This Movie Changed Me

Jessica Mendoza

A League of Their Own

Last Updated

November 12, 2019


A League of Their Own is a fictionalized account of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, formed during World War II. Geena Davis and Lori Petty play the competitive Hinson sisters, who are recruited to join the Rockford Peaches and play in the league. Since its release in 1992, the movie has inspired many young female athletes, including baseball commentator Jessica Mendoza. She grew up playing softball with her sister and went on to compete at the Olympics — including winning gold and silver. Jessica says one of the movie’s famous lines — “It’s the hard that makes it great” — inspired her to break records on the field and off.

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Guest

Image of Jessica Mendoza

Jessica Mendoza is a baseball analyst for ESPN and an Olympic softball gold and silver medalist. She also works for the Mets as a baseball operations advisor and is a full-time member of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball booth.

Transcript

Lily Percy, host: Hello, fellow movie friends. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with Olympic softball player and sports broadcaster Jessica Mendoza about the movie that changed her, A League of Their Own. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen it, we’re gonna give you all the details to follow along.

[excerpt: A League of Their Own]

A League of Their Own tells a real life story, something that I never learned until I saw the movie, which is that for a brief time in history, women were playing in their own professional baseball league during World War II, when all the men and a lot of baseball players were off fighting in the war.

[excerpt: A League of Their Own]

[music: “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” by The Manhattan Transfer]

The movie focuses on a specific team, The Rockford Peaches, and all the women who make up that team, which includes two sisters — Dottie and Kit — who love each other deeply but are also extremely competitive.

[excerpt: A League of Their Own]

A League of Their Own was directed by Penny Marshall, and when the movie came out in 1992, it was a big deal — not just because it starred Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna and Geena Davis, but also because it was an all-star cast of women and it was a sports movie. But what stood out to me when I was a kid and first saw the movie, was that I was seeing two sisters act out their relationship onscreen. I have an older brother so I don’t know what it’s like to have a sister, but I know what it’s like to be competitive with him and also to love him, and the movie showed both of those things so honestly.

[excerpt: A League of Their Own]

The life and career of Jessica Mendoza embodies the spirit of A League of Their Own. The movie and the character of Dottie in particular, played by Geena Davis, inspired her to break her own ground. She’s an Olympic softball gold and silver medalist, and she was the first female commentator for a Major League Baseball game in the history of ESPN. But the movie didn’t just inspire Jessica’s career — it also mirrored the relationships she had with baseball and her family.

Ms. Percy: I would love for you to travel back in time with me, Jessica, for a minute. I’d love for you to close your eyes in the room that you’re in right now; just take a minute and close your eyes. I’d like for you to think about the first time that you saw A League of Their Own — where you were, who you were with, how old you were.

Jessica Mendoza: It’s funny. I can’t remember the first time I watched it, because I watched it so many times, literally, hundreds and hundreds of times, that A League of Their Own really was weaved into my own life, if that makes sense. So it wasn’t so much that A League of Their Own was, like, “I’m going to watch a movie,” and this was the time and place that I watched this movie; it was almost like the characters in the movie were a part of my life. [laughs] And I had a sister, as well, and we were playing softball, and we were young. And it’s more, actually, how I feel like even Tom Hanks was so similar in a lot of ways to my dad, and how the characters within the movie were so much similar to those in my own family.

Ms. Percy: You grew up in a family that played sports, right? Your dad was — he himself was an athlete, I think. Did he play American football?

Ms. Mendoza: He did; he had a full scholarship at Fresno State, and he was a head baseball coach and defensive coordinator in football at a college. So when I was growing up, sports was a way of our life. He was our coach, always.

Ms. Percy: So since this movie has been such a part of your background, was it something that you watched with your sister alone? Do you remember watching it with your family? Or what role did the movie have in your own family dynamic?

