In ‘A League of Their Own’, Abbi Jacobson is part of the team

Abbi Jacobson can really play baseball, she insisted. But not when the cameras are rolling. “I fully get the yelps when someone looks at me,” she told me.

It was a recent weekday morning, on a shady bench overlooking the ball diamonds of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Jacobson lives nearby, in an apartment she shares with her fiancée, “For All Mankind” actress Jodi Balfour. This morning she hadn’t come to the fields to play, which was good—the diamonds were crawling with little children. (It was good, too, because if Jacobson can play, I can’t, even though she offered to teach me.) And honestly, she deserved to appreciate it off season.

In “A League Of Their Own,” arriving August 12 on Amazon Prime Video, Jacobson stars as Carson Shaw, receiver for the Rockford Peaches. Carson is a made-up character, but the Peaches, an All-American Girls Professional Baseball League team that debuted in 1943, are delightfully real. For five rainy months, on location in Pittsburgh, the 38-year-old Jacobson had to catch, throw, punch and slide into base. Is it some of that computer-generated magic? Of course, but not all. Which means Jacobson performed while lots of people were watching. And she played well.

“She’s really good,” said Will Graham, who created the series with her. “Abbi is constantly fading and self-deprecating, but he’s actually a badass.”

Carson, a talented and anxious woman, becomes the team’s de facto leader. As creator and executive producer, as well as star of the series, Jacobson also led a team, on and off screen. It’s a job she’s been doing since her mid-twenties, when she and Ilana Glazer created and eventually oversaw the giddy, unladylike comedy “Broad City.” On this show, she became a leader more or less by accident. On “A League of Their Own,” inspired by the 1992 Penny Marshall film, Jacobson led from the start and with purpose, infusing the script with his own ideas of what leadership can look like.

“The stories I want to tell are about me being a messy person and being insecure all the time,” she said. “Besides, what if the least confident person is the leader? What if the disordered person managed to possess himself?

So is Carson’s story his story?

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

Jacobson, who has described herself as an introvert disguised as an extrovert, is approachable but also vigilant, an observer before being a participant. Even in the middle of a heated conversation, she has an attitude that suggests if you were to leave her alone with a book, or a sketchbook, or maybe her dog, Desi, that would be fine too.

His favorite pastime: “I like to sit in a crowded neighborhood with like a book. Alone,” she said.

She was wearing a white tank top and paint-stained pants that morning, but the stains were pre-applied and deliberate, sloppiness turned into fashion. The bag she was carrying was Chanel. She didn’t look much like a baseball player, but she did look like a woman who had become comfortable in her own skin, had cleaned up most of her personal messes and used the rest for professional purposes.

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

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 really my childhood,” she said.

After art school, she moved to New York to become a dramatic actress, then turned to acting thanks to improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade. She and Glazer wanted to join a house improv team, but team after team rejected them. So they created “Broad City” instead, which first aired as a web series and then for five seasons on Comedy Central. A lusterless “Girls,” trailing pot smoke as it went, it followed its protagonists, Abbi and Ilana, as they zigzagged their way through young adulthood. The New Yorker called the show, lovingly, a “bra-mance.”

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

“Having that reception of his anxiety in character allowed him to look at it and grow in a different direction,” Glazer said.

In 2017, with “Broad City” having two seasons to go, Graham (“Mozart in the Jungle”) invited Jacobson over for dinner. He had recently secured the rights to “A League of Their Own”, a film he loved as a child. He thought it could make a great series, with a few changes. The weirdness of some of the characters – rendered in the film by flashing subtext and you miss it – should be more apparent this time around. In the film, in a scene that lasts only a few seconds, a black woman returns a foul ball with force and precision, a nod to league segregation. This too deserved more attention.

Graham had sued Jacobson, he said, for his integrity, his intelligence, his restless and nervous optimism. He wanted the experience of doing the show to be joyful. And he wanted the stories he told — especially queer stories — to convey joy as well. He felt Jacobson, who came out in her mid-30s, could deliver.

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

As Jacobson wrapped up the final seasons of “Broad City,” development on the new series began. She and Graham embarked on the search, reaching out to some of the surviving women who had played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League or in the Negro leagues. They also spoke with Marshall, by phone, before his death in 2018. Marshall had primarily focused on the story of one woman: Geena Davis’ Dottie. Graham and Jacobson wanted to try telling more stories, as much as an eight-episode season allowed.

“The movie is about white women playing baseball,” Jacobson said. “It’s just not enough.”

Gradually, the show took shape, changing from a half-hour comedy to an hour-long comedy-drama. Then he found his co-stars: D’Arcy Carden as Greta, the glamorous team girl; Roberta Colindrez as Lupe, the team’s pitcher; Sang Adams as Max, a black superstar looking for his own team. Rosie O’Donnella star of the original film, signed on for an episode, playing the owner of a gay bar.

The pilot was filmed in Los Angeles, which doubled first for Chicago, then for Rockford, Illinois. The coronavirus hit soon after, delaying production until last summer. Rising costs prompted the show to relocate to Pittsburgh, which is, as it happens, a rainy city, a problem for a show with so much game-day footage. But the cast and crew took care of it.

“There was a kind of summer camp quality to it,” Graham said.

And Jacobson, as Glazer reminded me, spent many years as a camp counselor. So much of the quality of this summer camp was due to him. And the relentless baseball practice she insisted on.

“There was so much baseball practice, really months of baseball practice,” Carden said. “We were more of a team than a cast. It was Abbi. Abbi is a whole person.

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

“I don’t know how she does it,” Adams said. “But even as the leader and star of the show, she always makes sure everyone’s voice is heard and included.” After filming wrapped, Adams said, Jacobson continued to show up for her, attending the opening night of her show on Broadway.

“It just melted my heart,” she said. “Abbi is the epitome of what it means to be a leader.”

Jacobson doesn’t always feel this, but she does feel it more often than before. “Sometimes I can really own it,” she said. “And sometimes I come home and I’m like, how am I the person? Or what’s going on here? So she lent that same doubt to Carson, a leader who evolves when she recognizes her vulnerability.

But Carson’s story is just one in a series that celebrates a range of female experiences: black, white, and Latina women; straight, queer and questioning women; women women; butch women; and women in between. Many actors are handsome in the Hollywood way. Many are not.

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

Carden has known Jacobson for 15 years, from their early improv days. No one had ever seen her as a romantic standout until Jacobson dropped off a glove and a hand-drawn card (“Adorable and romantic,” Carden said) and invited her to join the team. Carden was proud to take on the role and also proud to work with Jacobson again.

“She didn’t change anything at all,” Carden said. “She’s always been Abbi, but confidence is different.”

Jacobson takes that confidence lightly. Glimmers of uncertainty remain. “I’m never the person you look like, she should run the show,” she told me in Prospect Park.

But clearly she is. When no team wanted her, she made her own, and now she made another. After an hour and a half, she picked up her purse and her coffee mug and went back to the park. Like a boss. Like a trainer. As a leader.

nytimes sport

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