55: A League of Their Own

On May 30th, 1943, women took the field in what would become the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. This is something that many people only know through the film A League of Their Own. But how accurate was the movie? Let’s find out.

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Transcript

Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

The movie begins as many films do, with a moment before a flash back. This one is by a woman named Dottie Hinson, who’s played by Lynn Cartwright, as she arrives at a baseball field to see a bunch of women wearing white AAGPBL shirts. As she watches, the movie shifts to the flash back by way of news footage.

 

In this footage, the basis for the movie is set up.

 

World War II is in full swing, and many of the professional baseball players have been called on to help with the war effort. As a result, there is no professional baseball being played and, according to the movie, it’s a candy man by the name of Walter Harvey who is trying to find a way to keep baseball going.

 

That’s sort of true, but it’s also sort of not true. Let me explain.

 

We all know that World War II was indeed in full swing in 1943. And it is true many of the professional baseball players were called into military service. For example, Red Sox legend Ted Williams served as a pilot in the Navy, earning a lot of admiration from fellow pilots. Although it’s also worth pointing out that not all pro ball players put their lives at risk quite like Ted did. Many pro ball players opted to join a military baseball team, instead offering entertainment for the servicemen instead of going into battle themselves.

 

Still, although he was willing to go to battle and successfully passed all of the training to become a pilot, the war ended before Ted Williams saw action. He did, though, stay in the reserves for the Marines and served as a pilot in the Korean War. But that’s getting ahead of our story.

 

Oh, and in the movie the news footage mentions Yankees slugger Joe DiMaggio joining the military.

 

That’s true. Joe enlisted in February of 1943, although he mostly played baseball in the service. Why baseball in the military instead of helping directly with the war effort? Well, the best answer to that probably comes from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself.

 

He wrote this letter to Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Kennesaw Mountain is not a place—well, it is, it’s a mountain in Georgia, but it’s also the name of the very first Commissioner of Major League Baseball. The Commissioner was named after the mountain.

 

Anyway, President Roosevelt wrote this letter to Commissioner Landis on January 14th, 1942:

 

My dear Judge:

Thank you for yours of January fourteenth. As you will, of course, realize the final decision about the baseball season must rest with you and the Baseball club owners – so what I am going to say is solely a personal and not an official point of view.

 

I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before.

 

And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.

 

Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.

 

As to the players themselves, I know you agree with me that the individual players who are active military or naval age should go, without question, into the services. Even if the actual quality to the teams is lowered by the greater use of older players, this will not dampen the popularity of the sport. Of course, if an individual has some particular aptitude in a trade or profession, he ought to serve the Government. That, however, is a matter which I know you can handle with complete justice.

 

Here is another way of looking at it—if 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of the fellow citizens—and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.

With every best wish,

Very sincerely yours,

Franklin D. Roosevelt

 

So as we can see, baseball was considered an important method of getting people’s minds off of the war. A war that was everywhere else in life except, they hoped, on the ball field. So that’s why baseball both inside the military and outside of service was considered so important.

 

Ultimately, Landis decided to keep Major League Baseball going. So while many pro players did indeed go off to serve in the war, professional baseball didn’t stop in the U.S.

 

And that brings us to where the footage is sort of not true. Although the footage in the film never comes out and says baseball stops, it does say that there’s speculation that baseball will stop for the duration of the war. Then it goes on to imply very strongly that this is the reason for candy bar king Walter Harvey decided to come up with a professional woman’s baseball league.

 

That’s not really true.

 

Oh, and Walter Harvey never owned the Chicago Cubs like the movie implies because Walter Harvey never existed. But it was the Cubs real owner, chewing gum king Philip K. Wrigley, who came up with the idea for the professional woman’s league.

 

However, it wasn’t really to replace men’s baseball. In fact, Wrigley had the idea that when the men’s teams were playing away games, women could play games at their big league stadiums.

 

In Wrigley’s mind, that’d help the fact that the stadiums were lying dormant for half of the time—when the team was away. You see, with an increased number of men and women being called on to help with the war effort in big industrial cities, that’d mean anytime the teams were out of town they’d be without well-deserved entertainment as a break from their work.