Ms. Mendoza: To be honest, you gotta think, growing up in the ’90s, seeing women play baseball in a major motion picture was like, oh, my gosh. And it wasn’t some cutesy little, poorly-played — Dottie Hinson was my idol. [laughs] It’s funny, because Brett Butler is who I watched on the Dodgers when we’d go to Dodger games, and in my brain, Dottie Hinson was who I wanted to emulate, because we didn’t have women on TV playing softball or baseball at that time. We still don’t have women playing baseball on TV, even now. And so, to see women — and doing it right, seeing them get all dirty and scratch up their legs and just the way they played — and what’s crazy is, I actually have Geena Davis — I got to meet her, and what was a weird moment for me is, as much as I respect Geena Davis as the actress, I asked her to sign a baseball for me as Dottie Hinson.

Ms. Percy: [laughs] As if she were a player.

Ms. Mendoza: [laughs] So I have an autographed ball with “Dottie Hinson,” this made-up character, [laughs] because that character — and I’m sure actors and actresses get this a lot — but it was that character that stood out to me, way more than Geena Davis, the actress.

[excerpt: A League of Their Own]

Ms. Percy: I love that you talk about how important this was to our generation of women growing up. I’m only two years younger than you, and I remember seeing this movie and being so struck by the kind of feminism that was so boldly being portrayed in this way. And there’s actually this writer, Seyward Darby; she wrote this piece for The Cut about A League of Their Own. It was called “A League of Their Own Taught Me How to Be a Woman.” And she says, “It was my introduction to feminism, a word I didn’t have in my fourth-grade vocabulary. The notion of women unapologetically doing things they weren’t supposed to do was revelatory. Here were dirty, sweaty women playing their hearts out in skirts foisted upon them by the patriarchy — another word I didn’t know, but would in time. They were talented, passionate, and demonstrative. They acted sad when they felt sad, angry when they felt angry, even lustful when they felt lustful. I wanted to be friends with them. I wanted to be them.”

I’m so curious — that message of feminism, not just in sports, but in general, to be a woman — I wonder if you learned any lessons about what it meant to be a woman, watching this movie.

Ms. Mendoza: Well, I think I learned that being a woman isn’t defined by one thing. And a lot of times in media, in motion pictures and how women are portrayed, it’s: beautiful, a specific body type, very humble, very kind, very sweet. It’s a very similar category across the board. What I saw in A League of Their Own was, the way that a female is defined is through a Doris, with a bigger body and —

Ms. Percy: Yes, played by Rosie O’Donnell.

Ms. Mendoza: Yes, Rosie O’Donnell. Sorry, I know these are characters in a movie. [laughs]

Ms. Percy: No, no. I will interject at certain points with the actors’ names, but their characters are real people to us. We get that. [laughs]

Ms. Mendoza: “All the Way” Mae, right? There’s some of that in a lot of us.

Ms. Percy: Yeah — played by Madonna — totally.

Ms. Mendoza: And that, just, rebellious and “You know what? I’m not gonna be the perfect married woman and the — I’m gonna be rebellious. And I like boys. [laughs] And I’m gonna kiss them when I want to, even during a baseball game.” And Kit, the fight — that just total “I’m not gonna play by the rules.” And Dottie, yes, of course, was a little bit more of the female, but then she’d go and do something that was uncharacteristic of a female.

Ms. Percy: She’d slide toward home.

Ms. Mendoza: Yes, totally — and do the splits to catch a ball. [laughs] There were so many things that I felt like embodied what a woman is, because you know what? We’re complicated. We don’t belong in one box. We aren’t one character played by the same character in every movie, over and over. And for me, to know that I am strong and that I am not perfect, [laughs] that I have all these different things about me on any given day — and honestly, the women that I play with do, too — it was the first time that all of that was defined in a way that I hadn’t seen in a major motion picture.

[excerpt: A League of Their Own]

[music: “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” by James Taylor]

Ms. Percy: Dottie, being the beautiful — she’s often singled out to be on the covers of magazines to represent the whole team, to represent the Peaches. And yet, she’s a really complex character. She’s someone who isn’t really confident in her skills as a player. Talk a little bit about what you saw in Dottie, in the character played by Geena Davis and how you related to her.

Ms. Mendoza: I related to her — well, in a lot of ways. One, her relationship with Kit was huge for me because —

Ms. Percy: Because of your own relationship with your sister?

