This A League of Their Own recap contains spoilers.
Brown eyes butterfly until they’re closed. The whistle whisper of an exhale. In Max’s mind she’s pitching against Josh Gibson while Nancy Sinatra plays in the background. Josh Gibson, a superstar of the Negro leagues, one of the single best power hitters and catchers in all of baseball. The second Negro league player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The second highest single-season major league batting average ever in history, coincidentally for his 1943 season — which is where Max meets him now. He may be the best, but he’s never met an arm like hers before.
The announcer roars, “Max Chapman has been unhittable today!” as Gibson walks in front of the back wall of Max’s mama’s beauty salon, squaring off on the plate. Max’s eyes open, focused and unblinking as she winds up, arching her back towards the sky. A thunderbolt right down the middle. Gibson swings and misses, he spits — trying to hold composure. Max smiles brighter than the sun itself. The announcer beams “Chapman’s got the special sauce and the fire today. It’s not every day you see the Black Babe Ruth back on his heels.” Max winds up again, Gibson swings, the crack of the bat, and — and —
Max opens her eyes, she’s back at the Rockford screw factory’s baseball diamond, scribbling plays in her notebook. If episode one of A League of Their Own opened with Carson Shaw quite literally running towards her dreams, then episode two opens with Max Chapman furiously plotting hers. Taken together, the two episodes establish Abbi Jacobson and Chanté Adams as narrative co-leads of this reboot, setting expectations, right from the top, that the 2022 series will use its expanded eight-hour run to go where time restraints (and time period restraints) meant the 1992 film did not — after all, there’s more than one way that women in the 1940s played professional baseball.
In the 1992 film, during the Peaches race for popularity after being on the verge of shut down, an unnamed Black woman from the segregated bleachers throws a fire of a ball for the great and almighty Dottie Hinson. Dottie reels back, impressed. The camera lingers on the unknown woman’s face as she cracks just less than a smile, a nod, an acknowledgment of who was not allowed on the field, and that it wasn’t a lack of talent that kept them away. Then she’s never seen again. Max Chapman was unceremoniously thrown out of AAGBL try outs, but instead of that being the end of her story, it’s just the beginning. If the “All American Girls” won’t have her, there’s got to be another way.
The factory men laugh together about who’s the weird girl in the stands, and Gary (of fame for last night getting his ass whopped by Max, in front of white people, no less) tries to play it off like Max is his girl, watching him play. Max takes less of a breath before doing her best Keke Palmer impression, “Sorry To This Man,” and walking right up to Mr. Vance, the coach of the factory team. She won’t leave until he sees her pitch. Mr. Vance says that to play on the team you have to work at the factory, and well, that’s just fine by Max.
Meanwhile, the Peaches are in their locker room, wearing their dress skirt uniforms for the first time, and they are none too happy. Carson complains that if she as much as squats, “they will see my everything.” Jess (who, we learned last episode, prefers a white tank top and boxers as underwear of choice), in particular, is distraught. Lupe tries to cheer Jess up, “hey maybe it’s just for the pictures” right before their chaperone lets the team know that they will absolutely be sliding into home base while wearing A-line miniskirts forever moving forward.
Jo wants to be a ball player, not a Follies Girl, “nothing against the Follies.” (Which sets Greta up, leaning against Jo’s shoulder, for the perfect “This one personally loves the Follies,” as Jo sighs “Can’t get enough!” — aww these two, maximum gay.)
The team learns that their coach for the season will be Dove Porter, “King of the Forkball!” whatever that is. Dove had a short career in the majors, and mostly seems happy to be coaching, telling the Peaches that the locker room is one of his favorite places in the world because it’s there that players write their names into the wood, “little prayers, that they send up to the Gods.” The Dove condescendingly tells the Peaches to show him the fire in their eyes and ugh.. also does a magic trick while he signs Carson’s ball for her dad? Can a magic trick be condescending? This one is.
In practice, Dove seemingly takes an interest in Lupe because they’re both self-taught pitchers and tells Carson, “hey Carson! Shaw! How about you make your daddy proud?” Which leads to Greta throwing out from the sidelines, “oOOooh Carson already has a new daddy? That was quick.”
(I promise at some point to stop play-by-play recapping Greta’s gay jokes and winks, and that voice of hers that sends shivers through my nerves right down to the base of my spine, but today is not that day.)
The owners watch as the team plays, and they’re joined by Madam Vivienne Hughes, of Vivienne Hughes Cosmetics (I don’t actually remember if she goes by “Madam” but spiritually speaking, she is a “Madam”) who will be in charge of making these ballplayers look and act like “ladies.” There was a headline in the newspaper with a lot pearl clutching around “Can Womanhood Survive the Rockford Peaches?” and women “picking up their baseball bats to fight to the death to see who can be the most masculine” but Madam Vivienne is not worried, she loves a challenge. “I know what men want to look at, I invented that.”
