The history of women in baseball is complicated, and one filled with short bursts of light, but longer dark periods. World War II spawns a women’s pro league by necessity, for example, but when that “League of Their Own” died, the gates to the diamonds seemed locked for generations.
Not even the Title IX revolution of 1970s opened them fully.
But it did produce a crack for a few women with a bat, a glove, and a dream.
“Hardball: The Girls of Summer”, a new documentary film directed by Matthew Temple, who also co-produced with Jewel Greenberg, is part serious examination, part “feel good, fun baseball movie” that weaves this history of women in baseball with a look at the game today. Its center focus is on the U.S. Women’s National Baseball Team and its dreams of a 2016 World Cup title.
It is not to be confused with the 2001 movie of the same name starring Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane and D. B. Sweeney.
A Hollywood screenwriter would be hard-pressed to craft a fictional tale that could match the real life experience of the U.S. team chronicled by these filmmakers. And what a cast!
One of the main protagonists in “Hardball” is an out lesbian, who in July 2016 married her wife, California legislative director Carrie Holmes, who is also featured in the film. Outfielder Tamara Holmes was the anchor of USA Women’s Baseball from the World Cup in 2004 and is perhaps the last Colorado Silver Bullet (remember them?) still playing. She seeks gold in her final games with the team.
Holmes and infielder Malaika Underwood are the wise aunties who were around the last time USA won gold back in 2006. Pitchers Marti Sementelli and Stacy Piagno, both of whom made their national debut as teenagers, are perhaps the veterans, or ”baseball lifers in training.” Outfielder-Pitcher Kelsie Whitmore, fresh off of a California high school field, is the “phenom”.
And in true baseball movie form, this scrappy team has a tall challenge: Team USA has to try to topple powerful Japan, a team that has won four consecutive World Cups leading up to the 2016 tourney. In one of the strongest points of this film, we get a closer look at the opposition as well. The depiction of the Japanese and Australian teams, hearing how the early success of the USA piqued their own interest, opens a window into what many viewers may have never known. The filmmakers even note the experience of teams from other nations, such as India and Pakistan; both are newcomers to the sport in many ways, let alone the championship level of the sport.
The movie is a tight 75 minutes and it flows organically, from looking at the exploits of Team USA, to their quest for the tournament trophy. There is drama, with the requisite highs, lows, the fun moments of being a part of ballclub, and the poignant moments, too. Holmes’ story was catalyst for good deal of those moments. She is a player who has marked much of her adult life inning-to-inning, and is now seeing the end of her run around the bases.
Mixed in with the main story is an examination of the history leading up to the current moment. Modern-era games are interspersed with interviews from historians, surviving All-American Girls Professional Baseball League players — the late-1940s era color footage from those games are a gem to behold — and you hear from contemporary voices such as IIa Borders (remember her?).
“Hardball” also ties in the recent efforts of Major League Baseball to build opportunities for girls in baseball, including the first MLB-sponsored girl’s tournament with an assist from the U.S. national team.
Overall, “Hardball” is an organized, sharp primer that tells multiple stories, but doesn’t feel cluttered or confused. It points a path for a viewer who wants to learn to more and strikes a solid balance between telling a story and giving some good information. If nothing else, it will pique your interest with the 2020 Women’s Baseball World Cup to come.