Ms. Mendoza: My sister was two years younger than me, more of a fireball; her and I battled. I played at Stanford; she played at Oregon State. We both played in the same conference, both on scholarships.

Ms. Percy: Wow.

Ms. Mendoza: We grew up playing together and against each other and with each other, and oh, my gosh, literally we would use, all the time, “Stop swinging at the rise ball!” “I like the rise ball!” There were so many lines in that movie that my sister and I already used but then almost incorporated more. And like, “Nag!” — just the words, and the way they loved each other.

Now, I do have to say, and I might be jumping ahead on this, my favorite movie of all time is A League of Their Own — worst ending. And I might insult you on this one — and I go, with this, with my sister — if my sister tried to take me out at home plate when she ran through a stop sign and had no business even trying to score, I am not going to drop that ball. And I’m getting all fired up right now — Dottie Hinson, in that moment, there’s no way. And that’s why the big controversy — did she drop it on purpose? One, she had to have dropped it on purpose, in my brain, because she was the best athlete. There’s no chance. Plus, I’ve been involved in a lot of collisions at home plate. The ball drops at contact. It doesn’t drop after the fact, when you’re holding the ball and then your hand hits the ground.

Ms. Percy: So what you’re saying is you’re calling bullshit on this.

Ms. Mendoza: I’m calling total B.S., total bullshit. Dottie drops the ball on purpose. And then, on top of that, Dottie — I felt like I knew Dottie. [laughs] I felt like I really knew her. And the person she was, she’s gonna hold onto that ball, and — Kit, you know what? You’re out. I felt like that was Hollywood putting just their little spin on “But at the end of the day, we compete, and it’s not about winning. And it’s about your family and your love.”

No. It’s about winning. [laughs]

I played against my sister in college. I would want her to get a hit. But if she tried — I was an outfielder — if she tried to run on me, like, I’m throwing her out. Are you kidding me?

To me, it was more of just, what is competing? And they didn’t — the movie was perfect in understanding the psyche of an athlete. And Dottie’s contemplation — I go through that even now, when — I was playing in the Olympics, and I had children; and you’re trying to decide — family, sport, and figuring out if you can do both. And for Dottie to come back, her true passion, to give it one last thing — I know in my heart, the real Dottie Hinson doesn’t drop that ball.

[excerpt: A League of Their Own]

Ms. Percy: What you’re talking about here reminds me a little bit of — I don’t know if you read Roger Ebert’s review of the movie when it came out.

Ms. Mendoza: No, no.

Ms. Percy: He talks a lot about the context of the time period, because obviously, this movie is based on something that was very real and a piece of American history. But he had this point of view that just blew my mind, that I had never really thought of, which — he says, “What we learn about Dottie is that she never took women’s baseball all that seriously. She was the best player of her time, and yet, in her mind, she was simply on hold until her husband came back from the war. Dugan, the coach, tells her she lights up when she plays baseball, that something comes over her. But she doesn’t seem aware of it. This ambiguity about a woman’s role is probably in the movie because it was directed by a woman, Penny Marshall. A man might have assumed that these women knew how all-important baseball was. Marshall shows her women characters in a tug-of-war between new images and old values. And so her movie is about […] how it felt, as a woman, suddenly to have new roles and freedom.”

Ms. Mendoza: Wow.

Ms. Percy: I know! I never thought about that, because it is — these women, if they had actually been allowed to be the players that they wanted to be, they would. But society, generational sexism, their own families, all these things are telling them, “Yeah, you can do this for now, because men are off in the war and we need you to. But remember who you are.”

Ms. Mendoza: No, and especially — and that’s, I think — that was an underlying theme of the time and something that — I was young, obviously, watching this movie and growing up with this movie, so of course, going through my mind wasn’t marriage. But I’m not kidding, I never wanted to get married. And sometimes I wonder if — and not that A League of Their Own had all of that to do with it, but honestly, I do know what had to do with it, and it was this idea, still, of wondering if getting married would take away my freedom, would take away my ability, because at the time, I’m training for the Olympics; I have all these personal goals. And I remember telling my husband no, the first time he proposed, because I literally — it had nothing to do with him, but it had everything to do with my own societal assumptions on what would happen once I got married.

