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Will Graham and Abbi Jacobson love A League of Their Own as much as everyone else — if not more — and want their newly ordered Amazon take on the women’s baseball film to coexist and expand on the world that Penny Marshall brought to a mainstream audience in 1992.
The friends and co-creators of the Amazon drama, ordered to series Thursday after two years in development, met with scores of surviving members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — as well as Marshall and the film’s stars — and want to deliver an authenticity of what the era was truly like for everyone. That means exploring how, as one former player said, the league was like a party for lesbians — years before the Stonewall riots that gave birth to the gay rights movement. Racism will also be a central theme in Amazon’s A League of Their Own and explore how Black players weren’t even allowed to try out for the league.
“This series is going to tell the story of inclusion, but it’s also going to tell the story of exclusion and what happens when that magic door doesn’t open for you — how do you have to find another way to do the thing that you love,” Graham says.
In their first interview about their take on A League of Their Own, Graham and star Jacobson talk exclusively with The Hollywood Reporter about feedback from Marshall and original star Geena Davis, how the period drama will remain timely, and their hopes for honoring both the spirit of the movie and an entire generation of women.
How did the first idea to do the show come up and how did you wind up working together?
Graham: I had always been obsessed with the movie. I played Little League for eight years and I’m queer and it was torture and I never felt like I fit in. That’s part of why I was so obsessed with the movie as a kid. It’s a story that has this queer subtext about how you can find a place on the field. I started looking into the queer history of the league and started thinking of it. Abbi and I were friends and having dinner one night and told her I was thinking about it. She loved the movie and we started talking about it.
Jacobson: Will asked if I wanted to do it together and I said yes immediately. I grew up loving the movie as well. I was in the middle of writing season four of Broad City and we had just done this episode with a montage of powerful, revolutionary women, and our editor at the time wanted to put Mamie Johnson in it. I didn’t know who she was. She was one of the first and only Black women to play in the male Negro leagues professionally. When Will and I started talking about the ways in which we wanted to do our version, that felt more real, nuanced and gritty and [a way to] incorporate more women’s stories.
Graham: We both love the spirit and tone of the movie and the sense of joy around it. The movie is great and there would never be a reason to remake the movie just to do it. It was the discovery of all of these stories — that it felt like looking at them from this time, there’s so much there that hadn’t been told. In talking to a few of the former players about their experience as queer women at the time — one of them said to us, “It was a party.” As a gay person, I never heard anyone say that about a pre-Stonewall event in gay history. There’s this sense of joy, and they actually got to find things they loved and it felt like that would be a good story to tell right now.
The film has a famous scene where a Black woman has a huge throw of a stray ball, implying that there was a whole other fight for equality going on at the same time. How much of what you’re planning will lean into that?
Jacobson: The pilot, more than the rest of the series, nods to the film in a bunch of different ways. But we are really leaning into the fact that Black women weren’t allowed to even try out. Our version is very much about inclusion of women in professional baseball, but it’s also about the inclusion of white women and white-passing women in professional baseball. There are really heavy scenes that we’re also exploring in a major way.
Graham: You look at story of Mamie Johnson and Toni Stone or the other players who found their own paths to playing professionally when the door to the league didn’t open for them, and they’re incredible stories. It took so much will and determination. The chance to be able to tell this story, not just about the league but about this whole generation of women and their experience in the sport, we feel so lucky to be part of the team doing it.
Knowing it was a “party pre-Stonewall” for the players, how do you plan to explore sexuality — and race, especially if there are no Black players allowed in the AAGPBL? How much will the show explore racism?
Graham: A lot of it. We’re not telling the story of the league; we’re telling the story of this generation of women, some of whom found a path toward playing in the league and some of whom found a path toward playing outside of it. Our goal is to tell those stories authentically and realistically with heart, real emotion, humor, joy and all the things that Penny brought to the movie — and with an eye on the world today because so much of what they went through is very much what women, queer women and women of color are still going through today. The whole goal is to be authentic and real to their experiences. But the queer stories are a big part of what ties the different parts of the show together. This is a big American story that also very much happens to be about queer women and Black women. It’ll be exciting for folks to get a window into what these women’s lives were like.
What did the former AAGPBL players bring to the show and how involved will they be moving forward?
Jacobson: Maybelle Blair is incredible. We had to train for the pilot … and Maybelle was there giving us pointers. There’s so much research that went into the show because we really want to get it right in all the ways, whether it was how the league worked, what the schedule like, what it was like sexuality-wise and race-wise, what was the time like? Getting to ask her what it was like traveling and being in the game and what the camaraderie of the team was like and if it was like the movie. It’s very rare and special to get to ask her. She’s in her 90s and it’s incredible we have her as such a resource for the time period and what it was like to get to play professional baseball.
