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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2021 812 Magazine

A league of his own

Twenty years ago, a star-studded baseball film put Evansville on the map and gave one young boy a taste of fame.

It was a hot summer day, and the sweltering heat on the 1940s bus threatened to overcome its passengers as it bumped along the winding country road. But the temperature was nothing compared to the noise. A little boy dressed in a sailor suit sprinted down the bus aisle, shouting. An impish smile spread across his chocolate-smeared face as he came up behind the bus driver and covered the driver's eyes with his hands. The female passengers screamed as the bus swerved and luggage spilled from the overhead compartments.

Of course, nobody on the bus was in any real danger. The entire scene was scripted in the 1992 classic, "A League of Their Own." The film follows the story of two sisters who play for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II, and many of the major scenes were filmed in and around Evansville. Thousands of locals in 1940s clothing flooded Bosse Field for the shooting of the game scenes.

Even Justin Scheller, the little boy who wreaked havoc on the bus, was a Posey County native. Although 20 years have passed since "A League of Their Own" was filmed, Justin still remembers when he tried his hand at acting and Evansville became, for a brief time, the Midwestern Hollywood.

Hollywood at home?

When word spread that a major motion picture would be shot in Evansville, area residents wanted their 15 minutes of fame. The local newspaper published casting information for extras and some of the smaller roles. One called for a young boy to play the son of Evelyn, a baseball player for the Rockford Peaches.

"We waited for eight hours," says Justin Scheller, who was 5 years old at the time of his audition. "We thought about leaving, but we stuck it out. I was only on stage for about five minutes, and they said they'd give us a call."

Two weeks later, Justin's mom learned that the casting directors had narrowed their choices down to two kids: Justin and one other. Both flew to Chicago for the final round of auditions, where casting directors asked them to skip around and say some lines.

While Justin was trying out for his role, thousands of others submitted photos to be extras. The Evansville Courier and Press published a strict dress code for the crowd scenes. Women were expected to wear pantyhose, bras, dresses with shoulder pads and other clothes that fit the era. Men had to be clean-shaven and wear dress or sports shirts with pleated pants.

But the attention to detail didn't stop there. Evansville itself took a trip back in time as American flags with 48 stars replaced those with 50 in shooting locations. Bosse Field, where most of the baseball scenes were filmed, painted "Support the Racine Belles" by the south and north gates. Extras strolled through the stadium holding Lemon Drops and other popular snacks from the '40s.

Star struck

By the time the film's stars arrived in Evansville, the city was buzzing with excitement. Businesses put out signs to welcome Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell. The Convention and Visitors Bureau even put together a packet of things to do and places to go in the area. Suggestions included Holiday World in Santa Claus, grocery stores, batting cages, limo services and local restaurants such as The Red Geranium and Wolf's BBQ.

People from surrounding areas flocked to Evansville hoping to catch glimpses of the celebrities and get some screen time of their own. Rumors flew about where the stars were eating and where they leased houses.

W.D. "Turk" Walton Jr., the president of the Metropolitan Evansville Chamber of Commerce during filming, laughs when he thinks about the time.

"We kept hearing rumors about places Madonna went jogging," he says. "Of course, we knew they weren't true, because she went jogging by our house in the mornings."

Turk says when his neighbors caught on, they started gathering at the end of their driveways like they were waiting for the school bus. People would get up early just to see Madonna passing.

Although everybody else was fascinated with the Hollywood glamour, Justin Scheller wasn't quite ready for his time in the spotlight.

"I was only 5, and I had no idea what it was all about," Justin says. "When we were filming, a lot of times I'd be in front of a lot of people. I really struggled with a lot of it because I was just so shy."

Justin had the most trouble with a scene where he taunted the baseball players from the dugout. He chanted his line, "You're gonna lose," over and over again before getting hit by a baseball glove. In the movie it looks like Tom Hanks hurled the mitt at his face, but Justin says it happened a bit differently.

"It took so many takes, and he was scared to hit me with the mitt," Justin says. Finally, Rosie O'Donnell stepped in and told Justin to just say his line and nobody was going to throw the glove at him. Justin started his line, and someone in the dugout tossed a mitt at his face. "The look I give is genuine because they told me nobody was going to throw it, and I just fell down, and it worked perfectly."

Even though Justin says he can't remember everything from his work on the film, he remembers the things that a typical 5 year old would find interesting--playing catch with Tom Hanks at Bosse Field and video games with Madonna during breaks.