And to that movie — so I’m 11 years old when A League of Their Own comes out. And you think about — my formative years are right in front of me. I’m in middle school, entering into high school, discovering boys, thinking about the future, and all of that. And I just remember thinking as an 11-year-old, “How could you not play?” And that was the blessing of growing up in the ’90s and, obviously, knowing that I would do what I wanted. [laughs] But at the same time, I feared marriage because I always thought once that happened, that I had to let go of my own ambitions and take on my husband’s.

Ms. Percy: Which is what you saw in Dottie, Geena Davis’s character.

Ms. Mendoza: Exactly – and she still did it; that’s the thing.

Ms. Percy: Exactly. [laughs]

Ms. Mendoza: She stopped playing after that — sorry, I’m interrupting you — because she came back, so, yes, great. But then she didn’t play again.

Ms. Percy: And she was disconnected from this community, because what you see in the movie is, you see her older, at the beginning and at the end, when they reunite in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame. And you really get a sense, she’s disconnected from this community because she left, because she decided to choose her husband’s life and her family.

Ms. Mendoza: Exactly.

[excerpt: A League of Their Own]

[music: “Sisters Say Goodbye” by Hans Zimmer]

Ms. Percy: Our This Movie Changed Me team is already dreaming and brainstorming about season 3, and we want to make you a part of that. We’d love to get your feedback through an audience survey. If you respond before November 24, you’ll be entered for a chance to win a set of the 16 illustrations that accompany our episodes this season, illustrated by the artist Julia Kuo. You’ll get prints inspired by the movies we’ve talked about — from Black Panther and Groundhog Day to Coco and Amadeus. For a chance to receive this one-of-a-kind gift, go to onbeing.org/tmcmsurvey. That’s onbeing.org/tmcmsurvey. And thank you for being part of the This Movie Changed Me community.

[music: “In a Sentimental Mood” by Ella Fitzgerald]

Ms. Percy: It’s so clear to me that Dottie, Geena Davis’s character, influenced the person that you are today. You did this interview, a short video profile with Allure magazine. And it ends with this really amazing quote that I feel like could’ve come out of Dottie’s mouth were she born in a different time, were she born in the time that you were born, where you say about your own role in sports, you say, “I understand the responsibility that I’m carrying. And so, every day I’m thinking I could be studying more. I could be doing more to prepare, because I need to make sure that this door to women, in a men’s sport, stays open so that it’s not just me doing this, but that there are lots of opportunities for more girls and women to do it, even after me. I’m different. I recognize that. And I need to make sure that I am as prepared, that I understand that I’ve done everything I can, knowing that people are gonna want to say, ‘She doesn’t belong.’ I want to prove to them, I do.” That’s amazing.

Ms. Mendoza: It’s where we’re at. And it’s something that — I don’t really realize a lot of the context of even anything that I’m doing in baseball. But I do realize responsibility. It’s an interesting place to be, because I don’t sit back and go, “Wow, I’ve done this, and I’ve done that.” It’s more of, I look around and see there’s no other women — or few women, I should say, around me. And because of that comes responsibility. It’s not about me. So decisions that I make based on what I do or, honestly, how I prepare — it’s as simple as how I prepare for a game — it’s really about the bigger picture of, how many women should we have here? And if I mess up, that door can close. And that’s responsibility.

And honestly, I love the responsibility, because I love pressure. I’m sick in the mind that way. I’ve always craved it. That’s why biggest moments at bats, bottom of the seventh in the Olympics, I want to be up, because even though I know failure is right around the corner, along with what success can bring — it’s either/or in those big moments — I always want to be in them. I want to be in the most pressure-packed situations, because it’s kind of why we live, I think.

