Popularity of 'Major League' remains
Classic baseball comedy celebrates its 20th anniversary
The film "Major League," which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is often referred to as a "Cable Classic," meaning that, if you are flipping through the channels and you come across it, you can't keep yourself from watching the whole thing, no matter how many times you've seen it before.
The film includes memorable characters Ricky Vaughn, Jake Taylor, Willie Mays Hayes and Pedro Cerrano, who take part in a fictional version of the 1989 Cleveland Indians, thrown together by the team's owner, Rachel Phelps, who wanted the worst team possible so she could move it to Florida.
But the players end up winning despite everything the owner tries to do to stop them. The film was the brainchild of its writer-director, David S. Ward.
"I grew up in Cleveland, and the Indians hadn't won anything in, like, 40 years," said Ward, who won the 1974 Best Screenplay Oscar for "The Sting."
"I figured the only way they were ever going to win anything in my lifetime was to do a movie and they'd win. I thought this would be a chance to combine two interests of mine, comedy and baseball -- with my team, the Indians.
"Now, of course, right after I do this film the Indians become a good team and go to the World Series twice -- they lose twice, but still they go and become a good team for a while, which was kind of gratifying in a way."
"David Ward was and is a big, big baseball fan," said legendary broadcaster Bob Uecker, who played Harry Doyle, the team's irrepressible play-by-play man.
"He knew what he was talking about, and, with me, he allowed me to freelance with my character, ad lib, do whatever I wanted, and that was really great."
Ward took his time and put together a cast that included Charlie Sheen as Vaughn, Tom Berenger as Taylor, Corbin Bernsen as third baseman Roger Dorn, Wesley Snipes as Hayes and Dennis Haysbert as Cerrano. Nearly all of them could not only act and handle comedy, but could play ball as well.
"It was always important to me that the guys in the movie could actually play baseball, and look like they could play professional baseball," said Ward. "I had heard Charlie [Sheen] was a good player in high school and Berenger could play pretty well, and he hit well, but he couldn't throw. Corbin was a very good player, and Dennis was a really good player who actually hit a few real home runs while we were filming. The one person who really wasn't a player was Wesley [Snipes], but he was such an amazing athlete that he learned to play baseball in about three weeks.
"He could never throw -- that's why you never see Willie Mays Hayes throw in the movie -- but he made the catch he makes above the wall in the film and he taught himself how to hit all those popups he hits in the beginning of the movie. I read a lot of actors, and they would come in and tell me they played for the Cardinals' Triple-A team and I'd go out and play catch with them and they couldn't throw the ball 15 feet.
"Because he was such a great athlete, Wesley [Snipes] was one actor I let in who hadn't played ball before, and he did great."
"When you look at Charlie Sheen throw a ball, you think, 'Wow, he's pretty good,'" said Uecker, who played in the Majors for six years. "I always like that in sports movies, where guys have talent and it actually looks believable. I mean, I saw Anthony Perkins play Jimmy Piersall in 'Fear Strikes Out.' Good actor, good movie, but he definitely could not play. Even Gary Cooper in 'Pride of the Yankees,' they tried hard to make him look good, even making his uniform backwards so he could look like a lefty, which Lou Gehrig was."
Ward enlisted former Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager to be his technical advisor to make sure everyone looked the part.
"I tip my hat to all the actors who trusted in me and believed in me," said Yeager, who was also cast as coach Duke Temple in the film. "They needed to believe that I wasn't going to get them hurt and show them the right way to do things, and they worked really hard at it. I worked with Berenger for six weeks before we started filming and Charlie was out there, too, and we worked every day to make sure it looked right and David Ward always told me we'll keep filming until it does look right."
In the original script, Phelps, the cruel owner of the club, was actually the heroine of the film.
"This has bugged me for many years," said actress Margaret Whitten, who played Phelps in the film. "There was this great scene with this wonderful character actor, James Gammons, who played Lou Brown, the team's manager, where he storms into my office and threatens to quit, and I tell him, 'My husband left me with a bankrupt team, and I did my research and found all these misfits and I found you, because you could make them win, now go out there and take it all.' And he leaves the office and she lifts her eyes up and says 'OK, honey, here we go.'"
"When we previewed the film, the audiences didn't like that," said Ward. "They had grown so used to hating her throughout the movie, they wanted to hate her at the end. They wanted to see her get her comeuppance by seeing the Indians win. Margaret was doing a play in London, so we had to fly to England and recreate her box at the stadium and shoot all her reactions to the final game. Our preview scores went up like 15 points with the re-shot scenes."
So, 20 years later, "Major League" is as popular as ever.
"It seems to be playing more now than when it originally came out," said Uecker. "It seems every day I run into someone at the ballpark or on the street and they say, 'Hey, I saw you in that movie ... it was on again today.' I mean, I go into clubhouses all the time and these players today are playing it in clubhouses before the game."
"I think it's one of the movies that no matter how many times you watch it, you may find something you might have missed," said Yeager. "I was there and I still missed a lot of things."
"Some of the elements of 'Major League' have become part of the culture," said Ward, who would like to film another sequel with the cast. "Before 'Major League,' closers didn't come in to music. The first time that ever happened was when Rick Vaughn came into the game to 'Wild Thing.'
"I think its staying power is due to the fact that there are some iconic characters who have become part of baseball culture, and it's now being passed on to another generation."
Said Uecker: "I take it as a compliment that the film is 20 years old and the film still does well. I guess it's one of our classics."
"Major League" is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment.
The Indians will be celebrating the anniversary in two special ways. On June 13th, following their game with the Cardinals, all fans can stay and watch the film for free. Two days later, when Uecker and the Milwaukee Brewers are in town, all fans get a "Rick Vaughn" bobblehead doll. There will also be a pregame ceremony with Uecker and a postgame fireworks show.
Ben Platt is a national correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.