'A League of Their Own' Cast Explains Why They'll 'Never Forget' Making the Movie on 30th Anniversary

Lori Petty, Anne Ramsay, Megan Cavanagh, Ann Cusack and Patti Pelton and Jon Lovitz tell PEOPLE about making the 1992 film

Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty

Thirty years after the release of A League of Their Own, members of the film's cast are celebrating what they consider a home run for female-led films, women in sports and their own early careers.

Actors Lori Petty, Anne Ramsay, Megan Cavanagh, Ann Cusack and Patti Pelton — each of whom played members of the fictional 1940s Rockford Peaches women's baseball team in the 1992 film — reunited with Jon Lovitz, who played a fast-talking baseball scout, at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles on April 24 to mark the 30th anniversary amid a throng of devoted fans, several of whom showed up in their own Peaches uniforms.

The actors also joined PEOPLE to reminisce about making the now-classic film, which also stars Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell, under the direction of the late Penny Marshall.

"Everybody in Hollywood wanted this job!" says Petty, who played pitcher Kit Keller, the tomboyish, competitive younger sister of Davis' Dottie Hinson, both of whom are scouted to play in the All-American League, a real-life all-female baseball league organized to keep the sport alive while many men were serving in the military during World War II.

Petty says the women auditioning for the Peaches had to demonstrate genuine baseball skills, and her athletic background gave her an edge. "We had to throw and catch and hit and stuff, and so you'd see all these movie stars up there," she recalled. "But you can't teach a grown woman or a grown man how to throw a ball properly — you really need to have grown up doing it. So I was super blessed that I played ball. Rosie played ball before too, so the two of us, we had a good time having fun competitions with each other."

When Geena Davis joined the cast at the last minute (after actresses Daryl Hannah and Debra Winger had in turn dropped out of the Dottie role), it became an easy feat for Petty to get into character.

"Honestly, it was not difficult to look up at this glamorous Academy Award–winning movie star and conjure up sisterly jealousy and adoration and feeling looked over," she says with a laugh.

It was apparent from the outset that the project promised to be something special for all involved. "That's why everybody wanted it: because you didn't have to be the girlfriend or the 'slut next door' or the mom; you got to be people," Petty says. "We were people and we played ball and it was a true story. And we got to tell the world this true story that nobody'd heard of — I'd never heard of it. ... And it's so touching and so important and so real and so lovely to be able to tell that story."

The experience still resonates for Ramsay as well. "It is so special to me, that movie, that time — I'll cry when I talk about it, and I can never sufficiently articulate what it meant to me," she tells PEOPLE, recalling how she auditioned for Marshall a half-dozen times as the director pondered where Ramsay might fit in the lineup. "She kept bringing me in because she couldn't figure out where to put me."

Finally Ramsay's agent called with surprising news: Marshall had the screenwriters create a new role, left-handed first-base player Helen Haley, specifically for Ramsay. "I cried that day," she remembers. "It was a dream come true for me and changed my life forever, and I will forever be grateful for those women in the original league in the '40s, to Penny and that experience. We had a blast!"

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Cavanagh, who plays shy fan-favorite Marla Hooch, tells PEOPLE she'd relocated from Wisconsin to Los Angeles a few years earlier but had yet to land a film role when a fellow actress shared the League script with her. "I thought naively, 'I want to be Marla' — me and 3 million other actresses!" she says, noting that during a mass audition at a warm-up game (prior to Marshall's involvement), "it was all celebrities at that time: Lea Thompson and Paula Poundstone and Marla Maples," says Cavanagh.

Yet she impressed the casting team enough to stay in the mix until Marshall came on board, and was told to prepare to audition for Marla and every other supporting role.

"But I only ever read for Marla," says Cavanagh. "And as I was leaving the building, Rosie O'Donnell followed me out and said, 'Hey, you are the best Marla we've seen so far.' And in my brain, I heard 'so far,' I didn't hear that I was the best Marla."

That night she was recounting her experiences on the phone with a friend back home in Wisconsin when "the operator busted in and said, 'We have an emergency phone call from [my talent agency]. Do you want to take it?' And I was like 'Amy, I'll call you back!' I got on, and it was my agent screaming, 'You got the part! You got the part!' ... I was listed fourth on the call sheet. My name was between Tom Hanks and Madonna's!"

Cusack, who like her siblings John and Joan hailed from a Chicago acting family, remembers being cast in her very first film role and trying to keep from being overwhelmed.

"I just wanted to be able to do a great job and not be totally intimidated and overwhelmed by meeting Tom and Geena," she says, "I was just trying to not make an ass out of myself in front of all these people who I was starstruck with."

