Abbi Jacobson can really play baseball, she insisted. Just not when the cameras are rolling. “I totally get it when someone looks at me,” she told me.
This was on 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 good – the diamonds were swarming with little children. (It was good too, because while Jacobson can play, I can’t, although she did offer to teach me.) And frankly, she deserved to enjoy her off-season.
In “A League of Their Own,” which airs August 12 on Amazon Prime Video, Jacobson stars as Carson Shaw, the catcher 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 wonderfully real. For five rainy months, Jacobson, 38, had to catch, throw, punch and slide to base on location in Pittsburgh. Is any of this computer generated magic? Sure, but not all. Which means Jacobson played while a lot of people watched. And she played well.
“She’s really good,” said Will Graham, who created the series with her. “Abbi is constantly self-effacing and self-deprecating, but is actually a badass.”
Carson, a talented, fearful woman, becomes the de facto leader of the team. As creator and executive producer, as well as the star of the series, Jacobson also led a team both on-screen and off. This is work she’s been doing since her mid-20s, when she and Ilana Glazer created and eventually directed the giddy, unfeminine comedy “Broad City.” On that show, she more or less accidentally became a leader. On “A League of Their Own,” inspired by Penny Marshall’s 1992 film, Jacobson led the script from the start and with purpose, infused with her own ideas of what leadership might look like.
“The stories I want to tell are about being a messy person and always insecure,” she said. “And what if the most insecure, insecure person is the leader? What if the messy person can own themselves?
So Carson’s story is her story?
“Sort of,” she said, squinting at the sun.
A self-described introvert posing as an extrovert, Jacobson is approachable but also watchful, an observer before being a participant. Even in the middle of an animated conversation, she has an attitude that suggests that if you left her alone with a book, or a sketch pad, or maybe her dog, Desi, that would be fine too.
Her favorite pastime: “I like to sit with a book in a densely populated area. Alone,” she said.
That morning she wore a white tank top and paint-stained pants, but the stains were pre-applied and intentional, sloppiness turned into fashion. The bag she was carrying was Chanel. She didn’t look much like a baseball player, but she looked like a woman who was comfortable in her own skin, who had cleaned up most of her private mess and used the rest professionally.
“She’s a boss,” said writer and comedian Phoebe Robinson, a friend. “And she knows herself to her core.”
Jacobson grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, the youngest of two children in a Reformed Jewish family. She played sports all her childhood—softball, basketball, travel soccer—until she gave them up for jam bands and weed.
“That team mentality was very much my childhood,” she said.
After art school, she moved to New York to become a dramatic actress, then plunged into comedy through improv classes with the Upright Citizens Brigade. She and Glazer wanted to join a house improv team, but team after team turned them down. So they created “Broad City” instead, which ran first as a web series and then on Comedy Central for five seasons. A “Girls” without the gloss, lingering weed smoke as it went, it followed its protagonists, Abbi and Ilana, as they zigzag through young adulthood. The New Yorker fondly called the show a “bra-mance.”
For Jacobson, the show was both a professional development seminar and a form of therapy. Writing and playing a version of herself made her appear more confident and less anxious.
“This reception of her fear 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 to go, Graham (“Mozart in the Jungle”) invited Jacobson to dinner. He had recently acquired the rights to ‘A League of Their Own’, a film he loved as a child. He thought it could be a great series, with a few changes. The strangeness of some of the characters – rendered in the film through blink-and-you-miss-it subtext – should be more overt this time around. In the film, in a scene that lasts only seconds, a black woman returns a foul ball with power and accuracy, a nod to the segregation of the competition. This also deserved more attention.
Graham had chased Jacobson, he said, because of her integrity, her cleverness, her twitchy, nervous optimism. He wanted the experience of making the show to be joyful. And he wanted the stories it told — especially the queer ones — to convey joy as well. He felt that Jacobson, who came out in his mid-thirties, could give birth.
“She’s so funny, and so emotionally honest too — and so unafraid to be emotionally honest,” Graham said.
When Jacobson finished the final seasons of “Broad City”, development of the new series began. She and Graham did research and spoke to some of the remaining women who had played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League or the Negro leagues. They also spoke to Marshall by phone before her death in 2018. Marshall had mainly focused on one woman’s story: Geena Davis’ Dottie. Graham and Jacobson wanted to try and tell more stories, as much as an eight-episode season allowed.
“The movie is about white women who are going to play baseball,” Jacobson said. “That’s just not enough.”
Gradually, the show took shape, turning from a half-hour comedy to an hour-long drama. Then it found its opponents: D’Arcy Carden as Greta, the team’s glamor girl; Roberta Colindrez as Lupe, the team’s pitcher; Chante Adams as Max, a black superstar looking for a team of his own. Rosie O’Donnella star of the original film, signed on for an episode and played the owner of a gay bar.
The pilot was shot in Los Angeles, which doubled first for Chicago and then for Rockford, Illinois. Shortly afterwards, the coronavirus struck, forcing production to be postponed until last summer. Rising costs forced the show to relocate to Pittsburgh, which happens to be a rainy city, a problem for a show with so many game day sequences. But the cast and crew fixed it.
“It was like a summer camp,” Graham said.
And Jacobson, as Glazer reminded me, spent many years as a camp counselor. So much of that summer camp quality was down to her. And the incessant baseball practice she insisted on.
“There was so much baseball training, really months of baseball training,” Carden said. “We were more of a team than a cast. That was Abbi. Abbi is an ensemble person.”
Adams first met Jacobson in the audition room. (As a longtime “Broad City” fan, she struggled to keep her cool.) On set, Jacobson impressed her instantly.
“I don’t know how she does it,” Adams said. “But even as the show’s leader and star, she always makes sure everyone’s voices are heard and recorded.” After filming ended, Adams said, Jacobson continued to show up for her, attending the opening night of her Broadway show.
“It just melted my heart,” she said. “Abbi is the embodiment of what it means to be a leader.”
Jacobson doesn’t always feel that way, but she feels it more often than she used to. “Sometimes I can actually own that,” she said. “And sometimes I go home, and I’m like, how am I the person? Or what is happening 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 of many in a series that celebrates a range of women’s experiences: black, white, and Latina women; straight, queer and questioning women; feminine women; butch women; and women in between. Many of the actors are beautiful in the way Hollywood prefers. Many are not.
Still, the show emphasizes that all of these women deserve love, friendship, and fulfillment. In an email, O’Donnell noted that while the film focused on one woman’s story, this new version gives nearly every character a rich inner life “in a beautiful and precise way that brings the humanity of the characters to the next level.” brings to the fore.”
Carden has known Jacobson for 15 years, since their early improv days. No one had ever seen her as a romantic protagonist until Jacobson took 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 be working with Jacobson again.
“She hasn’t changed at all,” Carden said. “She’s always been Abbi, but the confidence is different.”
Jacobson carries that confidence lightly. There are glimmers of uncertainty. “I’m never the person you are. She should be running the show,” she told me in Prospect Park.
But she is clear. When no team wanted her, she made her own, and now she’s made another. After an hour and a half she grabbed her bag and her coffee cup and walked back through the park. Like a boss. Like a trainer. Like a leader.