Speaking of moral panic around “the masculinization of women” and taking on a challenge, Max goes up to the white women hiring for “women’s work” at the screw factory because that’s the first step Mr. Vance said was needed to get on the team (the fact that team has never agreed to bringing on a woman will not stop her). These white women take one look at Max and say “we’re not hiring.” Max counters, the Roosevelt Order prohibits racial discrimination in the defense industry. They have to at least “consider” her for the job.
The leader white woman behind the sign up table looks Max up and down, perched from the top of her nose. She says that Max isn’t well suited for the “delicate” nature of their work. Is Max considered indelicate and not suitable for hiring because she’s Black? Or is it because she’s tomboy/masculine presenting? Or is it a delightful combination of the two, because Black women are almost always seen as hyper masculine and “not delicate”? Being a Black woman in America is such a fun puzzle to unweave!
Carson and Greta have spent their day entwined in the kind of tension where bickering is also flirting and could just as easily be fighting or sex. Last night Greta had her tongue down Carson’s throat and then, in the middle of Carson’s big gay awakening, left on the arms of a stranger man from the party. Now Carson’s giving her the silent treatment, but she also can’t seem to stand being away from her, from talking with her, even if their only talking is snarky comments said under breath. Greta’s a mystery for Carson, seductive but an enigma. It’s like Greta’s read the rulebook for a game that Carson’s never even played. And it’s gotten under her skin, the not knowing, the flirting that’s also fighting. It feels like bursting. Carson’s sister calls to tell her that she’s a family disappointment because she’d rather play baseball than have babies and Greta lurks, listens.
She hands Carson, notorious book lover, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and as a fellow notorious book lover I must say — for sure, that’s sex.
The next morning is the infamous “Make Over Scene.” I say “infamous Make Over Scene” and already I’m kicking myself, because I want to let the 2022 A League of Their Own stand on its own merits without always referencing 1992, but it’s hard to ignore when the series makes such smart adaptations, begging to be pulled apart. A League of Their Own’s original make over scene, in which the Peaches and other AAGBL players are trained in refinery and social manners, is largely played for jokes. It pokes fun at the sexist double standards, and its points are made, but it never lifts up the curtain of what’s really lying beneath. By comparison, this A League of Their Own takes iconic moments from the original (the awkward dancing “gracefully and grandly” in heels, women lined up for inspection based on their physical attributes) and exposes them bare.
Sure, it’s funny when Lupe is called out for having “vampire teeth” that will need to be filed, and I’m sure everyone probably laughed when Carson is told that she has “farm hands” and a “farm face” without ever actually having stepped foot on a farm in her life. But when Shirley Cohen is told that she looks “too Semitic” — that’s not funny at all. And that’s the point.
Greta, who has taken to Madam Vivienne and her independent wealth like a moth to a flame, understands the lesson, because she always has. Madam Vivienne promises that if the ball players can learn the price of entrance into a white man’s world — the femme frivolity, the make up, the white standards of beauty — that they can manipulate those same tools to get whatever they want. She built an empire that allows her a younger man, the ability to travel the world, and most importantly — her autonomy. Greta flits through her dance and make up lessons, flirting with the team club manager that she’s single but wants husband, “although I hope I hit a homer first” wink wink.
And doesn’t Carson get it? Doesn’t she see? Greta pulls her aside.
Greta: Why do you think they’re doing all of this? It’s make sure that we don’t look like a bunch of queers. Do you get that? That’s what ALL of this is! Or maybe it just doesn’t affect you, Mrs. Shaw.
As if right on cue, one of the butch players is uncerimouniosly asked to leave, with a promise of a train ticket waiting for them after they pack. Social niceties that barely mask what’s much more harrowing. A punishment for the grand crime of being unable to properly curtsy.
Madam Vivienne gears up to give Jess the same fate, but Carson and Greta step in, panicked. They rush to assure her that the reason Jess’ make up is not done is because Jess was helping all the other players put on their make up instead. Madam Vivienne narrows her eyes and encourages Carson and Greta to help Jess by returning the favor, immediately.
Questions of social capital, of making ourselves smaller or more “delicate,” of doing what we have to do to gain access in a world not designed for us, also circle for Clance and Max. Max works at her mother’s shop, book keeping and sweeping floors. Max’s mother, Miss Toni, tells her daughter that the only reason she was able to own her own beauty salon was because the bank thought “Tony” was a man’s name (Miss Toni doesn’t know of her daughter’s factory ambitions, but already we can see the wheels turning in Max’s head).
The women at the shop gossip, joking about a customer who came in with her hair half done in hopes of a discount (Miss Toni is not about that life). The salon doors open and here comes Mrs. Turner, who has been “busy and blessed”TM but is back in town for the church revival. Mrs. Turner must have money because Miss Toni wants Max to set her up special, but with eyes Mrs. Turner’s making at Max… I think she has another kind of special in mind.
