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Queerness in Baseball: An Interview with ‘A League of Their Own’ Co-Creator Will Graham

Warning: there is crying in baseball – at least if you watch this series.
A League of Their Own. Courtesy Amazon Studios.

A League of Their Own. Courtesy Amazon Studios.

For the last decade, Hollywood has managed to strikeout on a number of unnecessary reboots of classic films and television series. But thankfully, the latest Amazon Prime Series A League of Their Own has proved to be nothing but a homerun.

The new series, co-created by Will Graham (Mozart in the Jungle) and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City), goes above and beyond the beloved 1992 classic of the same name by carving out its own unique space within the world to highlight stories centering around queer women and baseball players of color.

“The idea to do this show was never like, “Let’s do this movie again, because the movie was so great and everyone needs more of Dotty and Kit,”’ Graham tells Script Magazine. “Those stories have been told. And so once Abbi and I started working together at that point, there weren't characters. There was just a sense of like, there's a bigger story here that we can tell that maybe can mean something to other people the same way that it's meant something to us.”

Will Graham. Photo by Michael Kovac.

Will Graham. Photo by Michael Kovac.

In this interview with Script Magazine, Graham breaks down writing balance between fiction and reality, including queer stories, and the power of finding community in entertainment.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

[Spoiler warning]

Destiny Jackson: The response online to the series has been positive, especially from those in the LGBTQ community. How are you holding up post-launch now that the show is out in the world?

Will Graham: I feel incredible. Abbi [Jacobson, co-creator] and I have been working on this show for, I think now five and a half years. I started my first meeting with Sony about this show the same week that I met my husband. And we’ve been married for three years now. So it was a real labor of love. And it's so funny. You probably know what this is like when you live with something and it's yours for a long time. And then you put it out there and you don't know how people are going to react to it. And just the connections that people have been making with this show and the responses we've gotten and knowing that at least some people are seeing themselves in the show. It's really been a dream, it's better than I could’ve imagined.

I’ve seen you engage with people online about some of the meticulous historical research that went into making the show, could you talk more about how you tackled that in the early planning stages of the series?

Graham: Well of course this started with Penny Marshall’s incredible movie, which was groundbreaking for its time–and I think meant so much to so many people. It definitely did to me growing up as a queer kid. There was not any content around me that was explicitly queer especially not when I was younger. And so you learn like I think so many people did, to just gravitate to those things that had subtext, where you were like, 'Maybe there's a part of me that can understand this or a part of me that's understood by this.' And the movie was definitely that for me. And I think then a few years ago I was in Italy shooting Mozart in the Jungle. And I was in this hotel that was very loud in Venice and there were people singing outside and I had a lot of writing to do.

And so I put the movie on, I sometimes put things that I know really well on in the background, and then I just started watching [A League of Their Own] and wondering about the stories outside of the movie and wondering what the real story was. So I started doing a little bit of digging at that point. And the context of that was really finding the real stories, the hidden queer stories, and the idea that there was a real queer community here. But also the stories of people like Toni Stone, Mami Johnson, Connie Morgan, and there were hundreds of other Black women like them who weren't allowed to play in the league. But then played on industrial teams or like the three of them went on to play in the Negro leagues. And that just on that alone, you got the sense, there's this huge [story to uncover]. Not to mention there were Latina players in the league who weren't talked about in the movie. So I think the drive to do the show really came from those stories.

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The idea to do this show was never like, 'Let’s do this movie again, because the movie was so great and everyone needs more of Dotty and Kit.' Those stories have been told. And so once Abbi and I started working together at that point, there weren't characters. There was just a sense of like, there's a bigger story here that we can tell that maybe can mean something to other people the same way that it's meant something to us.

I love that because at first when the series was announced, most people were sort of jaded thinking it was a reboot of the film. But as it turns out, the series is a historical expansion. While planning what themes were front and center for you, were there any fun changes to the story that happened along the way?

