Major League (1989)

Major League is a 1989 American sports comedy film produced by Chris Chesser and Irby Smith, written and directed by David S. Ward, that stars Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Wesley Snipes, James Gammon, Bob Uecker, Rene Russo, and Corbin Bernsen.

Made for $11 million, Major League grossed nearly $50 million in domestic release. Major League deals with the exploits of a fictionalized version of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, and spawned two sequels (Major League II and Back to the Minors), neither of which replicated the success of the original film.

Former Las Vegas showgirl Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton) inherits the Cleveland Indians baseball team from her deceased husband. Phelps hates Cleveland and wants to relocate the team to Miami. The Indians’ contract with Cleveland contains an escape clause stipulating that the team may relocate if attendance falls below a certain level. Determined to put together the worst Major League team in the country, Phelps hires Lou Brown (James Gammon), the manager for the Toledo Mud Hens, to manage the team and promotes former manager Charlie Donovan (Charles Cyphers) to general manager.

During spring training in Tucson, the team’s shortcomings become evident. The team’s lone star, third baseman Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), is an egotistical prima donna whose skills have faded. Staff ace Eddie Harris (Chelcie Ross) has to rely on illegally doctoring the baseball due to his weakening arm. Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert), a voodoo-practicing Cuban import with significant power, cannot hit breaking balls and clashes with the devoutly Christian Harris. Veteran catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger), a former star turned drunk who had spent the last few years playing in the Mexican League after his knees gave out, has lost so much strength on his throws that he cannot reach second base.

The two players who draw the most attention are brash young outfielder Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes), who simply showed up at spring training without an invite, and pitcher Rick Vaughn (Charlie Sheen), a convicted felon on work release from a California prison. Hayes claims he can “run like Hayes”, and proves to be the fastest player on the team, and “hit like” his namesake, but is unable to hit the ball very far. Vaughn can throw a fastball well above 90 miles an hour, but has no control over it, which earns him the nickname “Wild Thing”. His attitude causes him to run afoul of Dorn, who cannot stand him.

The team predictably starts the season on a losing streak. Lou then discovers Vaughn’s control issues stem from an uncorrected visual impairment. After being fitted with glasses, Vaughn’s performance improves and the team begins to win. Meanwhile, Taylor tries to reunite with his ex-girlfriend Lynn (Rene Russo) despite her being engaged to another man.

Phelps, angered by the team’s improvement, tries to demoralize them by removing team amenities. She replaces their chartered team jet, first with a rickety propeller plane and then an old bus. She then refuses to fix their workout equipment, and even has the hot water to the locker room turned off. Despite her efforts the team continues to win and brings themselves into contention for the division championship.

Eventually Charlie is able to reveal Phelps’s plan to Lou. Lou then calls a team meeting and announces that all of the players on the current roster would be released at the end of the season no matter the outcome. With nothing to lose, Taylor says they should just focus on winning the pennant. For added motivation, they use a cardboard cutout of Phelps from her showgirl days, peeling off sections for each game they win.

The team succeeds in tying the division with the New York Yankees, leading to a one-game playoff to determine the champions. However, Lou decides to start Harris in place of Vaughn due to his experience. Vaughn later ends up in bed with a woman who he later finds out is Suzanne Dorn, Roger’s wife (Stacy Carroll); she had slept with Vaughn to repay her husband for being unfaithful during a victory party.

In the playoff game in Cleveland, the Yankees take an early lead but Cerrano finally manages to hit a curveball and hits a home run to tie the game. The ninth inning begins with Harris loading the bases after recording two outs, with their best hitter Clu Haywood on deck. Lou decides to switch Harris out with Vaughn, believing that he’s finally due. Vaughn finally manages to get his revenge on Haywood, striking him out on three straight fastballs. In the bottom of the inning, the Yankees bring out “The Duke” (Willie Mueller), their headhunting closer. The Indians manage to catch the Yankees off guard thanks to Hayes’ speed after singling and stealing second base, and an unexpected bunt from Taylor to win the game.

As the team celebrates, Dorn punches Vaughn in the face for what happened the night before but then quickly pulls him up so they can keep celebrating. Taylor spots Lynn in the stands, no longer wearing her engagement ring. The two rush to hug each other as the city celebrates the victory.

The theatrical release’s ending includes Rachel Phelps, apparently unable to move the team because of increased attendance, angry and disappointed about the team’s success. An alternate ending on the “Wild Thing Edition” DVD shows a very different characterization of Phelps. Lou confronts Phelps over her plan to sabotage the team and announces his resignation. Phelps then reveals the threatened move to Miami was merely a ruse to motivate the team, as the Indians were on the verge of bankruptcy when she inherited them and she could not afford to hire star players or maintain the expensive amenities. She also tells Lou that she felt he was the right manager to bring the ragtag group together. Lou does not resign, but Phelps reasserts her authority by saying that if he shares any part of their conversation with anyone, she will fire him.

