When we first meet the two lead characters of A League of Their Own, Dottie (Geena Davis) and Kit (Lori Petty), we know success is in their destiny. Pretty, talented, and athletic, they’re a natural fit for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. In that league, they’ll get the opportunity to find adventure and fulfillment in the game that they both love. A League of Their Own focuses on women’s agency. They receive a rare taste of independence as a result of the absence of men drafted into the war. Dottie and Kit are the poster women of this brave new world. But the baseball team doesn’t have just two players. One character in particular is too often overlooked: Marla Hooch. Marla is a talented ballplayer who overcomes adversity in a world that doesn’t quite know what to do with her.
The first glimpse we get of Marla (Megan Cavanagh) showcases her raw athletic power. As Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) scouts women for the league, Marla’s father has her hitting homer after homer. The sound of baseballs hitting the walls and windows of their gymnasium is deafening. An entire team of men try their best to avoid the clobbering from the balls she sends in their direction. They audibly groan when her father instructs her to switch to her dominant hand. He proudly tells Ernie that if she were a boy, she would’ve been a shoo-in to play for the Yankees.
There’s just one problem. When she stands next to the pretty, well-kempt Dottie and Kit, it couldn’t be more obvious. She dresses in loose slacks and a button-down shirt, her hair hangs in a limp ponytail; she’s far from conventionally attractive. Indeed, Lovitz grimaces when she takes off her baseball cap and we see her face more clearly; he declines to take her along with him to the official tryouts.
It’s only when Dottie and Kit refuse to leave unless he takes Marla along that he reluctantly agrees. All the girls who sign up for the league are excited by the prospect of playing baseball professionally; however, it’s clear from the start that the men running it have something else in mind. The league focuses less on the girls’ athletic talent and more on if they look cute in wildly impractical uniforms. Here, Marla couldn’t be further out of step if she tried.
She’s treated as a punchline throughout the majority of the film. When a newsreel highlights each of the Rockford Peaches and their talents (one makes great coffee, one is a former Miss Georgia), they purposely film Marla from far away. She waves at the camera as the narrator says simply, “Marla Hooch: What a hitter!” As the girls go through charm school, each receives a makeover to get them camera ready. When an assistant asks what the woman in charge of the program suggests for Marla, she replies, “A lot of night games.”
In a film that aims to celebrate women outside the domestic sphere, the treatment of Marla stands out. It highlights just how much she is unable to conform to the expectations of femininity in the 1940s. All of the baseball players defy traditional gender roles to a certain extent. Marla is the only one who is mocked for it. The reason for this is clear: While the other girls run and get dirty and play a “man’s game,” they’re able to do so while still conforming to conventional standards of beauty, something Marla lacks.
But despite the fact that her character is largely there for humor, Marla is perhaps the one who comes out of the film the most emotionally fulfilled. Especially in terms of how much she overcomes to get there. In joining the team, she finds an outlet for her impressive athletic talents, which help take the Rockford Peaches all the way to the World Series in their very first year. She fosters relationships with the girls on the team, who accept her for who she is.
They never ostracize her for the fact that she doesn’t seem to know much about feminine things, thanks to her upbringing from her well-intentioned but clueless father. Rather than treating her as an outcast, they help her put on makeup and lend her a dress so that she can participate in their rebellious night out at a bar. It’s there that she meets Nelson, a man who can’t take his eyes off her. To him, she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, even as she commandeers the band’s microphone and drunkenly sings to him.
While some of the other Peaches struggle with self-doubt and trying to figure out where they belong, trying to juggle their love for their game with their desire to have it not take over their lives, Marla comes out of the film with both professional and personal satisfaction. She marries Nelson, and although their honeymoon cuts her season short, she promises to return next year. We have no reason to doubt this. Nelson comes across as wholly supportive of her career. She seems able to effortlessly find a balance between these two aspects of her life; this challenge torments other characters in the film. Dottie, for instance, continually denies her competitive spirit and love of baseball in choosing to retire at the end of the season to lead a more traditional life with her husband. Kit sacrifices her relationship with her sister in pursuit of baseball glory.
Marla begins A League of Their Own with far fewer advantages than either of the film’s two main characters. By the end of the film, she seems thoroughly content with the way that her life has turned out. And as the character who so completely defines a failure to comply with traditional femininity, her emotional fulfillment and success offer an inspirational (and unlikely) portrait of the unconventional woman.