baseball

In ‘A League of Their Own’, Abby Jacobson makes the team

He insisted that Abby Jacobson could really play baseball. Not when the cameras are rolling. “I totally get the yips when someone looks at me,” she told me.

It’s a recent weekday morning, on a shady bench overlooking the ball fields in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Jacobson lives nearby, in an apartment she shares with her fiancé, “For All Mankind” actress Jodi Balfour. This morning, she hadn’t come to the fields to play, which was a good thing – the diamonds were surrounded by little children. (Which was great, because while Jacobson can play, I can’t, though she offered to teach me.) And honestly, she deserves to enjoy her off season.

In “A League of Their Own,” arriving Aug. 12 on Amazon Prime Video, Jacobson stars as Rockford Peaches catcher Carson Shaw. Carson is an invented character, but the peaches of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which began in 1943, are delightfully real. For five rainy months, on location in Pittsburgh, Jacobson, 38, had to catch, throw, hit and slide into bases. Is some of this computer-generated magic? Sure, but not all. That meant Jacobson played with plenty of people watching. And she played well.

“She’s really nice,” he said Will Graham, who created the series with her. “Abby is constantly self-effacing and self-deprecating but actually evil.”

Carson, a talented, anxious woman, becomes the team’s de facto leader. As creator and executive producer, as well as star of the series, Jacobson also led the team on and off screen. It’s something she and Ilana Glazer have been doing since her mid-20s, when she and Ilana Glazer created and eventually oversaw the comedy “Broad City.” In that show, she became the lead more or less by accident. In “A League of Their Own,” inspired by Penny Marshall’s 1992 film, Jacobson leads with purpose and infusing the script with her own ideas about what leadership looks like.

“The stories I want to tell are about how I’m a messy person and I’m insecure all the time,” she said. “And then what if the most insecure, unsure person becomes the leader? What if the confused person adapts?

So is Carson’s story her story?

“Kind of,” she said, squinting against the sun.

Jacobson, who describes herself as an introvert masquerading as an extrovert, is an observer before she participates but is cautious. Even in the midst of animated conversation, she has the attitude to suggest that it would be best if you left her with a book, or a sketch pad, or perhaps her dog, Desi.

Her favorite pastime: “I like to go and sit in a crowded area like a book. Alone,” she said.

That morning, she wore a white tank top and paint-stained pants, but the stains were pre-applied and intentional, laziness turned into fashion. The bag she was carrying was Chanel. She didn’t look like a baseball player, but she looked like a woman comfortable in her own skin who cleaned up most of her private mess and put the rest to professional use.

“She’s the boss,” said writer and comedian Phoebe Robinson, a friend. “And she knows herself in her core.”

Jacobson grew up in suburban Philadelphia, the youngest of two children in a Reform Jewish family. She played sports throughout her childhood — softball, basketball, travel soccer — until she gave them up for jam bands and weed.

“That team mentality was my childhood,” he said.

After art school, she moved to New York to become a theater actress, then turned to comedy through improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade. She and Glazer wanted to join the House Improv troupe, but were rejected by troupe after troupe. So he created “Broad City,” which ran for five seasons, first as a web series and then on Comedy Central. The lackluster “Girls,” trailing pot smoke as it goes, follows its protagonists Abby and Ilana as they blaze a winding path through young adulthood. The New Yorker affectionately called the show “Bro-Man’s.”

For Jacobson, the show was a professional development seminar and a form of therapy. By writing and playing a version of herself, she emerged more confident, less anxious.

“Having this acknowledgment of her anxiety in the character allowed her to look at it and grow in a different direction,” Glazer said.

In 2017, when “Broad City” had two seasons, Graham (“Mozart in the Jungle”) invited Jacobson to dinner. He recently acquired the rights of his childhood favorite movie “A League of Their Own”. He thought it could make a good series with a few changes. The weirdness of some of the characters — rendered in the film by blink-and-you-miss-it subtext — should be more overt this time around. In the film, in a scene that lasts just seconds, a black woman returns a foul ball with force and precision, a nod to the league’s segregation. This too deserved more attention.