I live my life, beyond what I do with my own kids and my family — I live my life to be in the moments that we train for. And whether that’s just preparing with your day-to-day work life, whether it’s how you go and push yourself to get a job that maybe you didn’t think you could get — once you’re in that position, it’s because you want the pressure that comes with it, or you should; and flipping your mindset that when your heart starts pounding, and you start almost sweating, that that’s a good thing. [laughs] That means you’re doing something that’s really cool and really impactful, even if it’s just — I told my five-year-old, the other day when he played his first baseball game, and he’s like, “Mom, I have ticklies in my belly.” And I was laughing, and I’m looking at him, and I’m like, “Ticklies are a good thing, bud. You’re about to go play your first baseball game. And this is a big deal.” He’s five, but I’m trying to tell him, “The biggest things you’re gonna do in life, you’re gonna have ticklies in your belly.” And he kind of looked at me like I was crazy. But my point to him was, that tickly thing, that thing that’s happened, those nerves that you’re having, butterflies, that’s what we live for. You care about your first game.” And he’s just, like, “I want the ticklies to go away. Stop talking, mom.” [laughs]

Ms. Percy: Well, it reminds me of that scene between Dottie and Jimmy Dugan, Coach Dugan, where he says, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

Ms. Mendoza: “It’s the hard that makes it great.” That’s tattooed into my brain. “It’s the hard” — and then he pauses — “it’s the hard that makes it great.” And that, to me, you can apply to any aspect of life, is how by nature we want to run from those moments, but it’s hard. It’s difficult. It’s challenging. I always tell people this: I was never the most talented player, but what I learned is that when things got hard — when we had to go run shuttles, when we had to get up at 5:00 a.m. and do weights, when we had to do all the things that were hard — and I know this is on a physical level, but still, it was hard — I saw the people that were better than me fall. And I passed them, because when it was hard, they did run. And even in my job now, there’s times, like with criticism or whatever — people are coming at you, or sometimes even your own bosses are doubting if you should even be there — it’s that hard part that’s what allows me to want to do it more, [laughs] like, “Let’s keep pushing.”

[excerpt: A League of Their Own]

Ms. Percy: When I first saw this movie, as a kid — and I was a real romantic as a kid; I love romance — I remember being disappointed, watching A League of Their Own, at the fact that Tom Hanks and Geena Davis — that Jimmy and Dottie don’t get together. And now when I watch this movie, I’m so grateful they don’t. As a 37-year-old woman, I’m so grateful that they become friends, and then it’s based on this mutual respect, and that we see that really modeled for us.

Ms. Mendoza: I was right there with you, though.

Ms. Percy: Right?

Ms. Mendoza: I was crushing on Jimmy Dugan for Dottie. I was like, “But they belong together, and they…” And honestly, what’s interesting is there’s a moment on the bus —

Ms. Percy: Yes, the bus scene, my favorite now.

Ms. Mendoza: And it’s romantic, but in a way that, I’ve learned now, you can have romance — and what I mean by romance is true, genuine love — without it being, I guess, “romantic” love, without it being —

Ms. Percy: Or sexual.

Ms. Mendoza: Yeah, sexual, yeah; without it being sexual love. It can be purely this romantic, beautiful love scene that’s just two human beings. It’s a total she/he is just learning and understanding a player that really screwed up in life and now is changing, and because of a special player in her that helped him see the game differently. And it’s this beautiful love scene. But I had been trained — calling out Disney movies — my whole life that when that happens, trigger kissing. “They’re gonna go off to a bedroom; this is what needs to happen next.”

Ms. Percy: Yes — nighttime; and then, daylight just begins. [laughs]

Ms. Mendoza: Totally, and then they’re waking up naked.

Ms. Percy: Exactly. [laughs]

Ms. Mendoza: Like, “That’s what happens.” And that’s sad; even as an 11-year-old, I was recognizing, “OK, they need to kiss.”

Ms. Percy: This is the only way that men and women can be, right?

Ms. Mendoza: Well, that you can’t have love for the opposite sex in a way that — and you’re right. Looking back on it, I’m so proud of that movie for so many reasons — except for the dropped ball — everything else [laughs] was done perfectly, and ahead of its time. Ahead of its time.

Ms. Percy: Exactly. Ahead of its time.

[excerpt: A League of Their Own]

[music: “Two Sleepy People” by Art Garfunkel]

Ms. Percy: Is there anything else you’d like to say about League of Their Own that I didn’t ask you?