That's a wrap!

When filming ended in Evansville, people expected life to return to normal, but comments made by Madonna in TV Guide thrust the city back into the limelight. She compared her stay there to living in Prague and said she had felt cut off from the rest of the world.

A film crew from Entertainment Tonight rushed to Evansville to hear people's responses. While her remarks offended some locals, others joked about it with shirts that read, "Serving Time in Prague, Ind."

"Oh, I think some people let it rub them the wrong way," Turk says. "But you have to remember who Madonna was. She wanted the nightlife that we didn't offer. Evansville isn't Paris."

Madonna's publicist later said that Madonna hadn't meant to offend anyone and that she was also a Midwestern girl. Eventually the commotion faded.

Justin Scheller returned to school, unaware of how big the movie would become. He had three brothers, and his parents made sure that his brush with fame didn't mean special treatment.

It took years for the reality to sink in, but it did. Justin was flipping through television stations one day when he passed "A League of Their Own." There was the 5-year-old version of himself taunting Tom Hanks and Geena Davis on TNT.

Looking back and moving forward

Most of the excitement of the filming has now disappeared, and locals have stopped walking around with stars in their eyes. But echoes of "A League of Their Own" remain.

The Otterbelles, a group of women who dance at Evansville's minor league games, wear uniforms similar to those from the movie. Member Jordan Haley says the same woman who made the costumes for the film made the dresses they wear.

"I feel like I have a little bit of a connection to that movie," Jordan says. "We get people who are new to the stadium, and they'll say we look just like the people from the movie or they'll ask us where Madonna is."

The Otterbelles coach told the dancers to watch the movie if they hadn't seen it and to respect the uniform they wear. After all, the words "Support the Racine Belles" still greet fans in the stadium.

And Justin Scheller, now a middle school teacher at Spring Valley in French Lick, says the role he played in the film doesn't define him, but it's always a great ice-breaker. When he was in high school, friends used to have him tell his story to waitresses at restaurants. Justin even began carrying around a picture of him and Madonna to show people.

He also made a decent amount of money for his role as Stilwell, the chubby little boy with a big attitude. Justin says it helped him pay for most of his college expenses. IMDb's website lists his name, and there is even a Facebook page dedicated to him.

Now, Justin talks about his role in the movie only if people ask him about it, an occurrence that happens less and less.

"I teach middle school," he says, "and some of the teachers will play pranks on me. They'll put a picture of me eating chocolate up on the screen in the classroom, and the kids will ask what it's from. Most of the kids haven't seen the movie."

Although "A League of Their Own" was released 20 years ago, the movie had a great impact on Justin.

"I can say I hung out with Tom Hanks, Rosie O'Donnell and Madonna," he says. "How many people can say that?"

Who says girls can't play ball?

"A League of Their Own" was a fictional account of the real-world All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a franchise formed by chewing gum manufacturer Philip Wrigley. The league began in 1943 when many young men were drafted in World War II.

Just like the characters in the movie, each player was expected to be a strong athlete but a poised lady. They were given charm school guides that read, "In a final summing up, be neat and presentable in your appearance and dress, be clean and wholesome in appearance, be polite and considerate in your daily contacts, avoid noisy, rough and raucous talk and actions and be in all respects a truly All-American girl."

Over a span of 11 years, 15 different girls' teams played baseball in the league. Two of these teams hailed from Indiana -- the South Bend Blue Sox and the Fort Wayne Daisies. Through hard work, the players captured the attention of people across the nation and fan attendance soared to 450,313 by the end of the 1945 season.

However, their time was short-lived. Wrigley sold the league, attendance decreased and the league dissolved in 1954.

Last year, players held a reunion in San Diego. While they were there, they had a special screening of "A League of Their Own."

A box office hit

"A League of Their Own" was number four at the box office during the summer it was released.

Awards include:

  • Three MTV Movie Awards nominations: Rosie O'Donnell for Best Breakthrough Performance, Geena Davis for Best Female Performance and Tom Hanks and Pauline Brailsford for Best Kiss.
  • An American Comedy Award for Funniest Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture.
  • Two Golden Globe nominations for Best Original Song--Motion Picture and Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture.
  • The quote, "There's no crying, there's no crying in baseball!" placed second on the ESPN Reader's Best Sports Movie Quotes.