Graham: Oh my God, there were so many. So we always knew that the show was going to be whatever we needed it to be to authentically tell these stories. And I say authentically, because we developed and wrote the show with one eye on these stories and one eye on our world now. And we were trying to find the places where those really overlapped and where the stories that we were looking at and that we were learning about could really talk to the present. And so many things happened along the way that helped inform those stories. The first is just, that we have at this point, thousands and thousands of pages of research. And our research process was run by our co-executive producer, Liz [Koe] and Natalie [So] during the pilot and in the development process, which was a long process. So for the series, that research informed so much of what we were [writing] and we would constantly, even when we were in the ramp up to shooting, find a moment or find a nugget or find something that made us think about the texture of something in a different way.

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But I think the other thing that was an enormous gift was that we made a pilot for the show in 2020, right before the start of COVID. So we had a chance to really work with the cast. And if you watch some of the show, you know how incredible this cast is and how we're just, we're so lucky to be able to have this group of people that we're working with. A lot of the changes really came out of conversations with them. And I just think Abbi tends to bring a personal dimension to all of her work, we wanted to find ways for everyone in the cast to be able to find a real personal connection to the characters, that way they could also understand these people who are different than them. And that really changed the arcs of the characters but also just their voices and the way they talk and move through the world.

What character in the series do you relate to the most?

Graham: I relate to different characters in the show in different ways. There’s a part of me that relates really strongly to Carson. The idea of having to find a leadership that you don't feel like you were born into and you don't necessarily know how to do. And leading while still being vulnerable is something I relate to a lot. I think Max to me is more of a character that I admire more than anything because she's so clear and she knows what she wants. And obviously, that's complicated by her life in a ton of different ways and by things that she hasn't yet fully dealt with or processed about her life.

[L-R] Gbemisola Ikumel as Clance Morgan and Chanté Adams as Max Chapman in a League of Their Own. Courtesy Amazon Studios.

[L-R] Gbemisola Ikumel as Clance Morgan and Chanté Adams as Max Chapman in a League of Their Own. Courtesy Amazon Studios.

But the simplest answer to your question is I really relate strongly to Clance. Just in that, I was also a comic book nerd. There's a whole lived experience as a Black woman that I'll never understand but you get the feeling that she can't live in the world the way that it is. So she's escaping into art and into stories and trying to create or find a world that she can live in. And that's something from being a queer kid, even though my experience is totally different, that I do really strongly relate to. That's what writing and what stories always were for me, not knowing how to exist in this world. And so trying to find a different one.

Let’s talk about that powerful Episode 6, which you wrote and directed. The story features a Rosie O’Donnell cameo and a parallel to The Wizard of OZ, so first I need to ask, what does that movie mean to you? Why incorporate it into the storyline?

Graham: I love the story and the first moments, I guess you could say I found my team in seventh grade. I played the Cowardly Lion and my mom has a picture of me sitting outside after the last performance in my lion costume just sobbing, because I felt like I'd found a team of people who were like me, and then it was over and I was like, 'That's never going to happen again.' And again, it's one of those stories that of course has a really strong queer history in the “Friends of Dorothy” reference. And so, [while writing] I was looking for something... We knew that we wanted to, at some point, have [the team] go see a movie and have that infect the story. So as we started developing the episode, that was something that the room talked a lot about and we wound up centering on The Wizard of Oz because it is the story of a community in a way, of finding these parts of yourself in other people and realizing you had the answer inside yourself all along.

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What I think it's beautiful about [the parallel] and what hopefully comes across in the episode is that—and actually interestingly, this is something we're seeing in response to the show since it came out— is that's really exciting to find mirrors of ourselves and [watch] things that we need to see in the stories we encounter. So for Carson, she comes out of the movie crying and it's this powerful mirror of wanting something more and not necessarily being able to have it and knowing that there's something else out there for her. And Clance comes out seeing Dorothy as the villain. And I think both of those things are true. You can look at that story through the lens of Dorothy as a manipulator who's getting all these people to serve her agenda. Or it's a fun team and they're all just going along and having an adventure together. And both of those things are true. And that's been interesting [for us] just seeing people's reactions to [that episode]. And seeing what parts of the show people find mirrors in and the different impressions of the show that they take away from that.

[L-R] Abbi Jacobson as Carson Shaw and D'Arcy Carden as Greta Gill in A League of Their Own. Courtesy Amazon Studios.

[L-R] Abbi Jacobson as Carson Shaw and D'Arcy Carden as Greta Gill in A League of Their Own. Courtesy Amazon Studios.