 

That’s what Wrigley was trying to solve by creating more baseball teams.

 

And I’m sure making a fancy profit off their desire for a mental break from the war wasn’t far from Wrigley’s mind, either.

 

Regardless, the point here is that while the movie implies the woman’s league was started as a replacement to men’s professional baseball, they actually were both playing at the same time. In fact, if you look at some of the old box scores in newspapers you’ll find men’s baseball box scores right alongside the reports of the women’s games.

 

Back in the movie, after the stage is set for the story we see text on screen that says it’s Willamette Valley, Oregon in the year 1943. It’s here that we’re introduced to the two women who are the stars of the film, Dottie Hinson and her sister Kit Keller. Dottie is played by Geena Davis while Kit is portrayed by Lori Petty.

 

Willamette Valley is a real place in Oregon; if you remember that’s the destination from the classic 1970s computer game called Oregon Trail as well as the recent reincarnation board game of the same name.

 

Despite this bit of reality, the sisterly characters of Dottie and Kit are not real people. They’re composite characters made up for the film.

 

For Geena Davis’ character of Dottie Hinson, most historians agree the real person she’s based on the most was a woman named Dorothy Kamenshek. As was common for the 1940s, anyone named Dorothy often went by the nickname “Dottie”, and Dorothy Kamenshek was no different.

 

Perhaps one of the reasons why so many think she was the basis for the character of Dottie Hinson was because the real Dottie Kamenshek was considered by many to have been the best player in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League—the AAGPBL.

 

The real Dottie had a career batting average around .300, something that most sports historians equate to hitting about .400 in Major League Baseball. If you’re a fan of baseball, you’ll know how rare of a feat that is.

 

Like Geena Davis’ character, Dottie Kamenshek started her career in the AAGPBL on the Rockford Peaches team out of Rockford, Illinois. That was, like the movie indicates, in 1943 when the league began. Although she wasn’t a catcher like Geena Davis’ character was. The real Dottie started in the outfield but soon moved over to first base.

 

To give you an idea of how good the real Dottie was, she struck out 81 times. That might not sound too great considering in the movie Dottie Hinson was only in the league for one year. But the real Dottie Kamenshek played in the league for ten years, and took part in every one of the seven All-Star games the league played. As you can probably guess, seven All-Star games in ten years means the league didn’t have one every year Dottie played.

 

But back to that strike out total, striking out 81 times over ten year is much more impressive now and you get a sense for just how good she was. Oh, and those 81 strike outs came in a total of 3,736 at bats.

 

If you’re not a sports fan, just for some context here the toughest batter in the history of Major League Baseball—the men’s league that still exists today—to strike out was Joe Sewell. He played in the 1920s with the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees and over the span of 14 years he had 7,132 at-bats and struck out only 114 times.

 

On the other side of that record, the batter with the most strikeouts in Major League Baseball was Mark Reynolds in 2009 with 223 strikeouts in just 578 at-bats.

 

Joe Sewell’s average of around 63 at-bats per strike out was just barely better than Dottie’s average of 46 at-bats per strike out, and both Joe and Dottie were infinitely more difficult to strike out than many of the players in the Major Leagues today.

 

While Geena Davis’ character in the movie might’ve gotten some of the on-field talents from Dottie Kamenshek, there were some other women who inspired other aspects of the woman on the big screen.

 

Other women who inspired parts of the character of Dottie Hinson were Mary “Bonnie” Baker, who many believed to have had a similar personality to what we saw Geena Davis’ character have in the film. Or there was Lavonne “Pepper” Paire-Davis who was another star in the AAGPBL, and also a catcher like Dottie Hinson. Although Pepper also played some shortstop, which we didn’t see Geena Davis’ character do.

 

Another Dorothy “Dottie” Green often gets credited with being the major inspiration for Dottie Hinson, but that’s not really the case. It can get so confusing with so many people named Dottie, but Dottie Green was Dottie Kamenshek’s teammate and while she shared some things in common with Dottie Hinson, she wasn’t the best player in the league like her teammate, Dottie Kamenshek. She’s still worth mentioning, though, because she was the catcher on the Rockford Peaches, like Dottie Hinson.

