80’s Rewind: Major League

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Updated: August 27, 2012

It’s difficult to put into words just how entertaining of a movie Major League is and how influential it remains even to this day in the hearts and minds of an entire generation of moviegoers.  Every summer during my adolescent years I would spend a good portion of my time playing baseball at “Welfare Stadium” in the Village of Port Dickinson.  It was on this makeshift baseball diamond that the sights and sounds of this movie were often reenacted at the behest of those of us in attendance. 

Released in 1989, I have probably watched Major League at least a hundred times by now and can honestly say that it never gets old.  There a few movies (Anchorman, Wedding Crashers, Old School) that you have seen so many times that you know each and every line before it is said, and this is definitely one of them.  The  film revolves the antics of the Cleveland Indians, a baseball franchise that hasn’t won anything in decades and whose prospects for the current season look bleak.  New team owner Rachel Phelps is trying to sabotage the season and get the attendance levels down to the degree that she can trigger an escape clause with the city of Cleveland and move the team to Miami.  To accomplish this, she fills out the roster of her club with a seemingly pitiful mix of washed up has beens and unproven no names; on paper the perfect blend of losers capable or driving fans away from the stadium. 

Pretty basic premise, but on screen this comedy is laugh out loud funny in large part due to the cast of characters involved along with the baseball underdog story mixed in.

Outstanding cast:  I am not sure if there were other big names up for the roles in this movie, but the final cast seemed to fit together perfectly.  You had Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger), the old catcher with balky knees who takes a vested interest in mentoring rookies Rich Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) and Willie Mayes Hayes (Wesley Snipes).  Corbin Bernsen is outstanding as Roger Dorn, the veteran third basemen initially more concerned about his next contract and post-baseball finances than helping his current team win games.

The various interactions between Eddie Harris (Chelcie Ross) and Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) are comical, as the two men constantly debate the inner workings of Jesus and Jo-Bu and the impact their religious beliefs have on the outcome of games (“You trying to say Jesus Christ can’t hit a curveball?”).  Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton) plays the evil owner to a tee, working throughout to quell the enthusiasm of General Manager Charlie Donavon (Charles Cyphers).  And then there is the manager Lou Brown (James Gammon) and announcer Harry Doyle (Bob Uecker), both worthy of separate discussions below. 

Baseball movie:  Though it is a comedy through and through, there is also some passable baseball action and applicable themes present throughout.  It is humorous looking back at the accommodations at the team’s spring training facilities in Arizona – they have a prison dorm feel to them with the bunk beds and close living quarters. 

Much like the real major leagues, part of this film revolves around aging players doing all they can to survive and enjoy the fruits of playing in the show.  Berenger is great in his role as the broken down catcher and team leader, icing up his knees and getting by at this point with his head and his heart.  Harris is without question one of my favorite characters, lubing up his hair/body/uniform with a variety of items in order to doctor up the ball enough to get hitters out.  His reasoning to Vaughn as to why he throws “junk” rings true; if you want to survive in a young man’s game you have to make adjustments as you get older.   

You can sense the excitement of the pennant race as the Indians make their run up the standings, and the one-game playoff with the hated Yankees has the low scoring feel of an actual postseason contest.  In today’s game, closers are often accompanied by their own personal entrance music when they come out to pitch the ninth inning (think Mariano Rivera coming out to “Enter Sandman”).  I am not sure if this was the case in the 80’s or if Rick Vaughn coming out to “Wild Thing” set off a trend, but either way this is a great scene and gets the audience fired up for the closer to come in and do work.  And Jake Taylor calling his own shot?  Scene still gives me chills.      

Everybody loves an underdog:  With their history as a losing franchise, low payroll, and subpar roster, it is easy to get behind this group of players and root for a squad depicted as the ultimate underdogs.  The team was teetering on the grounds of respectability when Phelps decided to take away some amenities – downgrading their jet airplane to a circa WWII prop-plane before eventually putting them on a bus, and later cutting off the hot water in the clubhouse. 