Another woman at the salon finally got some last night, after a many years long drought, go off then!! The jokes lead to a mention of “Bertie,” but Miss Toni shuts down at the mention of Bertie’s name — there’s definitely something there but before we can get into it, Clance comes in like a hurricane. Clance, who is hosting her first open house as a married woman, wants her hair done up like Lena Horne and needs Max to help her get the crab for the crab boil.
Of course, absolutely nothing goes as planned for Clance and the crab boil, a comedy of errors that would be hilarious if it wasn’t clear right away how much it meant to her. First the crab got sold to the wrong person, leaving Clance with — gasp! — prawns! Then the prawns spill all over the ground. The case of the mystery crab lead Clance and Max to the Black funeral parlor in town (and Max does NOT DO Dead People, you hear me??), where Clance finds out it’s too late, the crab has already been boiled for someone else. I’m sure this dead person’s grieving family is happy, but that is not our problem okay!? We! Need! Crab!
There’s only one choice. They have to go Schwartz’s market, a place that I know on sight must be racist as hell because Max says “not even my mama goes there!” — Max and Clance remind each other “we’re allowed here by law, we’re allowed here by law” as they get ignored by the deli man behind the counter, Clance pleading “Sir! Sir! Can we? Can we please?” before she runs away in tears.
Clance’s Lena Horne hair is ruined. Guy’s family is going to be expecting crab, and she has nothing to show. She’s not like Max. She doesn’t have a family with both parents and a mom who’s a business owner, she needs this open house to go well if she and Guy are going to make it as respected couple in Rockford. Max squares her shoulders and heads back into market.
This time, Max runs into Carson (who is at the market accompanying Shirley, who has never been alone in public before). Carson wants to make sure that Max isn’t going to spill her big gay secret from the night before, but Max truly doesn’t care and has other things on her mind — namely she needs this white man to sell her crab, so that Clance’s social future is not ruined. And what comes next is subtle, but there’s an exchange of understanding and power between them. When Max says “I was here first” to the man behind the deli counter, Carson uses her white privilege to back her up. Max walks out with the crab, Carson walks out feeling confident that her secret with Greta will remain just that.
In the end, the crab boil is a hit. Max uses the opportunity to put on a clingy yellow dress and heels, not only surprising her parents but also intentionally dancing real close up on Gary. She flirts and you see, she needs a favor. She needs Gary (of ass beat down fame) to put in her name for a factory job — but as Max, not Maxine. Maybe Max wasn’t at Madam Vivienne’s school of refinery today, but like her mama, she knows a trick or two about how to make a white man’s world bend to your whims.
The Peaches, unfortunately, lose their first game. Which has a lot to do with the fact that Dove never bothered to properly train them, because as far as he’s concerned the entire league is an embarrassing publicity stunt that will only work if they “shorten the skirts” — told you he was condescending. There’s also a lot of sexual harassment from the bleachers towards Greta, fatphobia towards Jo, and some real fun racism saved for Lupe that not only involves Dove yelling out “¡Caliente!” after she pitches, but also the ball club manager explaining that they’ve decided to say Lupe was from Spain because “it goes down a little easier than Mexico.”
Greta and Carson have picked up their flirting in the dugout, with Greta winking and asking Carson to “wish me luck” before she goes to bat. Unfortunately after Greta briefly loses her cool with the jerks in the stands, Madam Vivienne shows up post-game to inform her that the managers think “you’re a bit too much out there. So if you could be a little sweeter, a little less.” Between that and the game loss, she’s had enough.
Carson finds Greta, alone in the locker room, crying. Whenever Greta finally lets herself want something, truly want it for her, it goes terribly wrong. She sobs softly, and the moment of quiet hits so much harder from a woman who, until now, has taken up the whole room. Carson wonders if Greta was right all along, if maybe this was always too good to be true. Too good to be real.
Greta dries her tears just long enough to look Carson directly in the face, No. “They get to us how long this lasts, or what we wear, or what our eyebrows look like… but they don’t get to tell us whether or not this is real, that’s us.”
That same night, Max has changed out of her yellow clingy dress for coffee brown button down, her swag insurmountable as she walks back to her mama’s shop after hours. She smiles, bites her bottom lip, makes me die on the spot where I’m sitting, and opens up the door for a customer. Mrs. Turner, who’s in town for the church revival.
Nina Simone’s “Misunderstood” swells behind them. Mrs. Turner pulls Max sharply by her waist, their bodies slightly bouncing off each other from the forceful motion as they settle in close. They laugh together, walking backwards into the salon as they kiss.
Yeah, I’m guessing the church revival ain’t the only thing that Mrs.Turner came for.
(Sorry. I had to.)
Editor in Chief Carmen Phillips and Senior Editor Heather Hogan will be trading off A League of Their Own recaps, one a day, every single day, for the whole first season. See you back here tomorrow!