Even as Cusack was awestruck by the lavish period detail on display as the actors played out scenes in stadiums so perfectly decorated that, she remembers, "it just felt like we were back in 1943 because visually everything looked like we were in the '40s," the then-rookie actress was confident enough to indulge in pranking her famous costars.

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"We played one on Tom, and he was just the consummate professional," she says. "In one of the takes, we put some Listerine into a cup that he was supposed to drink, and Listerine's horrible to drink, awful. So he did the take, did not flinch and then didn't say a word about it afterwards. And we were all like, 'Ah— we didn't get any reaction out of him!' We also learned a lesson: this was a thing on camera, so you're messing with someone's performance and that's also not cool. ... Tom taught us without saying a word."

Petty, too, couldn't resist pranking Madonna, then the most famous pop music artist of the moment but still relatively new to acting. Madonna was doing her first kissing scene with actor Eddie Mekka, the longtime supporting player on Marshall's sitcom Laverne & Shirley. When it came time to film Petty in the reverse angle, Madonna confessed to her that she didn't know what to do next.

Mischievously, Petty says, "I told her, 'Do everything you did on your close-up.' So I made her make out with the Big Ragoo for like two more hours!"

But Petty was never less than impressed with Madonna's intense work ethic. "I've never met anybody who works harder in my life, for real," she says, "She would get up and run six miles before work, when we're [already] going to be outside running and sweating and dying. Yeah, she really, really, really gives it all, so that was very impressive."

Patti Pelton was another acting newcomer who'd survived several incarnations of the project's development to land a non-speaking role as Marbleann Wilkinson under Marshall's direction — and was stunned when Marshall elevated the role.

"Penny gave me my SAG card; she gave me my first lines in a movie," says Pelton. "She came over to me and said, 'Congratulations, welcome to SAG.' That meant so much to me, that she invited me in."

Pelton said she was "in awe" of Marshall's filmmaking instincts and dedication to telling the story of the female players with accuracy, warmth, humor and plenty of improvisation. "At that time, nobody was doing films about big casts with women," Pelton adds. "[Penny] just let us have that freedom to become these characters."

After three previous films with Marshall, Lovitz, too, benefited from her penchant for trusting her actors: He recalls that the role of sarcastic scout Ernie Capadino was written specifically for him, and he imbued it with flourishes like a thin mustache and a wardrobe modeled after his own grandfather's. But he stuck mostly to the scripted dialogue, with a notable exception.

"We're doing the scene, and there was a cow that kept mooing," he tells PEOPLE of a scene set at the Hinson farm, remembering how the noise would interrupt his scenes. "After the third time I stopped, Penny goes, 'Why are you stopping?' I go, 'Because the cow keeps mooing.' She goes, 'Well, then tell it to shut up!' I'm like, 'Alright, fine!' So we're doing the scene, and the cow mooed again. And I was really annoyed, so that's when I yelled, 'Will you shut up!' And then we kept going because she thought it was funny. She left it in."

Lovitz says he especially loved the on-set vibe, shooting in locations like Wrigley Field. "I'd be on the infield, between second and third, hitting fly balls to Tom and his son Colin," he remembers. "By then, I was really good friends with Tom and Rita [Wilson]and his kids, and Penny and her daughter Tracy [Reiner, who plays Betty "Spaghetti" Horn]. And I knew Geena and Madonna from when they hosted SNL. So it was like making a movie with friends. It was really great."

"A lot of us still actually, really stay in touch," says Cusack. "I know that whenever we see one another, there's always great joy about it. ... It was such a big break for all of us."

"There's a real camaraderie that lasts," agrees Pelton. "We shot for six months together and it's lasted for all these years. It's very uncommon for a group to stay together like this and still see each other. We're like sisters. I think that team has gone on for forever for us."

A side benefit that the stars would discover, from the moment of the film's release to three decades later, is how much the film's depiction of female athletes would inspire and empower generations of young women.

"I can't even tell you how many young girls would run up to us. All of us had this experience," says Ramsay. "Here are these little girls saying 'Oh— you! We saw the movie!' And then as I age and as the movie ages, time passes and I'm playing beach volleyball with young women who are like, 'Oh, you were in that! My coach used to play your film before our CIF finals game or our championship game.' In whatever sport!"

The experience also remains a singular one for Petty, who still vividly remembers a quiet moment with Hanks in which he clued her in to just how unique their shared experience was and would remain.

"He and I were in Wrigley Field just playing catch and he's like 'When you think, "Wow, wouldn't it be cool if this or that or this" that's this moment right now,' " she says. "He goes 'This isn't what movies are like. This is really special, and you'll never forget it.' It's true."

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