This season finale is so spectacularly cheeky. Carson is now the leader of the Peaches, but her team has disbanded for the off-season. Then, the same moment she says this sweet goodbye to Greta, her husband catches her in the act. Had you always planned on ending it this way? Or was there another ending where maybe Carson told her husband she was queer to his face, I mean, there were a few chances for Carson to at least divorce him.

Graham: I think we always wanted to end it that way or at least we found that ending pretty early on in the process, both for Max and her story and the idea of her getting on this barnstorming team. And finally having found a team that at least will be a start for her. And for Carson, knowing that she spent the whole season in some ways, but really, especially these last few episodes of living in two worlds. And we knew that we wanted to bring those things into collision with each other. But those [situations] are about consequences and the idea that you can have this joyful space and this community but there is danger and risk associated with that. Like Greta has been saying from the beginning of the season to Carson and the moment with Charlie is another one of those. Something we started to talk about early on, and Abbi says it really well, she always says, 'We want to tell the story of the show through a lens of joy but without looking away from the hard things.' And I don't think we would be doing that authentically if everybody just got to find the person they wanted to be with or what they wanted to do and got to ride off into the sunset too easily. Because of course we know the 1940s was a very difficult time to be queer and by the way, so is now, and there are consequences and there are things you have to give up.

That’s the thing that really drew me into this show is the balance between fiction and historical accuracies, which we didn’t see in the original film too much.

Something that stunned me was the depth of how the show tackles the segregation issue with Max literally being unable to join the Peaches or any other white baseball team because she literally can’t. But something that kept going through my mind was that because this is a fictional TV show and she could just be written onto the team, or it could be made so that it’s OK to be openly queer in the 1940s/1950s, but this is not the case. And, I think it’s such an interesting decision. 

Is there some kind of hard and fast rule in the writer's room where you aim to stick more to the authenticity of the time as opposed to what can be fictional? How did you tackle that?

Graham: It's a really interesting question and it's one that exists on a couple of different levels within the show and definitely did within the writing process. There’s certain things that just were true about this time period and this league and we never really considered changing those things. And one of them is that, for example, when Mami Johnson tried out for the AGPBL [All-American Girls Professional Baseball League] with her friend Rita [Jones] in a way that's very similar to what happens to Max and Clance in the pilot. She not only wasn't allowed to try out, but she was also run off and told to leave. And that what was the start of the inspiration for her story was that Mami Johnson from there went to play in the Negro Leagues. Which some people know but not everybody knows were huge from the start of the 20th century and their roots go back even earlier into the fifties. It was a gigantic professional league of predominantly Black players who obviously weren't allowed to play in the major leagues but some people think they were even better.

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And it's this huge chapter of baseball history. So when Mami looked back on the AGPBL, she said, 'Well, when I played pro ball, I didn't have to wear a skirt.' And I think there's probably some pain underneath that statement or trying to sound strong or to have armor but we knew that it was her story and Toni Stone's story and Connie Morgan's story that were the inspiration for Max's story. And I think if we tried to alter reality to make things easier for the queer characters or the characters of color, you suddenly lose any authenticity that the story really has. It's something that we discussed. We had an incredible writer's room for this show, just a collection of really brilliant minds. And something that we talked about in big story movements, in lines, in parts of every episodes we asked if we are doing justice to these stories.

At the same time, there are plenty of parts of the show, we use some language that's a little more modern, modern music choices–and we did that intentionally too, both because in getting to know a lot of women who played inside and outside the league at this time, they almost seem more modern than we do. They have this incredible restless wild energy. And as they say that, I'm thinking about Maybelle Blair, who was a consultant on the show and played in the league and came out for the first time at 95 years-old, a couple of months ago. And so, what we wanted to do was lower the barrier between the audience and the characters. Actually, when we talked to Penny Marshall she said something interesting that was the start of that conversation in some ways. She said, 'When the team was hanging out just by itself, I wanted people to forget that it was a period piece and just to sort of feel like [the audience] were on the bus with them.' And so, we tried to go for that same feeling and not do things that were wildly anachronistic like no one’s saying [modern vocabulary]. We just want to allow people and allow the show to sound a little more modern in certain ways.

Watch the first season of A League of Their Own on Amazon Prime.


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