In the face of a great deal of adversity, when the team finds a rallying point and begins reeling off victories the entire city bands behind this ragtag group.  Even though the Yankee organization was in the middle of a down period at the time this movie was originally released, having them as the bully the Indians can’t seem to get over the hump against was a great choice in retrospect.  Today they are baseball’s “Evil Empire”, a franchise with endless means.  Knowing what the Yankees represent today makes the contrast between these two organizations even more stark and gives the on-screen matchup between the teams an ever greater David vs. Goliath feel to it.     

Bob Uecker as Harry Doyle:  Doyle is one of the signature characters of Major League, and Uecker is hysterical in his portrayal of the ultimate “homer” announcer.  Occasionally downing Jack Daniels in the broadcast booth, Doyle does his best to build up his team despite the ineptitude he is often forced to witness.  The statements and one liners he delivers are nothing short of brilliant, as Doyle expresses his frustration with Indians (“That’s all we got, one goddam hit?”), attempts to bolster fan support (“Just a reminder fans coming up is our “Die-hard Night” here at the stadium.  Free admission to anyone who was actually alive the last time the Indians won a pennant”), and constantly adds color to the action (“KY ball to third”). 

Even better are Doyle’s interactions with his colorman Monty and the in-booth back and forths that they have.  He often puts his quiet colleague on the spot, at one point implying that Yankees slugger Clu Haywood is a convicted felon and asking Monty for his take.  At his core Doyle is an Indians fan, and he just can’t seem to stop himself from calling out players on the opposing teams (“This guy threw at his own son in a father son game”).  You often find yourself cheering for the Indians and for Doyle, and his joy as a true fan feels authentic during the celebration at the end when the Indians come through with the big win.

Lou Brown:  The Indians gruff field general, Brown is a player’s manager and has the perfect temperament to deal with the circus he is in charge of.  Whether he’s urinating on Dorn’s contract, giving Mays Hayes some pointed advice after a basket catch, or rallying the troops with a cardboard cut-out photo of Phelps, Brown is respected by his squad and is generally enthusiastic about their chances.  Best manager ever in a movie?  I think so.     

Memorable quotes:   To this day Major League has to be one of the more quoted films ever:

Haywood:  How’s your wife and my kids?

Rick Vaughn: What’s that shit on your chest?
Eddie Harris: Crisco.
Eddie Harris: Bardol.
Eddie Harris: Vagisil. Any one of them will give you another two to three inches drop on your curve ball. Of course if the umps are watching me real close I’ll rub a little jalapeno up my nose, get it runnin’, and if I need to load the ball up I just wipe my nose
Rick Vaughn: You put snot on the ball?
Eddie Harris: I haven’t got an arm like you, kid. I have to put anything on it I can find. Someday you will too.

Rick Vaughn: Want me to drag him outta here, kick the shit out of him?

Board Member 1: I’ve never heard of half of these guys and the ones I do know are way past their prime.
Charlie Donovan: Most of these guys never had a prime.
Rachel Phelps: The fact is we lost our two best players to free agency. We haven’t won a pennant in over thirty-five years, we haven’t placed higher than fourth in the last fifteen. Obviously it’s time for some changes.
Board Member 2: This guy here is dead!
Rachel Phelps: Cross him off, then!

Harry Doyle: We don’t know where Hayes played last year, but I’m sure he did a hell of a job.

Willie Mays Hayes: Cerrano’s looking for some extra power for tonight. He’s looking to sacrifice a live chicken. Man, we can’t have people puking in the locker room before the game

Lou Brown: Come on Dorn, get in front of the damn ball! Don’t give me this “olé” bullshit!

Jake Taylor: Hey! This isn’t the California Penal League, Vaughn, we’re professionals here!

Lou Brown: We better teach this kid some control before he kills somebody.

Eddie Harris: I wouldn’t leave that rum sitting around with this group.

 

Major League is up near the top in my list of favorite movies, and with the baseball playoffs approaching I should get to catch it a few more times in the months ahead.  Never gets old.   

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