 

Although she also played for more than one year. Dottie Green played until 1947 when a knee injury forced her to stop playing. But she stayed involved with the team as a sort of team chaperone up until the AAGPBL was disbanded. Since Geena Davis’ character of Dottie Hinson was the catcher on the Rockford Peaches and a sort of team captain like Dottie Green was after her injury, maybe that’s why people see the comparisons.

 

Regardless though, the overall difference here between history and Hollywood’s portrayal is that Dottie Hinson wasn’t a real person. She was a fictitious character made up from a range of inspirational women in the AAGPBL.

 

So if the filmmakers made up the main character in A League of Their Own, what does that say for the rest of the characters?

 

It’s probably not much of a surprise, then, to learn that the same is true for pretty much all of the characters we see in the movie. While there were many sister combos in the real AAGPBL, Dottie Kamenshek wasn’t one of the women who had a sister playing in the league.

 

So Dottie Hinson’s sister in the movie, Kit, isn’t based on any one real person named Kit Keller—there was no Kit Keller in the league—but she’s the filmmaker’s way of showing us what it must’ve been like for some of the sister combos in the league.

 

Of course, in a very fictional way.

 

As you can probably guess, if the characters themselves aren’t real, most of the storyline of the film also isn’t real. In fact, one of the other women who some think inspired Geena Davis’ character in part was a woman named Doris Sams. Sadly, Doris has since passed, but she did get the chance to watch A League of Their Own. Her succinct interpretation was that the movie was about 30 percent truth, leaving the remaining 70 percent as being made up by the filmmakers.

 

Back in the movie, another one of the fictional people made up for the film is the guy who founded the AAGPBL, Walter Harvey. In the movie Walter is referred to as the chocolate king, or a candy bar mogul.

 

As I mentioned briefly earlier, the real person who the fictional Walter Harvey is based on was none other than Philip K. Wrigley. If that last name sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve probably had Wrigley chewing gum. Or maybe you’ve been to Wrigley Field—the home of the baseball team Philip Wrigley owned, the recent World Champion Chicago Cubs.

 

Of course, in the movie we see it as Harvey Field but it does have the ivy on the outfield walls just like the real Wrigley Field does.

 

What the movie doesn’t mention, though, is that there was another man who was behind the forming of the AAGPBL. That was another name that might sound familiar if you’re a fan of Major League Baseball: Branch Rickey.

 

Branch Rickey was the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and he was the man who pushed to have Jackie Robinson break the color barrier in the Major Leagues. You can learn more about that story in an earlier episode of the Based on a True Story podcast when we compared history with the movie 42. Harrison Ford was the actor who played Branch Rickey in the movie simply named 42 after Jackie Robinson’s number.

 

But still, it’s quite interesting that Branch Rickey was involved in both Jackie Robinson’s entry into the Majors as well as the formation of the AAGPBL.

 

Another character we see in the film is Ira Lowenstein, who’s played by David Strathairn. According to the movie, Ira is vital to taking Walter Harvey’s idea and implementing the logistics of it.

 

In history, the real person who’d probably be the closest fit to Ira Lowenstein was a man named Ken Sells. Ken worked for Philip Wrigley at the time as an Assistant General Manager for the Chicago Cubs. So Wrigley tasked Ken with helping build the league and he was named the President of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

 

Oh, and while we’re on the topic of the name of the league there’s something else that’s worth pointing out. In the movie we see most of the women throwing overhand like you’d see baseball players do. After all, it’s a baseball league and they’re playing baseball not softball, right?

 

Well, that’s sort of true.

 

The women in the AAGPBL played baseball rules, but most of the women came from softball leagues. So the movie is inaccurate to depict the women throwing overhand in 1943 when the league was formed.

 

In truth, the league was actually originally called the All-American Girls Softball League. But in the first season in 1943 it was renamed to the All-American Girls Baseball League. Despite this name change, most of the women came from softball but Wrigley and the league founders did want it to be more like baseball. So the result was more of a hybrid of softball and baseball.

