Abby Jacobson can really play baseball, he insisted. Just not when the cameras are rolling. “I totally get it when someone’s looking at me,” she told me.
It was on a recent weekday morning, on a shady bench in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, overlooking the ball fields. Jacobson lives nearby in the apartment he shares with his fiancee, “For All Mankind” actress Jodi Balfour. He hadn’t come to play on the field this morning, which was a good thing – the diamonds were swarming with little kids. (It was also good because Jacobson can play, I can’t, although he offered to teach me.) And honestly, he deserved to enjoy his off-season.
In “A League of Their Own,” which premieres Aug. 12 on Amazon Prime Video, Jacobson stars as Carson Shaw, a catcher for the Rockford Peaches. Carson is a fictional character, but the Peaches, a team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that debuted in 1943, are remarkably real. For five rainy months in Pittsburgh, Jacobson, 38, had to catch, throw, hit and slide. Is this computer generated magic? Of course, but not all. Which means Jacobson was playing while a lot of people were watching. And he played well.
“He’s really good,” he said Will Graham, who created the series with him. “Abby is constantly self-deprecating and self-deprecating, but she’s 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 led the team, on and off screen. It’s a job he’s been doing since his mid-20s, when he and Ilana Glazer created and eventually directed the giddy, awkward comedy Broad City. In this show, he became the leader more or less by accident. On “A League of Their Own,” which was inspired by Penny Marshall’s 1992 film, Jacobson directed from the start and deliberately infused the script with his own ideas of what leadership might look like.
“The stories I want to tell are about how I’m a dirty person and I’m always vulnerable,” she said. “And what if the most vulnerable, vulnerable person is the leader? What if a disturbed person takes possession of himself?”
Is Carson’s story his story?
“Sort of,” he said, looking up at the sun.
Jacobson, who describes herself as an introvert masquerading as an extrovert, is approachable but also alert, an observer before she’s a participant. Even in the midst of animated conversation, she has an attitude that suggests that if you leave her alone with a book, or a sketchbook, or maybe her dog, Des, that’s fine, too.
Her favorite pastime: “I like to go and sit in a very crowded place like a book. Alone,” he said.
She was wearing a white diaper and paint-stained pants that morning, but the stains had been pre-applied and it had become a deliberately sloppy fashion. The bag she was carrying was a Chanel. She didn’t look much like a baseball player, but more like a woman who became comfortable in her own skin, who cleaned up her personal messes and put the rest to professional use.
“He’s a boss,” said writer and comedian Phoebe Robinson, a friend. “And he knows himself in his heart.”
Jacobson grew up in suburban Philadelphia, the younger of two children in a Reform Jewish family. She played sports throughout her childhood—softball, basketball, travel football—until she gave them up for jam bands and weed.
“That team mentality was my childhood,” he said.
After graduating from art school, he moved to New York to become a dramatic actor, then branched out into comedy with improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade. He and Glazer wanted to join the home improvement team, but team after team rejected them. Instead, they created Broad City, which ran first as a web series and then for five seasons on Comedy Central. In “Girls” without the gloss, leading up to the pot smoke, it followed its protagonists, Abbi and Ilana, as they navigated the zigzag path of their youth. The New Yorker affectionately called the show a “bra-mance.”
For Jacobson, the show was both a professional development workshop and a form of therapy. By writing and playing a version of herself, she emerged more confident, less anxious.
“That kind of acceptance of her anxiety in character allowed her to look at it and grow in a different direction,” Glazer said.
In 2017, with “Broad City” two seasons left, Graham (“Mozart in the Jungle”) invited Jacobson to dinner. He recently acquired the rights to A League of Their Own, a movie he loved as a child. He thought he could make a great series with a few tweaks. The quirkiness of some of the characters — conveyed in the film via a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it subtext — should be more apparent this time around. In the film, in a scene that lasts just seconds, a black woman returns a foul ball with power and precision that suggests league segregation. This also deserved more attention.
Graham followed Jacobson, he said, because of his integrity, his wit, his confused, nervous optimism. He wanted the experience of creating the show to be joyful. And he wanted the stories he told—especially the weird ones—to convey joy as well. He felt that Jacobson, who came out in his 30s, could give birth.
“He’s so funny and also so emotionally honest — and so unafraid to be emotionally honest,” Graham said.
When Jacobson finished the final seasons of “Broad City,” the new series began development. She and Graham did some research, talking to some of the women survivors who played in the All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League or the Negro Leagues. They also spoke with Marshall on the phone before his death in 2018. Marshall focused primarily on the story of one woman: Geena Davis’ Dottie. Graham and Jacobson wanted to tell more stories than the eight-episode season would allow.
“The movie is a story about white women starting to play baseball,” Jacobson said. “It’s just not enough.”
Gradually, the show took shape, turning from a half-hour comedy into an hour-long drama. Then he found his co-stars: D’Arcy Carden as Greta, the glamor girl of the choir; Roberta Colindres as Lupe, the team’s pitcher; Shante Adams As Max, a black superstar in search of his own team. Rosie O’DonnellStar of the original film, signed on for an episode playing a gay bar owner.
The pilot was shot in Los Angeles, which doubled first in Chicago and then in Rockford, Ill. Rising costs forced the show to move to Pittsburgh, which happens to be a rainy city, a problem for the show with so many game days in a row. But the cast and crew got through it.
“There was a summer camp quality,” Graham said.
And Jacobson, as Glaser reminded me, spent many years as a camp counselor. So much of the quality of summer camp is due to him. And he insisted on incessant baseball practice.
“There was so much baseball practice, literally months of baseball practice,” Carden said. “We were more of a team than an actor. It was a pill. Abbi is an ensemble person.
Adams first met Jacobson in the audience room. (As a longtime “Broad City” fan, he struggled to keep up.) On the set, Jacobson made an immediate impression on him.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Adams said. “But as the leader and the star of the show, he always makes sure everyone’s voice is heard and included.” After filming ended, Adams said Jacobson continued to make appearances and attend the opening night of Broadway shows.
“It just broke my heart,” she said. “Abby is the epitome of what it means to be a leader.”
Jacobson doesn’t always feel that way, but he feels it more often than he used to. “Sometimes I can really own it,” he said. “And sometimes I go home and think, what kind of person am I? Or what’s going on here?” And so he brings that same confidence to Carson, a leader who thrives when he admits his vulnerability.
But Carson’s narrative is only one of many in a series that celebrates a range of women’s experiences: black, white, and Latina women; straight, queer and queer women; women women; butch women; and among women. Many actresses are beautiful as Hollywood prefers. not much.
Still, the show insists that all these women deserve love, friendship, and satisfaction. 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 characters’ humanity to the fore.”
Carden has known Jacobson for 15 years, dating back to their early improv days. No one saw him as a romantic lead until Jacobson dropped a glove and a hand-drawn card (“Lovely and romantic,” Carden said) and invited him to join the team. Carden was proud to take on the role and also proud to work with Jacobson again.
“It hasn’t changed at all,” Carden said. “He’s always been a pill, but confidence is different.”
Jacobson wears that trust lightly. Sparks of uncertainty remain. “I’m never the kind of person you are, he’s got to run the show,” he told me in Prospect Park.
But clearly he is. When no team had him, he created his own, and now another. An hour and a half later, she grabbed her bag and coffee mug and walked out into the park. Like a boss. Like a coach. like a leader.