This alternate ending was scrapped after test screening audiences responded negatively to the softer portrayal of Phelps. The producers actually preferred the twist ending as a resolution to the plot.

Cast

  • Tom Berenger as Jake Taylor
  • Charlie Sheen as Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn
  • Corbin Bernsen as Roger Dorn
  • Margaret Whitton as Rachel Phelps
  • James Gammon as Lou Brown
  • Rene Russo as Lynn Weslin
  • Bob Uecker as Harry Doyle
  • Wesley Snipes as Willie Mays Hayes
  • Charles Cyphers as Charlie Donovan
  • Chelcie Ross as Eddie Harris
  • Dennis Haysbert as Pedro Cerrano
  • Andy Romano as Pepper Leach
  • Kip Powers as Cooper Vaughn
  • Steve Yeager as Duke Temple
  • Pete Vuckovich as Clu Haywood
  • Willie Mueller as The Duke
  • Stacy Carroll as Suzanne Dorn
  • NOT W Goodall as Yankees 3rd Baseman
  • Todd Johnson as Jeremy Keltner
  • Neil Flynn as an Indian fan
  • Ed Grode, Jr. as an Indian fan
  • Marc Daniloff as Sports Reporter

The film’s opening montage is a series of somber blue-collar images of the Cleveland landscape synchronized to the score of Randy Newman’s “Burn On”: an ode to the infamous day in Cleveland when the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire.

Much of the film’s spring training scenes were shot at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, Arizona, which was the spring training home for the Cleveland Indians from 1947 to 1992. The production used members of the University of Arizona Wildcats baseball team as extras. 

Despite being set in Cleveland, the film was principally shot in Milwaukee because it was cheaper and the producers were unable to work around the schedules of the Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Browns. Milwaukee County Stadium, then the home of the Brewers (and three Green Bay Packers games per season), doubles as Cleveland Stadium for the film, although several exterior shots of Cleveland Stadium were used, including some aerial shots taken during an Indians game. In fact, the sign for the TV station atop the scoreboard is for WTMJ, the NBC affiliate for Milwaukee. One of the ending scenes of the movie is in West Milwaukee’s legendary restaurant, 4th Base which showcases their unique horseshoe bar that is shown in the celebration scenes. Another restaurant scene, at the then Gritz Pazazz on Milwaukee’s north side, is no longer open for business. Both facilities have since been demolished: the playing field of County Stadium is now a Little League baseball field known as Helfaer Field, while the rest of the former site is now a parking lot for the Brewers’ new home, Miller Park; the new Cleveland Browns stadium (now FirstEnergy Stadium), a football-only facility owned by the City of Cleveland and used by the Browns, sits on the site of its predecessor.

The film was notable for featuring several actors who would go on to stardom: Snipes and Russo were relative unknowns before the movie was released, while Haysbert remained best known as Pedro Cerrano until he portrayed US President David Palmer on the television series 24. The longshoreman who is occasionally seen commenting and is shown in the final celebration inside a bar is Neil Flynn, who later achieved fame playing the Janitor in Scrubs. This is Flynn’s first credited movie role.

The film also featured former Major League players, including 1982 American League Cy Young Award winner Pete Vuckovich as Yankees first baseman Clu Haywood, former Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Willie Mueller as the Yankees pitcher Duke Simpson, known as “The Duke”, and former Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager as third-base coach Duke Temple. Former catcher and longtime Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker played the Indians’ broadcaster Harry Doyle. The names of several crewmembers were also used for peripheral players.

Sheen himself was a pitcher on his high school’s baseball team. At the time of filming Major League, his own fastball topped out at 85 miles per hour. (In 2011, Sheen said that he had used steroids for nearly two months to improve his athletic abilities in the film.)

The film debuted at No. 1 at the box office and received generally positive reviews. It has an 82% “fresh” rating on review website Rotten Tomatoes based on 39 reviews, with an average rating of 6.5/10. The consensus states, “Major League may be predictable and formulaic, but buoyed by the script’s light, silly humor—not to mention the well-built sports action sequences and funny performances.”

Due to the success of the film, two sequels have been produced neither of which achieved the original’s success. Major League II returned most of the original stars, with the notable exception of Wesley Snipes, and focused on the following season and the players’ reaction to the previous season’s success. Major League: Back to the Minors again starred Corbin Bernsen, but this time, as the owner of the Minnesota Twins, attempting to turn around the Twins’ AAA team, the Buzz. A possible third sequel, Major League 3 (which was to ignore Back to the Minors), was reported in 2010 to be in development by original writer and producer David S. Ward. Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, and Snipes would return, with the plot revolving around Ricky Vaughn coming out of retirement to work with a young player.

In 2015, Morgan Creek Productions announced that the sequel was still in the works.

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