Graham: We’ve been to a couple of the reunions and have talked to a few dozen former players. So many people, because their reference point is the movie, they really only know the story of the first year of the league. But the league ran from 1943 to 1954 and encompassed this incredible change in American history and had a lot of different chapters, which is part of what we’re excited to get to talk about in the show. The former players have been the heart, spirit and reason for doing this every bit as much as the movie. We think of them as family and want them to be and need them to be as involved as we can possibly have them. They’re the whole reason we’re here.
As you spoke with the players and heard their stories, what were some of the common threads they had to share that you wanted to build into the series?
Graham: There’s so many. So much of it is the day-to-day grind and how hardworking the players were, the demands of the schedule and the demands of what it meant to publicly take on this role at this time in history. At the same time — and the movie explores this — the feeling of connection and developing a team. We’ve spoken to Black players and read everything. We’ve been developing this show for two years now and have an incredible researcher who may have written the definitive history of women playing baseball from 1943 to the early ’50s. We’ve talked to a lot of women who weren’t allowed to play. This series is going to tell the story of inclusion but it’s also going to tell the story of exclusion and what happens when that magic door doesn’t open for you — how do you have to find another way to do the thing that you love.
I hear you consulted Penny Marshall before she passed and to Geena Davis about revisiting the movie. What was your pitch to them and what sort of feedback did they provide?
Jacobson: Will and I talked to Penny on the phone and got to ask her questions, especially about the nod to racism within the league at the time. She said the movie was made in the early ’90s and she said she was trying to tell the story of this incredible women’s professional baseball league and, at the time, she wanted to try and comment on everything but didn’t have the real estate within the film to get to do it. I left thinking that we get the real estate to try to explore everything where she got that from.
Like tipped her hat to it and you’re picking up the relay throw from her and that scene.
Graham: We also have the advantage of an ongoing series and TV is so good at exploring complex and multilayered protagonists. We’re also living in a really different world. Meeting Penny — and everyone who was involved in the movie who we’ve talked to — it was both scary because we love their work and what they made but then also exciting because what Penny said at end of that conversation was, “Exploring these stories was life-changing for me and I hope it is for you, too.” It was incredible to hear from here.
Jacobson: Will and I were texting the whole call. And then she said [in a voice impersonating Marshall], “Well, go and do it! Go make it already!”
Was there anything Marshall wanted to see you do in the show?
Graham: I don’t think so. She was serious about what we were thinking about and excited about it.
What was Geena Davis’ response?
Graham: She was incredibly supportive, as was everyone from the original movie we spoke with. They know there’s so much more to the story and are excited to see it be told. We’ve talked to a few different people now [from the movie] and our goal by the time we go to series is to talk to everyone. It’s incredible to hear the stories from original movie. At this point, the movie is the movie and so much of the inspiration for this show has been going back to the whole set of the original stories and looking at them through a new lens. It’s already been pretty life changing for us and all writers and cast.
Jacobson: We are in no way trying to replicate or replace this classic film. It’s right here and we’re going over here. We’re definitely going to be compared to the film but I am excited for both to be able to exist. There can be two things about these women … there can be 10.
You want both the show and movie to coexist. At the same time, Abbi, your character, Carson, is very similar to Dottie — a catcher from a tiny farm town. How much does the series find inspiration from the characters in the movie? And are there any plans for the film’s stars to cameo?
Jacobson: The pilot is the most we nod to the film. The guest actor thing is something maybe we’d revisit later, but it’s not something we’re thinking of right now because we do want it to be its own entity. Carson is a catcher from a small town but she’s not Dottie, and after you watch the pilot, you’ll see a lot of differences. I think the world would agree that I’m not Geena Davis in a lot of ways! (Laughing.) A lot has changed throughout the long development process. Will and I have found more confidence in veering farther away from the movie.
Graham: Those characters [from the movie] are indelible and everyone loves them — and people still dress up as them for Halloween. There’s certainly some DNA in common with some characters that we built for the show because we were looking at the same stories and want that warmth, tone and humor that Penny established. But these women are their own women. And the characters will speak for themselves. We just hope that people fall in love with them the same way.
Will any of the league’s former players pop up onscreen, too?
Graham: A little of that is already in the works. It’s something we think about doing more of for anyone who wants to be involved.
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