On July 1, 1992 a story about women playing professional baseball during World War II slid into theaters. A League of Their Own was an extra bagger, a big hit for Columbia picture. But it was also more than that because it introduced the world to a phrase that has echoed through locker rooms and across Little League fields ever since. In the 25 actual and roughly 80 fictional years since right-fielder and single mom Evelyn Gardner (played by Bitty Schram) committed an error, throwing home instead of to second, manager Jimmy Dugan’s reaction has reverberated through culture: “There’s no crying in baseball.”
Despite being a lie, that line has, exactly 25 years later, eclipsed the film.
What made a throwaway line iconic was the specificity of the exasperation. Tom Hanks, playing an unpleasant man for perhaps the first time, wasn’t saying Schram couldn’t cry. He was making a statement about baseball. The sentiment was one of exacerbation with the world more broadly. It just happened to be directed at a single mom who he later spends significant effort comforting. He’s furious, sure, but only at the gall of a world gone so powerfully wrong that crying occurs in baseball.
A League of Their Own is a sensitive movie and, in a sense, it’s a sensitive line that speaks to what it’s like to be an insensitive man in a sensitive situation. It’s complicated. But it’s also well-wrought. Hanks, director Penny Marshall, and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel nailed the scene to the wall.
Two and a half decades later “There’s no crying in baseball” is more than a meme, t-shirt, and a back pocket phrase. Professional athletes like Pedro Martinez reuse it, social media influencers parody it, and indie rock bands write pretty good songs about it. It’s the first sentence Ryan Reynolds’ daughter could complete, and the catchphrase of choice for Jake Gyllenhaal’s niece as well. Non-celebrity parents reference it in videos with their whimpering kids this all over YouTube. During a divisive time of argued political correctness and oversensitivity, most people are still in agreement on one thing–there can be steroids, $12 beers, and giant communal urinals in baseball, but still no crying.
“There’s no crying in baseball” is a metaphor for a variety of lessons about toughening up, but taken literally it’s not exactly true. Research along with the World Series, Super Bowl, and pretty much any championship game show that, ironically, there are plenty of tears in sports. But perhaps that’s the one exception to the fictional coach’s sage wisdom. There is crying in baseball, but only when lighting a car on fire is the alternative.