Abbi Jacobson really knows how to play baseball, she pointed out. Just not when the cameras are rolling. “I get the whine all the way when someone is watching me,” she told me.
This was on a late weekday morning on a shady bench overlooking the ball fields in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Jacobson lives nearby, in an apartment she shares with her fiancé, For All Mankind actress Jodi Balfour. She hadn’t come to the fields to play that morning, which was a good thing—the diamonds were teeming with small children. (It was good, too, because while Jacobson can play, I can’t, although she offered to teach me.) And honestly, she deserves to enjoy her offseason.
Jacobson plays Carson Shaw, the Rockford Peaches’ catcher, in A League of Their Own, out August 12 on Amazon Prime Video. Carson is a fictional character, but the Peaches, an All-American Girls Professional Baseball League team that debuted in 1943, are gloriously real. For five rainy months, Jacobson, 38, had to catch, throw, hit and slide into base on location in Pittsburgh. Is part of this computer generated magic? Sure, but not all. Which means Jacobson was playing while a lot of people were watching. And she played well.
“She’s really good,” she said Will Graham, who created the series with her. “Abbi is constantly reserved and self-deprecating, but actually a badass.”
Carson, a talented, fearful woman, becomes the de facto leader of the team. As creator and executive producer, as well as star of the series, Jacobson also led a team, both on and off screen. She’s been doing this job since her mid-20s, when she and Ilana Glazer created and eventually oversaw the dizzying non-ladylike comedy Broad City. On this show, she became a leader more or less by accident. On A League of Their Own, inspired by Penny Marshall’s 1992 film, Jacobson led from the start and on purpose, infusing the script with her own ideas of what leadership might look like.
“The stories I want to tell are about how I’m a messy person and I’m insecure all the time,” she said. “And what if the most insecure person is the leader? What if the messy person can own themselves?”
So is Carson’s story her story?
“Sort of,” she said, squinting against the sun.
Describing herself as an introvert and disguising herself as an extrovert, Jacobson is approachable but also alert, an observer before she is a participant. Even in the midst of animated conversation, she has an attitude that suggests it would be okay to leave her with a book or a sketchpad, or maybe her dog, Desi, too.
Her favorite activity: “I like to sit down with a book in a very populated area. alone,” she said.
That morning she was wearing a white tank top and paint-stained pants, but the stains were pre-applied and intentional, sloppiness becoming the rage. The bag she carried was Chanel. She didn’t look much like a baseball player, but she did look like a woman who’d been comfortable in her own skin, cleaning up most of her personal mess and using 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 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 very strong my childhood,” she said.
After art school, she moved to New York to become a drama actress and then turned to comedy through improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade. She and Glazer wanted to join a house improv team, but team after team turned her down. So instead they created Broad City, which ran first as a web series and then for five seasons on Comedy Central. A “girls” without glamor trailing in the smoke followed its protagonists Abbi and Ilana as they zigzagged their way through young adulthood. The New Yorker affectionately dubbed the show “BH-Mance.”
For Jacobson, the show was both a professional development seminar and a form of therapy. By writing and acting a version of herself, she became more confident and less anxious.
“Having her fear included in the character allowed her to look at her and grow in a different direction,” Glazer said.
In 2017, with “Broad City” still having two seasons to go, Graham (“Mozart in the Jungle”) invited Jacobson to dinner. He had recently secured 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 weirdness of some of the characters – rendered in the film through blink-and-you-miss-it subtext – should be more apparent this time. In the film, in a scene lasting only a few seconds, a black woman returns a foul ball with force and accuracy, a nod to league segregation. This too deserves more attention.
Graham has pursued Jacobson for her integrity, for her cleverness, for her bewildered, nervous optimism, he said. He wanted the experience of doing the show to be joyful. And he wanted the stories it told—especially the weird 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 so 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 did some research and spoke to some of the surviving women who had played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League or the Negro leagues. They also spoke to Marshall over the phone prior to her death in 2018. Marshall had primarily focused on one woman’s story: Geena Davis’ Dottie. Graham and Jacobson wanted to try to tell more stories, as many as an eight-episode season would allow.
“The film is a story about white women playing baseball,” Jacobson said. “That’s just not enough.”
Gradually the show took shape, turning from a half-hour comedy into an hour-long dramedy. Then it found its co-stars: 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, has signed on for an episode in which he plays the owner of a gay bar.
The pilot was filmed in Los Angeles, which doubled first to Chicago and then to Rockford, Illinois. The coronavirus hit shortly after, delaying production until last summer. Increasing costs prompted 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 handled it.
“It had a sort of summer camp quality to it,” Graham said.
And Jacobson, Glazer reminded me, spent many years as a camp counselor. So much of this summer camp quality was due to her. And the incessant 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. That was Abby. 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 immediately.
“I don’t know how she does it,” Adams said. “But even as the leader and star of the show, she always makes sure all the voices are heard and included.” After filming wrapped, Adams said, Jacobson kept showing up for her, attending the opening night of her Broadway show.
“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 way, but she feels it more often than she used to. “Sometimes I can really own that,” she said. “And sometimes I go home and I’m like, ‘What am I the person? Or what’s happening here?” So she bestowed the same self-doubt on Carson, a leader who grows when she acknowledges her vulnerability.
But Carson’s narrative 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; female women; butch women; and women in between. Many of the actors are as beautiful as Hollywood prefers. There aren’t many.
Yet the show insists that all of these women deserve love, friendship, and fulfillment. In an email, O’Donnell noted that while the film had focused on a woman’s story, this new version brings a rich inner life to almost every character, “in a beautiful and accurate way that conveys the humanity of the characters in comes to the fore”.
Carden has known Jacobson for 15 years, since the early days of improvisation. No one had ever seen her as a romantic lead until Jacobson dropped a glove and 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 easily. glimmers of uncertainty remain. “I’m never the person you are, she should run the show,” she told me in Prospect Park.
But of course she is. When no team wanted her, she made her own, and now she’s made a different one. After an hour and a half, she grabbed her purse and coffee mug and walked back through the park. Like a boss. Like a trainer. Like a leader.