Major League (1989)

Written & Directed by David S. Ward

As we approach the heart of essentially the Golden Age of the Baseball movie, which began with The Natural (1984), continued with countless classics, and runs through the early 1990s, the next entry into this age of superior baseball films is Major League, a film which is held in high esteem by many for its comedy, and like Bull Durham before it, its endless quotability. For me, the added layer to this film is having grown up in the state of Ohio, where Ohio State football rules, and most other sports seem to suffer, including the professional teams of Cleveland, which includes the Indians. So the concept that the owner of the already struggling and endlessly bad Indians would want to field a team so bad that she could move the team to Miami (this was before the Marlins came around in 1993), is simply perfect.

After the death of her husband, the owner of the Cleveland Indians, ex-Vegas showgirl Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton) inherits the team and quickly moves to field the worst possible team. She hopes the attendance will drop low enough to allow her to exit the stadium lease the team has with the city of Cleveland so she can move the team to Miami. She brings in career minor league manager and part time tire salesman Lou Brown (James Gammon) to manage the team, veteran (and conceivably washed up catcher) Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) to join the overpaid free agent Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen) and a host of unknown rookies that includes a speedy outfielder who can’t hit in Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes) and a fireball throwing pitcher who lacks control in Rick Vaughn (Charlie Sheen).

The premise is fairly juvenile, but so is this film, which is precisely its charm. I can get behind Phelps’ motives to move the team, but her methods aren’t exactly effective. You would think if the objective was to lose as much as possible, that she could have picked up a bunch of guys you know are bad, instead of the list of nobody’s that turn out to actually have potential when coached by a guy with 30+ years of experience. I’m just saying she could have done a lot better job of coaching. The only other qualm I have with the film relates to the prerequisite love story on the side between Jake Taylor and his girl of yesterday, Lynn (Rene Russo), who is now engaged to a far more reputable gentleman. The story line itself is fine, and both actors are convincing, but any time spent on this relationship seems to slow the movie to a halt and gets away completely from the fun of the rest of the film.

But the fun of the rest of the film is what really fuels the enjoyment of this film. Each of the characters on the baseball team, and I do mean characters, adds a special element to the chemistry of not just the team, but the cast as well. Some of the stories that came out after the film released only make their presence all the more enjoyable. For instance, Sheen admitting he took steroids for the film, throwing in the 80s throughout filming. Or Dennis Haysbert, who plays the team’s slugger Pedro Cerrano, hitting actual home runs during his scenes. Or Wesley Snipes being unable to throw the ball, although being super-athletic (re: leaping catch to rob a home run). Or Peter Vuckovich, former Cy Young award winner as a pitcher, playing the part of villainous Yankee slugger Clu Haywood. But the film just wouldn’t be the same without the hilarious commentary from Harry Doyle, played by real life Radio Hall of Fame broadcaster and Ford Frick Award winner Bob Uecker.

Major League really is a film all about the right things coming together, despite some deficiencies, and making something great. To watch the team grow, perhaps as unrealistic as it may be, is really fun to see, but especially given the circumstances and motivations of them as a team and each as individuals. Of course, when you get down to it, the charm of the film, as I mentioned earlier, is the comedy, which continually works not only within the confines of the film, but also as it continually works with each viewing, becoming a part of the lexicon of quoting not only baseball films, but comedy films as well. It will be interesting to see if what works here will carry into the sequels, which appear as part of this baseball marathon, or whether the filmmakers will instead choose to focus on the things they thought made the film work, instead of the things that actually did (re: The Bad News Bears sequels).

***1/2 – Great

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