 

For example, the girls didn’t use a baseball like we see in the movie. It was a softball with a 12 inch circumference, or about 30.5 centimeters. And the pitchers didn’t throw overhand like we saw in the movie. They threw underhand like they did when they played softball. The pitcher’s mound also wasn’t 60 feet and six inches like it was in Major League Baseball at the time (and still today), but rather about 40 feet away from home plate.

 

Oh and that 60.5 feet is about 18.4 meters compared to the AAGPBL of 40 feet being about 12 meters.

 

Also the distance between bases wasn’t quite what we see in Major League Baseball. It’s 90 feet in MLB, or about 27 meters, but in the AAGPBL it was 65 feet, or almost 20 meters.

 

While the distances may have been more in line with softball, it wasn’t straight up softball. For example, in softball you can’t steal bases but in the AAGPBL you could.

 

The movie doesn’t mention this, of course, as the story doesn’t make it much past the first season but as the AAGPBL played the rules drifted more and more away from softball toward baseball. For example, after five years of play, in 1948 the league switched from being all underhand to allowing overhand pitches from a distance of 50 feet, or a little over 15 meters.

 

A few years later, in 1954, the ball itself changed from a 12 inch softball to a 9 inch baseball as well as stretching out the base paths to 85 feet apart, or almost 26 meters. Of course, 1954 would end up being the final year of the AAGPBL, but hopefully you can start to get a sense for how the league started very similar to softball and started to shift more toward baseball.

 

Oh, and there’s a brief moment when John Lovitz’s character, Ernie Capadino, is recruiting Geena Davis’ character and he mentions the salaries for the girls playing ball is $75 a week.

 

Although Ernie is also a fictional character—the filmmakers actually created that character specifically with John Lovitz in mind—the salary is pretty close. Women in the AAGPBL would earn a range from $45 to $85 a week.

 

That’s about the same as $650 to $1,200 per week today.

 

That’s not too bad of a salary. By comparison, according to a paper by William Whittaker at the Congressional Research Service, the average manufacturing job in 1943 paid about 88 cents an hour. Couple that with other documentation that estimates manufacturing jobs worked an average of 44.2 hours per week, that’d come out to just less than $40 per week.

 

As a little side note, obviously other jobs paid higher than manufacturing. However, a lot of the women’s teams were set up in cities that had a higher number of industrial workers due to the war effort. So that’s why I’m comparing their salaries to those the average pay of the workers who’d be paying to see them play.

 

Of course, we’d also have to take into account the hours. The women in the AAGPBL had to work much longer than 44 hours a week. A little more on that later. And with travel, the league certainly was more a way of life than a job you’d get to go home to at the end of the day.

 

But still, all things considered, the women were getting to play ball and getting paid for it. Not too bad.

 

Speaking of the league being a way of life, back in the movie, this is perhaps most obvious after the moment where the women are broken up into teams. It’s then that David Strathairn’s version of Ira Lowenstein mentions the uniforms. A model gets up on the dug out to strut the short skirts the women will have to wear.

 

That’s true. While the women may have gotten a relatively decent salary, it was still the 1940s and the men in charge of the league decided they should be objectified.

 

So it is true that they had to wear the short skirts much like what we saw in the movie. And this also meant tearing up their legs was common because despite what we saw Madonna’s character do in the movie the real women in the league never slid head first. Instead they slid feet first meaning they’d be sliding on their bare legs.

 

According to Doris Sams, the ball player we learned about earlier, you haven’t lived until you’ve slid on skin!

 

So it’d seem that scene we see in the movie where one of the girls gets a massive strawberry—a bruise—on her leg after sliding was pretty spot on.

 

But being objectified on the field wasn’t enough. Again, 1940s.

 

While the specific scenes were all made up in the movie, the general plot line of the women having to go to charm classes was pretty accurate as well.

 

Remember when we were chatting about the women having to work longer than 44 hours a week? As if playing 120 games in the span of four months wasn’t enough, after an exhausting day on the field the women were expected to attend Helena Rubinstein’s charm school in the evenings. Well, that is, those evenings that they weren’t needed on the field for one of their many day/night doubleheaders.

