Weekend Film Recommendation: A League of their Own

This weekend’s movie recommendation was, for me, all the proof I’d need to know that Tom Hanks can be adorable even when he’s a jerk. In Penny Marshall’s A League of their Own, Hanks is the inebriate coach tasked with pulling together a team of misfits to compete in the country’s very first women’s baseball league in the 1940s.

Among the tired and formulaic film genres out there, sports movies usually take the cake as the most wearisome of all. When it’s a team-based game, especially, the formula is so familiar you can probably do the whole thing blindfolded, replacing only the adversity-du-jour for taste. Here, Geena Davis plays Dottie Hinson, whose preternatural gift for baseball attracts the attention of a talent scout who’s looking to recruit her for a new team (a delightfully slimy Jon Lovitz). She reluctantly joins only at the desperate urging of her younger sister Kit Keller (played by Lori Petty), who’s eager to leave small-town Midwestern America behind for something bigger.

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But the world of baseball into which Dottie and Kit intrude makes the sisters’ welcome as harmonious as is to be expected for the 1940s. What could be a ripe moment for commentary that offers something a little more substantial than the usual sports comedy gets left behind in favor of rehearsing the same inoffensive and lightly sentimentalized mold as the previous installment from Marshall and Hanks, the director-star combo responsible for Big from four years earlier.

Upon arriving, the sisters meet their team-mates at tryouts. Stock characters abound, from Rosie O’Donnell’s loudmouth Doris to Madonna’s salacious Mae. Even the presence of the odd-one-out, Megan Cavanaugh’s frumpy Marla, represents the exception that proves the rule that a team of women athletes has to be caricatured, charming (and preferably attractive), and uniformly sympathetic before they’ll be considered remotely viable.

Hanks has no reservations at all about hamming up and enjoying a caricature. He plays Jimmy Dugan, a washed-out former big-leaguer who happily cashes his paycheck in exchange for showing up to games and posing as the team’s manager. The sinecure expectedly transforms into a source of redemption, as the team-mates teach him to find fulfillment again in the game rather than the bottle. Nonetheless, along the way Hanks has plenty of opportunity to show off his extraordinary gift for physical comedy – just keep an eye out for one scene in particular, where he has to learn the demands of restrained and constructive criticism.

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We needn’t worry about the usual tumult in this sports yarn, though: the opposing teams are all similarly situated hopefuls, catapulting themselves through the glass ceiling; it’s not long before the team-mates click with one another; and the periodic reminders by David Strathairn’s executive Ira Lowenstein that the league depends on funding barely rise above blips on the radar. In fact, the team’s sympathy is pretty much impregnable. Neither the obstacles placed before women entering a male space nor the woes accompanying notifications about husbands lost in the war overseas consume more than a few passing moments in the team’s ascent to victory.

Unfortunately, as fun as the film is, its resolute refusal throughout to grapple with the rich themes available to it up until the final scene make the conclusion to A League of their Own a rather jarringly mawkish detour. The women rendez-vous at the Baseball Hall of Fame to commemorate the significance of the country’s first all-women’s baseball team, and to commiserate about the losses suffered in the intervening years. But in a film that so studiously maintained a light-hearted tone for almost two hours, the final eight minutes are a jarring descent into something else entirely—and it’s not even all that clear what.

Despite its weaknesses toward the end, A League of their Own hits a solid double when you need it most.* Enjoy!

*No, I really oughtn’t be trusted with hackneyed sports metaphors. I strike out every time.

Berkeley Athletics update

It’s hard to imagine Berkeley’s public presence degrading below the state our sexual harassment episodes have brought us to, but we have been doing a job on ourselves in intercollegiate athletics as well.  Today’s news has a twofer, a sexual assault accusation with a sports angle. Sigh.

The football and men’s basketball teams’ academic performance has apparently turned around and we are  no longer at the bottom of the NCAA; both teams also did creditably on the field this year. Good.  Unfortunately, we are learning that some really ugly stuff is festering in both programs, never mind that the campus subsidy of this operation is back up to twice the $5m per year a prior chancellor very firmly instructed them to live within.  In football, you may remember the death in practice of Ted Agu in 2014, which resulted from an inhumane, abusive training style practiced by strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington, aggravated by failure to take care of him when he collapsed, and pervasive, insistent lying in the university’s subsequent engagement with the police and the legal system. Continue reading “Berkeley Athletics update”

RIP basketball great Kenny Sailors

This 1946 picture looks like it’s from a mysteriously unaired episode of Quantum Leap, in which the hero goes back in time as the only baller who could actually shoot the jumper. That was pretty much Kenny Sailors’ career.

He  recently died, at age 95. William McDonald wrote a fine obituary in January 30’s New York Times. Obituaries provide another reminder that the Times remains the world’s greatest newspaper.

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Screenshot of New York Times. Eric Schaal/Life Magazine, via University of Wyoming

Are you ready for some head trauma?

As we enter the final stop of the NFL playoffs before the Super Bowl, a reminder from our friends at Dept8 of what the NFL shield really stands for: CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).


(For those of you with poor eyesight like me, the text reads “This degenerative condition is copyrighted by the NFL for the private use of our audience.  Any other result of sustained brain trauma, or any pictures, descriptions, and accounts of symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head without the NFL’s consent is expressly prohibited.”  Thanks, once again, to the First Amendment, which protects satire like this.)

For more on the issue, see this report about high school football deaths (a more scholarly treatment of both high school and college football deaths here), see how far we’ve come since 1905 (but also see this Deadspin article re-investigating the deaths of 1905), and consider whether we should do without helmets entirely.