Ms. Mendoza: I think the biggest thing is — it’s funny, because my son, my oldest son, who’s 9, he’s getting into movies, and he’s very funny, super-analytical, very inquisitive — he’s very careful about the movies he chooses to watch. So it’s really cool, because he is the ultimate movie critic, even before — so he asks a thousand questions before we can ever go see a movie, which is great.

So he asked me, just probably a few months ago, “Mom, what’s your favorite movie?” And I told him A League of Their Own. And then he’s like, “Well, what’s it about?” And so we started to talk about it. And it was kind of sad; I realized that the version I have is the VHS version, [laughs] and then I have the DVD that’s not Blu-ray, so we actually can’t even play it in our Blu-ray player at home …

Ms. Percy: [laughs] Oh, God, yeah; so true.

Ms. Mendoza: … which is really sad. Everything’s digital now. And so he was asking me question after question about the movie, and he’s like, “Mom, we need to watch it right now,” which, I have to let you know, he never does that. He needs months of — it’s crazy. He’s nine.

Ms. Percy: I appreciate his thoughtfulness; that’s amazing.

Ms. Mendoza: Well, but I just want to say, for the next generation and the fact that he’s a boy, but I described to him how transformative it was in my life — and him and I are really, really close, like our souls are connected. I swear, he’s like the mini-version of me. And so he felt for me how important this movie was in my life and the fact that I watched it not too far from his own age. I was two years older than him, but very close. And he immediately recognized that “No, I need to see this right now. I want to see a movie that impacted my mom’s life, and I want to understand it, and I want to …” And I got so giddy and so happy, and then I found out that the DVD wouldn’t even play in the thing, so I was so mad, and I immediately ordered it, and I was like, “Dang it.” But it actually came. I’ve been on the road now for a month, and so it arrived, and I told my husband, “He cannot watch the movie until I’m sitting next to him.”

Ms. Percy: No; you have to watch it together. Yes.

Ms. Mendoza: Oh, totally. And to sit down with the next generation, my son, a boy, and get his take on the movie and what he thinks, especially with having a mom that’s really made him not see gender as anything different. I think he’s gonna view this movie as, like, “Oh, of course women have been playing baseball.” In his brain it’s like, “That’s just what they should do. Why wouldn’t they?”

Ms. Percy: Ugh, I can’t wait for this to happen. Can you please let us know what his reaction is?

Ms. Mendoza: Yes, exactly.

Ms. Percy: Because I want to know. [laughs] Get a whole film crew.

Ms. Percy: [laughs] Thank you so much for talking with me and just for picking this movie. It’s such an amazing movie. It’s wonderful to watch.

Ms. Mendoza: It’s the best. It really is. And you know what? I’d love for it to be my second-favorite because all of a sudden, there’s a new one that surpasses everything that this movie did. We need another one. [laughs]

Ms. Percy: Amen.

Ms. Mendoza: 27 years — who’s out there? Let’s do it.

[music: “Flying Home” by Lionel Hampton]

Ms. Percy: Jessica Mendoza is a baseball analyst for ESPN and an Olympic softball gold and silver medalist. She also works for the Mets as a baseball operations advisor, is a full-time member of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball booth, and is a general, all-around badass.

A League of Their Own was produced by Parkway Productions and distributed by Columbia Pictures, and the clips you heard in this episode are credited entirely to them. The movie’s soundtrack was released by Columbia Records, and the score was composed by Hans Zimmer — you know, the guy you guess in movie trivia when you don’t know who composed the music.

[music: “On the Sunny Side of the Street” (From “Is Everybody Happy?”) by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra]

Next time on This Movie Changed Me, we’ll be talking with Minneapolis city council member and poet Andrea Jenkins about the movie that changed her life, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. You can currently find it streaming in all the usual places and don’t let the 3-hour, 22-minute running time put you off because it’s truly a masterpiece.

The team behind This Movie Changed Me is: Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, Kristin Lin, and Lilian Vo. This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota Land. And we also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett and Becoming Wise — find those wherever you like to listen, or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.

I’m Lily Percy, and remember: It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.

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