 

At this charm school, women would be taught “proper” etiquette, manners, personal hygiene and dress code for any situation they might encounter, just to name a few things.

 

Oh, and women were required to carry around a beauty kit they were given and taught how to use, weren’t allowed to have short hair, couldn’t smoke or drink in public and had to wear lipstick at all times. Anyone caught breaking one of these league rules would be fined $5. That’s about $70 today. The second fine would go up to $10, or about $150 today. A third time would end up with you being suspended from the league.

 

Perhaps it’s time to take back my “not too bad” comment from earlier. Sure, that was about the pay, but even a semi-decent salary for playing ball doesn’t make up for the stereotypical objectification the women had to endure.

 

In the movie, one of the characters we haven’t talked about yet was someone who didn’t really have to be subjected to the objectification the women on the field did. That’s because he was in the dugout and, well, he was a “he”.

 

I’m speaking, of course, of Tom Hanks’ character, Jimmy Dugan. In the movie, Jimmy is portrayed as a former star-turned-drunk who ends up managing the Rockford Peaches after the league’s founder, Walter Harvey, asks him to be a face for the league.

 

While Jimmy Dugan is a made up person, just like there were some real people who went into Geena Davis’ character, there were some very real baseball players that went into the character we saw Tom Hanks playing on screen.

 

The primary source of inspiration for the character of Jimmy Dugan was another Jimmie—this one spelled with an “ie” instead of a “y”, though. That’s Jimmie Foxx.

 

However, Jimmie Foxx played baseball from 1924 to 1945 so there’s no way he could’ve been managing the first year for the AAGPBL in 1943. While we don’t really learn much about Tom Hanks’ characters stats, the implication in the film is that he was a great player.

 

And the real Jimmie Foxx was indeed a great player. One of the best of all time. During his 20-year career, Jimmie was an All-Star for nine of those. He also was a four-time American League (AL) homerun (HR) champ, three-time AL MVP, three-time AL runs batted in (RBI) leader, three-time AL batting champ and two-time World Series champion.

 

One of those years he did something very few people have done in Major League Baseball’s history, hit for a triple crown. That’s where you lead the league in batting average, HRs and RBIs in the same year. Jimmie did that in 1933 when he hit .365 with 48 HRs and 163 RBIs.

 

While history hasn’t remembered Jimmie as well, during his career he was on par with some of the other players who shared the field with him during All-Star games such as Hank Greenberg, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio.

 

Perhaps one of the reasons why history hasn’t remembered Jimmie Foxx as well as it has Lou Gehrig or Joe DiMaggio is because toward the end of Jimmie’s career he started to decline due to what many historians believe was an increasingly pronounced drinking problem.

 

And a little more relevant to our story today, Jimmie Foxx did spend one year managing one of the teams in the AAGPBL. Although that happened in 1952, not in 1943 like we see in the movie. And Jimmie Foxx didn’t manage the Rockford Peaches like Tom Hanks’ character of Jimmy Dugan. Instead, Jimmie Foxx managed the Fort Wayne Daisies. Although, Jimmie’s experience seemed to help as he managed the team to the playoffs where they lost to the Peaches two games to one.

 

Another former professional baseball player that went into the character of Jimmy Dugan was Hack Wilson. Well, his real name was Lewis, but “Hack” was his nickname.

 

Hack played from 1923 to 1934, so he was out of professional baseball before the AAGPBL began in 1943. Like Jimmy Dugan, the real Hack Wilson had a great career. It wasn’t as good as Jimmie Foxx’s career, but to this day Hack Wilson still holds the record for most RBIs in a single season at 191. That was in 1930.

 

Up until Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire snapped it in 1998, Hack also held the record for most HRs in the National League (NL) with 56. That was also in 1930, meaning it was a record he held for almost 70 years.

 

That year, 1930, Hack Wilson had what most baseball historians refer to as one of the best single seasons ever.

 

Like both Jimmie Foxx and the fictional Jimmy Dugan, Hack Wilson’s career spiraled down into a drinking habit. His 1930 year was amazing, but it seemed to have gone to his head. In 1931, Hack Wilson reported to the team about 20 pounds, or about 9 kilograms, overweight. It was the beginning of the end for his career that’d ultimately only last a few more years.

