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Extra Innings For The Girls Of Summer

Letter From Cooperstown


James Dean is the only guy I recognize in the line outside St. Mary's church hall on Elm Street. My neighbor Jim is a stairmaker and woodworker. He has turned off his lathes and laid down his chisels for a few days to be an extra in the movie A League of Their Own, now filming its final scenes here in Cooperstown, N. Y., the mythic birthplace of baseball.

Along with the other extras -- moviemakers call them "background" -- Dean will be paid $50 by Columbia Pictures and get a free catered lunch for each day he works on the set. Directed by Penny Marshall, the movie stars Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, and Madonna. But none of them save Marshall is here as Dean sits in the aluminum bleachers along the first-base line in the bandbox of Doubleday Field and roots, roots, roots for the White Team, his shiny baldness masked with a wardrobe-department-supplied navy-blue cap.

LONG DAY. No Hollywood crew has invaded this upstate New York village since 1944, I'm told, when The Babe Ruth Story, with William Bendix as the Sultan of Swat, used the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum as the set for its final scenes. This time, the story is about the All American Girls' Professional Baseball League, which started to entertain fans early in World War II. A number of that league's veterans, including some of its best, are here today. The scene they're in recreates a 1988 reunion game of the AAGPBL played here when the "Women in Baseball" exhibit was unveiled at the Hall of Fame. Most of the veterans are on the Blue Team.

And some are feeling pretty blue, indeed: The shooting schedule has been delayed, preventing them from going to Clearwater, Fla., where the biennial reunion of the AAGPBL Players' Assn. is under way. And while they still have strong arms and can get good wood on the ball, the girls of summer have become the grannies of fall. They're playing hurt, icing their joints in the evening and keeping their complaints to themselves, like the pros they're proud to be. Says the sister of one: "They're all taking Nuprin before they play, so they can make it through the day." These women are in their 60s, after all, and running the 90 feet from home to first through retake after retake on an unseasonably warm afternoon is no cakewalk.

The AAGPBL was organized in 1943 by Philip K. Wrigley, chewing-gum magnate and owner of the Chicago Cubs. World War II had depleted the ranks of professional baseball, and the women's league was intended to put fans into otherwise empty seats. The best female baseball players signed up -- at decent salaries for the day -- and play began on May 30. From four original teams, the league grew to a 1948 maximum of 10 teams that drew a million fans that year. The game quickly progressed from fast-pitch softball to hardball. And the league produced its stars: The legendary Doris Sams of the Muskegon (Mich.) Lassies pitched a no-hit, no-run game in '47 and led the league in hitting two seasons later. The all-time pro-ball record for stolen bases isn't held by Rickey Henderson -- he has 994 so far -- but by Sophie "The Flint Flash" Kurys, who stole 1,114 in her 1943-52 career at second base with the Racine (Wis.) Belles. Playing in the league was a shining interlude in the lives of its players. Says Susan Parsons Zipay, who played for the Rockford (Ill.) Peaches: "We were all very young and very talented athletes who just loved to play."

PROPER LADIES. The teams traveled from city to city in the upper Midwest, playing a heavy schedule, and the players were required to be ladylike on and off the field. The veterans here are concerned that the movie, where Madonna plays a fictional character nicknamed "All-the-way" Mae and there are scenes of players drinking beer, will portray them as a gang of "floozies," as they put it. In fact, they were carefully chaperoned, and spring training included attendance at a charm school. There was no sexual dalliance, no rough language -- and no drinking. "We were no rowdy bunch," says Zipay.

The day before filming starts, I have a meeting with the film's publicist, Stuart Fink, who suggests we meet at his location office in the Village Library and go somewhere for coffee. On the way to the library, I dropped by the only place in town with an espresso machine, but it had wheezed out its last doppio in July, and the bistro's owner hadn't replaced it. That doesn't matter for the moment, as Fink wants to head over to the field to watch the league veterans work out. A day later, though, he does ask if I know where he can get a decaf cappuccino. Now, we Cooperstonians are hardly a bunch of apple-knockers, but Otsego County ain't exactly Rodeo Drive, either. It dawns on me that Hollywood does a pretty good job of lampooning itself, and the real movie here is taking place off camera.

While watching former Rockford Peaches slugger Dottie Ferguson Key swinging again and again in a staged at-bat, I meet Producer Elliot Abbott. A lifelong Cubs fan, he's clearly having a ball. I noticed, at the end of the first day's filming, that he got out on the field with someone from the crew and played catch. "They had to throw us off the diamond," he says. When scenes depicting the AAGPBL's 1943 tryouts in Chicago were filmed in July, Abbott, who hadn't played baseball in 20 years, started to get his arm back in Wrigley Field, realizing a childhood dream. He loves Doubleday Field and wants to know what else it's used for. I list several things, including the annual Hall of Fame game, and tell him a story about a team of well-equipped Japanese amateurs who made a pilgrimage here last year and split a doubleheader with a pickup team of locals. Between the games, one of the Japanese was married on the pitcher's mound. Then, he and his bride ran the bases. When Abbott leaves me, I say to Stuart Fink: "Tell him he has just met one of the four writers in America who isn't writing a screenplay." Fink replies: "You should have pitched that story about the Japanese team to him." An hour later, Fink comes over and tells me my anecdote sparked a "creative moment." Could I, he asks, find him a couple of Japanese executives to play camera-toting tourists at the upcoming Hall of Fame scenes? I tell him I'll try. I love Cooperstown, and I don't want anyone to go back to the Coast and complain over lunch at Spago that our village can't come up with a brace of Japanese extras on short notice. In the clear light of the next day, though, the film people have scrapped the idea.

BOOK DEAL? But all is not lost with my newfound Hollywood contacts: Fink later tells me that Columbia would have no problem if I wrote a book about the league's history in time for the movie's June, 1992, release. And he urges me to undertake the project. "Bantam could get it out in two months," he says. "Let's put Madonna on the cover, and they can do it in one," I joke.

It's too bad all this has to end. Finally, the outdoor scenes are over, however. The crew is dismantling the lights. Elliot Abbott is pitching easily from the mound to a crew member at home plate. And Jim Dean is moving up the steep bank of Willow Brook and jumping the short span of wood fence that separates Doubleday Field from his shop.CARL DESENS; Desens has lived in Cooperstown for four years and commutes to the BUSINESS WEEK copy desk in Manhattan.

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