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Coming to Bat : CBS Adds 'League' to Its Lineup Despite History of TV Baseball Flops

April 04, 1993|TED JOHNSON | Ted Johnson is a free-lance writer who writes frequently for The Times

The new Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies will have years to prove they are viable professional baseball draws.

The Rockford Peaches of CBS' "A League of Their Own" have but six weeks.

Although the new sitcom is based on Penny Marshall's hit movie about a women's baseball team during World War II, all other past series about the game have landed in the dugout. But Marshall has beat negative expectations before.

"I went through the same thing with the movie," says Marshall, one of the series' executive producers, who returns to her TV roots ("Laverne & Shirley") to direct.

"They doubted it would work because it was a period piece or because it was about baseball or a women's league," Marshall says.

But the series "is about the characters," she emphasizes. "It's not about nostalgia. And it happens to have baseball as a backdrop."

The movie, inspired by a PBS documentary about the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, scored with audiences, passing the $100-million mark last year.

By and large, the series picks up where the movie left off. In the first episode, Dottie, a farm girl who became the team's catcher and Most Valuable Player, is lured back to the team after her husband re-enlists.

Making guest appearances in the opener are Jon Lovitz, a former regular on "Saturday Night Live" who returns as Ernie (Cappy) Capadino, a droll talent scout, and Penny Marshall's brother, Garry, a TV and film producer-director ("Happy Days," "Pretty Woman"), who plays Walter Harvey, a candy magnate and owner of the league.

Carey Lowell, who co-starred in the last James Bond feature "Licence to Kill," takes Geena Davis' role as Dottie. Christine Elise, who played Emily on "Beverly Hills, 90210," plays her sister, pitcher Kit Keller (Lori Petty in the film), and Sam McMurray, who starred in Fox's "Likely Suspects," takes Tom Hanks' role as Jimmy Dugan, the disgruntled, hard-drinking manager of the Peaches.

As with the movie, the actors were tested for their baseball potential, then given crash training with University of Southern California coaches. Because of numerous days of rain, the cast was forced to practice pop-ups, fly balls and base-sliding within the confines of a Culver City sound stage.

It wasn't until the interior shots of the first two episodes were finished that the Peaches got on a real baseball field at a vintage stadium in Ontario.

Inevitably, the actors say, there will be comparisons to movie counterparts. Davis, Petty and Hanks have visited the set, but have kept their hands off the TV roles. Hanks is scheduled to direct an episode.

Marshall says the series will be able to "delve deeper into the characters." To an extent, each character also will be molded to fit the actor's persona.

Dottie was "a little more aloof in the film," Lowell says. "Dottie was the best player on the team, sort of the leader. My character is a little more involved with her teammates."

In the movie, Kit carried a grudge because she couldn't mirror her sister Dottie's baseball glory. In the series, she'll be "lighter and funnier," Elise says.

"If you try to be the poor man's version of the original cast members, it won't work," Elise says. "You've got to find what your character is like on your own."

Megan Cavanaugh, who reprises her role as Marla Hooch, the plain-Jane nearly passed over by the league, will see her character become a bit more assertive.

"She is finding out about life through this baseball league, which is what a lot of the characters are experiencing in the show," Cavanaugh says. "I hope it will bring back the feeling of that time. Everyone had a real sense of duty, and a coming together for the war."

For an All-American Girl player, that meant playing games every weeknight and doubleheaders on weekends, then getting jobs in factories in the off-season, according to Pepper Paire Davis, a catcher in the league from 1944 to 1953 (it was disbanded a year later). She found out her fiance was killed in the war right before a game. She played anyway, and cried afterward.

"You played every ball game," says Davis. "There was something special about being an All-American. There was nothing for women (in sports). This was the only chance they had. This is something that no one knew we did. That will appeal to everyone."

Davis and other real-life leaguers are informal consultants to the show, offering coaching tips, or anecdotes.

Tracy Reiner, the daughter of Marshall and former husband Rob Reiner, reprises her film role of Betty (Spaghetti) Horn, a Peaches pitcher whose husband was killed in the war.

"These were women who were like movie stars at the time," she notes. "They were there to entertain and keep the sport alive."

And if the Peaches can do the same thing, "A League of Their Own" could be the first series about baseball that makes it through a season.

"A League of Their Own" airs on Saturdays at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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