 

Unlike Jimmie Foxx, though, Hack Wilson never managed an AAGPBL team.

 

Although, quite honestly, we can’t really say the character of Jimmy Dugan was meant to be Jimmie Foxx or Hack Wilson. Tom Hanks’ character had plenty of inspiration from these two great baseball players who had amazing success in their careers only to see it all slip away through the bottle. And there was a very healthy dose of Hollywood’s creative freedom thrown in there as well.

 

Back in the movie, we’re again hit with the sexism at play in the 1940s when not only does Tom Hanks’ character as the team manager think the women aren’t “real” ballplayers, but it’s evident that many of the men in the stands don’t think they are, either.

 

While we know Jimmy Dugan wasn’t real, sadly the sexism was. One newspaper article from the day after the league’s opening day, on May 31st 1943, called the league a powderpuff brand of baseball and referred to the women as fresh from the beauty parlor, or that the game is more than meets the eye, although what meets the eye is nice, too.

 

Or there was another article that referred to the league as nothing more than a glamor softball league—if you remember when the league started it resembled softball quite a bit more than what we saw in the movie.

 

Although, as we learned, the women were required to carry around that beauty kit as if it were part of their uniform…their scantily clad uniform…so maybe the article isn’t too far off and it’s just that everything was sexist back then.

 

But then again, as the saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right. But we can get the sense that it’d also seem there is something to the claim we saw in the movie that the scouts were looking for pretty women to join the league. Talented, sure, but the league didn’t seem to hide that they were objectifying the women, so talent alone wasn’t enough.

 

Toward the end of the movie, the two main characters, the sisters Dottie Hinson and Kit Keller, meet each other in the championship. As it turns out, it’s Kit who gets the better of her older sister and her team, the Racine Belles, win the championship.

 

We already learned Dottie and Kit weren’t real people so obviously none of the specific scenes we saw in the film were real, but the movie is correct in showing that it was the Racine Belles who won the very first championship for the AAGPBL after the inaugural 1943 season.

 

They didn’t play the Rockford Peaches. Actually, the real Rockford Peaches had the very worst record in the league during both the first half and the second half of the season, so as you can probably guess they didn’t make it to the championship.

 

Instead the Racine Belles beat the Kenosha Comets in three straight games to win the best-of-five championship series. For their efforts, each of the women on the Racine Belles got a $228 bonus. That’s about $3,200 today.

 

Each of the women on the Kenosha Comets got a bonus of $146 for making the championship series. That’s about $2,000 today.

 

At the very end of the movie, older versions of Dottie Hinson and Kit Keller meet up at the  same reunion we saw in the beginning of the movie. Except this time instead of being at a baseball field, they’re inside Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame. We see Ira Lowenstein cutting the ribbon to a new room in the Hall of Fame dedicated to the women who played in the AAGPBL.

 

While obviously the scenario with the fictional characters is, well, fictional, we can assume this must’ve happened around 1988 because that’s when the permanent “Women in Baseball” exhibit we saw at the end of the movie opened at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York to honor the women in the AAGPBL.

 

As a quick side note it’s worth pointing out that acronym changed multiple times throughout the league’s lifetime. First it was the All-American Girls Baseball League, or the AAGBBL. Then people didn’t like baseball being in the name since they had underhand pitching more like softball. So it was changed to the AAGPBL, or the All-American Girls Professional Ball League. Then it’d be renamed again back to the AAGBBL, or the All-American Girls Baseball League. Then it was shortened to the American Girls Baseball League, or the AGBL, which it kept until the league’s end in 1954.

 

However, the recognition by the National Baseball Hall of Fame was done with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Players Association, so that’s why they used the acronym AAGPBL and that’s the one that’s become well known for the league today.

 

In fact, that “Women in Baseball” exhibit not only helped bring those talented women back to the forefront of the public’s eye, but it in a very Hollywood-esque way of going full circle, it was that exhibit that inspired the creation of A League of Their Own which would release just four years after the exhibit.

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