I told them about…an uncle that was estranged from the family because he was gay. And he was Black. And it was the ’40s,” Adams says. “He ended up moving to San Francisco. I don’t know much about him; all I know [is] that his name was accurate. And I’ve been trying to research and find as much information on him as I can these past couple of years. [The creators] so graciously allowed the father of my character to be named Edgar in honor of my uncle, who passed away back in the ’80s.”

Max’s uncle represents an LGBTQ+ person of a silent generation making their own community, while the queer women of the central team, the Rockford Peaches, discover one another through friendship and romance. The love story that unfolds between Carson and Greta is sure to become a fan favorite. A queer femme, Greta, along with a friend and chosen family member, team slugger Jo (Melanie Field), has found a code to survive in a time when being queer could land a person in jail and ostracized from society. But others are queer too, including Lupe and Jess. And O’Donnell turns up halfway through the series playing someone who is queer and finally gets to say it, unlike her 1992 character.

Adams, who starred in the Laverne Cox vehicle Bad Hair, isn’t surprised by the nuanced storytelling, given the care taken behind the scenes to ensure as many voices as possible were represented. She recalls meeting the folks in the writers’ room over Zoom. “I got choked up…. There were Black women, queer people, trans people. It was exactly how it should be when doing a show of this caliber and in doing a show that is going to be representing so many different groups of people,” she says, adding that the makeup of the writers’ room is also reflected across the set.

A league of their own

Adams and Jacobson 

“I’ve never been on a show that had this many queer people and this many people of color,” she adds.

If the fact that several Peaches in the series and many women from the other teams are queer (many of whom Lupe and Jess get to know intimately) seems like an outsized number, AAGPBL player Maybelle Blair, who came out publicly at 95 at a screening of the series at Tribeca in June, begs to differ.

“Out of 650 [players], I bet you 400 was gay,” Blair, who was dubbed “all the way May” for her prowess on the diamond, said at a panel for the series at the Frameline Film Festival a week after coming out.

“It was wonderful.… So many of the girls came in from the farms and they came in from all over the United States. And a lot of them thought they were alone too. And we had quite a time. There were so many gays in the league. It was amazing. Oh, but you know…let’s face it, we’re good athletes,” she said.

The series leans into a lot of joy — of playing ball, of finding love, and friendship. But it’s not naïve about the real threat of being found out as a queer person, a line that the charismatic and flirty Greta cautiously straddles.

A league of their own

Jacobson with D’Arcy Carden as Greta

“Those days…you wouldn’t dare be caught being gay. You have no idea how fearful it was. A lot of the girls that were in the service would come and visit us as our friends,” Blair says in a phone interview. “I had a lot of friends [who were] kicked out of the service on account of being gay. We had to be very careful.”

A League of Their Own has been in the works for about five years, and Jacobson met Blair in 2018. Between the time Blair came on board as a consultant — she’s now an integral part of the show’s press and screening tour — the documentary A Secret Love, about AAGPBL player Terry Donahue and her wife, Pat Henschel, wowed viewers on Netflix. Donahue, who died in 2019, was a friend of Blair’s. The relationship that developed between Blair and the show’s creative team became a critical piece of the series and a living example of the power of storytelling.

“We were developing the show and we sort of told her about our own lives. And she shared with us. It was important because she had not come out publicly until Tribeca,” Jacobson says. “I felt so privileged that she did that with us and felt that trust between us.”

While the series touches on difficult issues of race, gender presentation, queerness, and women’s rights, she sees it ultimately as one of joy in our current times when conservative politicians are seeking to shove queer people back into the shadows with anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

“I feel honored to tell those stories that were kept a secret,” Jacobson says. “And hope that that they might inspire people to feel like they’re not alone, wherever they are, if it is a place that is not accepting.”

 

This story is part of The Advocate’s 2022 History issue, which is out on newsstands August 30. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.

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