Graham followed Jacobson, he said, for her integrity, her intelligence, her disturbing, nervous optimism. He wanted the experience of doing the show to be joyful. And he wanted the stories it told — especially weird stories — to convey joy. He sensed that Jacobson, who was in his mid-30s, could deliver.

“She’s very funny and emotionally honest — and not afraid to be emotionally honest,” Graham said.

As Jacobson finished the final seasons of “Broad City,” development began on a new series. She and Graham immersed themselves in research, talking to some of the surviving women who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League or the Negro Leagues. He spoke to Marshall by phone before his death in 2018. Marshall focused primarily on the story of one woman: Geena Davis Doty. Graham and Jacobson tried to tell as many stories as the eight-episode run allowed.

“The movie is a story about white women getting to play baseball,” Jacobson said. “That’s not enough.”

The show gradually morphed from a half-hour comedy to an hour-long drama. Then it found its co-stars: D’Arcy Corden Greta, the glamor girl of the team; Roberta Colindrez as Lupe, the team’s pitcher; Chante Adams As Max, a black superstar in search of his own team. Rosie O’DonnellThe star of the original film, who signed on for the episode, plays the owner of a gay bar.

The pilot was shot in Los Angeles, which doubled first to Chicago and then to Rockford, Ill. The coronavirus hit soon after, delaying production until last summer. Rising costs pushed the show to move to Pittsburgh, which, as it happened, was a rainy city, a problem for the show with several game-day sequences. But the film team managed it.

“There’s kind of a summer camp quality,” Graham said.

And Jacobson, as Glazer reminded me, spent many years as a camp counselor. So the quality of that summer camp was owed to her. And she insisted on constant baseball practice.

“There was a lot of baseball practice, months of baseball practice really,” Corden said. “We are more of a team than a cast. That’s Abby. Abby is a team person.”

Adams first met Jacobson in the audition room. (As a longtime “Broad City” fan, she struggled to keep her cool.) On set, Jacobson immediately took a liking to her.

“I don’t know how she does it,” Adams said. “But even as the heroine and the star of the show, she always makes sure that everyone’s voice is heard and included.” After filming ended, Adams said, Jacobson attended the opening night of her Broadway show.

“It melted my heart,” he said. “Abby is what it means to be a leader.”

Jacobson doesn’t always feel that way, but she does often. “Sometimes I can really have it,” he said. “And sometimes I go home, and I’m like, ‘How am I? Or what’s going on here?’ So she imparted the same self-doubt to Carson, the evolving hero, as she admitted her vulnerability.

But Carson’s narrative is one of many in a series that celebrates the range of women’s experiences: black, white, and Latina women; straight, queer and questioning women; female women; Butch women; And women in between. Many actors are handsome as Hollywood likes them to be. Not many.

Yet the show insists that all of these women deserve love, friendship, and fulfillment. In an email, O’Donnell noted that while the film focuses on one woman’s story, this new version gives each character a rich inner life that “brings the humanity of the characters to the fore in a beautiful and precise way.”

Corden has known Jacobson for over 15 years, dating back to his early improv days. No one saw her as a romantic lead until Jacobson showed up with gloves and a hand-drawn card (“adorable and romantic,” Corden said) and invited her to join the team. Corden was proud to take on the role and proud to work with Jacobson again.

“She hasn’t changed a thing,” Corden said. “She’s always Abby, but the confidence is different.”

Jacobson wears that confidence lightly. Glimpses of uncertainty remain. “I’m never going to be the guy you like, she’s got to run the show,” he told me in Prospect Park.

But apparently she is. When no team would have her, she made her own and now she’s made another one. An hour and a half later, she picked up her purse and coffee cup and walked back through the park. Like a master. Like a coach. Like a hero.

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