Firearms management

After some initial trampling of the grass, I am going to suggest a new framework for gun control. Nothing wrong with the president’s idea that a lot of gun sales are slipping through cracks nearly everyone wants closed, but I think background checks through bureaucratic databases is the wrong approach.

First, let’s do some naming of parts.  Firearms can be divided into four classes with very little overlap, and they’re not all that hard to distinguish:

  1. Sporting arms, including rifles and shotguns suitable for going after game.  These are shoulder weapons, with long barrels, and hold about seven or fewer cartridges (you don’t get to shoot at a deer, or a duck, a hundred or even ten times).  They can be semi-automatic (chamber the next round themselves when the trigger is pulled) or repeating (requiring operation of a bolt or lever or pump between shots).shotgunrifle
  2. Guns for target shooting.  These are shotguns for trap and skeet, interchangeable with shotguns for game, and rifles or long-barrel handguns with small magazines or even single-shot, chambered for low-power rounds (usually .22LR).  “Varmint rifles”, for shooting woodchucks from very far away, and some high-power rifles for national match shooting at 1000 yards, could be classed here.target rifletarget pistol
  3. Guns for killing people, usually many at a time, at close range.  These are (i) military shoulder arms with large magazines (as many as 100 rounds), relatively short barrels and semi-automatic actions (one shot per trigger pull with no other action needed) or actual machine guns, (ii) handguns, including those with short barrels, often streamlined for quick access, almost always semi-automatic,  (iii) sawed-off shotguns. These items have no value whatever in taking game or precise fire at a target: they are for killing people, especially close up.ar15pocket automaticsnubnosesawed-off
  4. Exotica like large-caliber sniper rifles, mortars, and antique muzzle-loaders.

The “gun problem” is about category 3 items in the hands of civilians. Group 3(i) are relevant to a “well-ordered militia” and I’m fine with National Guard members, whose names and addresses we know, having theirs in a gun locker at the armory, or even at home in a safe in the Swiss style. Police misuse of their handguns is an issue, but not a gun issue. I don’t worry about people with deer rifles, duck guns, or even .50 cal rifles even though they are occasionally tools of lethal behavior and tragic accidents.

I don’t even worry about most people who own people-killers. Some perfectly trustworthy folks get off shooting combat handguns at paper targets, and others live under the illusion that their pieces are more likely to protect them against a home invader or street assailant than to kill  members of their family, but they keep them away from kids and burglars. Most of the sad cases who think they are going to protect America from a tyrannical government that has tanks and Apache helicopters aren’t actually going to do any harm, either.  But enough thugs, careless people, and crazies remain to author a national bloodbath of suicides, accidental shootings, and murders, and to justify demanding that anyone who possesses anything in category 3 needs a license.  The idea that that license is a dive down a slippery slope, at the bottom of which the government is using the information to take away everyone’s gun is fever-swamp nonsense; no-one is going around confiscating dogs or cars with a list of licensees. Nothing in the constitution says you’re allowed to secretly have a device for killing people; neighbors have a right to know what toxic chemicals DuPont is messing with in the plant down the street, who owns a two-ton iron projectile scooting down the road at sixty miles an hour…and who is equipped to shoot a lot of people.

American culture and tradition demands that the license be easy to get. But how should we figure out who is safe to have such a license? Well,  all those law-abiding gun owners don’t go around shooting people for the same reason most of us behave ourselves, because of social and peer influence: friends don’t let friends drive drunk.  So let’s ask the people who know them. Mark Moore, years ago, floated the idea that if you needed a license from the NRA to own a gun, the NRA would suddenly rethink the idea that anyone who asks should have one, or many.  I like that idea, but I think it would be even better to simply require a notarized statement every year in support of your application for a license to own any handgun or military weapon, from each of three adult non-relatives, whose name on your license application would be public record. All members of your play-guerrilla militia club? OK with me. Don’t know three people who are willing to have their names come up should you do something crazy and dangerous?  Then you can’t be trusted with a category 3 firearm. Try archery, or Tai Chi, or computer games; very challenging and fun; no license required.

Semi-pro athletes, our moral lodestars

If you still aren’t sure about how completely big-money sports have corrupted universities, today’s WaPo rundown on how the University of Missouri–which is full of philosophers, sociologists, organizational behavior professors, furious students, and what-all other sources of insight–figured out it needed new leadership should knock some scales from your eyes.

Two doctors

Laura Esserman, shaking things up in a men’s world to improve the health and increase the happiness of her patients, and other people’s patients. Evidence-based medicine and courage.  Rockstar! You go, doc!

Patricia Horoho, [link corrected 29/IX] smoothing things out in a men’s world to improve the comfort of officers at the expense of her patients (students who aren’t officers yet). Evidence-suppressing management and craven servility.  Flack in scrubs costume, and not such a great officer come to think of it. Hang up your stethoscope, doc, and maybe park your stars in the kitchen junk drawer too.

Another day of shame on the gridiron

College football season opened with another humiliation for my school, to go with our financial disasters (last year we spent $2m on a coach and athletic director who no longer work for us), bottom-of-the NCAA graduation rates, and lousy on-field performance.  We beat Grambling State University, a historically black school in Louisiana, 73-14! Late in the fourth quarter, I think  a 110-lb cheerleader was our right tackle. If it had been a boxing match, the ref would have shut it down (52-0 at halftime); in kid’s sports they would have invoked a mercy rule.
But who would schedule such a senseless, unsportsmanlike exercise in the first place? Grambling’s entire athletic budget, one of my colleagues  found out, is third from the lowest of all Division I public schools’, 1/15 the size of ours.  Their football  roster is 89 players, almost all from east Texas and Louisiana; ours is 133, recruited from all over the west. Their coach makes $195,000; ours makes ten times that. Continue reading “Another day of shame on the gridiron”