IT'S BEEN 22 YEARS SINCE WILD THING WALTZED INTO OUR LIVES, AND MAJOR LEAGUE STILL MAKES OUR HEARTS SING. THE FILM'S CAST AND CREW TRY TO EXPLAIN HOW IT BECAME ONE OF THE MOST BELOVED—AND MOST QUOTED—SPORTS MOVIES EVER
This is an article from the July 4, 2011 issue
By the early 1980s writer-director David S. Ward should have been a happy man. At 29, he'd won an Oscar for writing the Robert Redford--Paul Newman con man caper The Sting. He was at the top of his profession—the sort of bankable storyteller with whom every movie studio wanted to do business. But deep down this baseball fan was miserable. Ward's beloved Cleveland Indians were perennial basement dwellers, finishing more than a game above .500 only three times from 1960 through '83. If he was ever going to see his team win it all, some Hollywood magic would be necessary. So Ward sat down and created a colorful cast of baseball losers—a washed-up cad of a catcher named Jake Taylor, a brash young fireballer nicknamed Wild Thing, a voodoo-worshipping cleanup hitter named Pedro Cerrano. ... This was a team that Cleveland fans—fans of any team, really—could root for. And that they have. Since its release 22 years ago, Ward's little $11 million cheapie, Major League, has cemented itself as a timeless sports classic. Today, if snippets of it are not airing on stadium scoreboards, chances are it's playing to laughs in team clubhouses, where Bob Uecker's deadpan calls ("Juuust a bit outside!") are quoted like scripture. To commemorate the movie, SI reassembled the most memorable Indians team since the days of Bob Feller for a look back at the making of Major League.
I. "A reminder, fans, about Die-hard Night. Free admission to anyone who was actually alive the last time the Indians won a pennant."
David S. Ward (writer, director): I grew up in Cleveland. I remember the 1954 World Series and how upset my father was that the Indians, after such a spectacular season [they were 111--43], were swept by the Giants. That's when I realized how important a baseball game could be. After that, things went into a decline in Cleveland. Just grim, awful, hopeless years. I thought, The only way the Indians will ever win anything in my lifetime is if I make a movie where they do. And obviously it has to be a comedy because nobody would believe it as a drama.
Chris Chesser (producer): My first job as a studio executive was at Orion Pictures on Caddyshack. Then I stepped out to be a producer. I approached David to see if he was working on anything, and he told me about Major League.
Ward: I began writing Major League in 1984, but it took about four years to get it made. The studios kept explaining that baseball had just started being broadcast on cable and people could see the game anytime they wanted; why would anybody pay to see a movie about it? We finally brought it to a company called Morgan Creek, and they thought it would be a good reteaming of Tom Berenger and Charlie Sheen from Platoon. And I was like, Well, they're not exactly comedians... .
Tom Berenger (washed-up catcher Jake Taylor): Charlie asked if I was going to do it. I said, "Yeah, I think it's great, don't you?" He said, "Yeah." I think he wanted to know what his old sergeant thought.
Charlie Sheen (fireballing reliever Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn): When I saw the script it wasn't like catnip, it was like crack. I was going to a premiere, and I had a meeting with David in the morning, so I had the script in the limo, and I was late because I couldn't put it down. Then I sat in my driveway for an hour to finish it. It was probably as good a script as Platoon, seriously.
II. "Forget about the curveball, Ricky. Give him the heater!"
Chesser: It was David's idea to get a real baseball player and set up a training camp for a few weeks to whip these actors into shape. He got Steve Yeager's name from the Dodgers. Charlie said it was like when he made Platoon and Oliver Stone sent them to boot camp.
Ward: Steve ended up doubling for Tom behind the plate too. Whenever you see Tom throw with his mask on, that's Yeager. The guys took hitting practice every day, fielding practice, throwing... . There's a lot of camaraderie that comes out of running sprints.
Steve Yeager (technical adviser, former big league catcher): I didn't have to do much for Charlie. We had him on a radar gun, and he was throwing in the mid-80s. With Tom we started with the basics as if we were teaching a young kid how to play. He was blocking balls. I felt sorry for him because I was beating him up pretty good.
Berenger: I played Little League growing up, but I was probably a better football player. Charlie was great, though. The first day he started throwing to me, nine of his first 10 pitches were on the edge of the strike zone—that's how much control he had.
Sheen: I had a great arm. I was just born with it. I played at Santa Monica High, but because of academic s---, they pulled me off the team. I used to go to this place in Missouri called the Mickey Owen Baseball School. I went to get scouted. But I looked at the talent there and knew I couldn't do it for a living. I think my baseball career would have been spent riding buses, not jets, if you know what I mean. So I figured, Hey, I'll pursue a real idiot's job instead. Acting!
Ward: One of the things I did with all the actors before I cast them was play catch to see how well they could play. I had actors coming in and saying that they had played Triple A with the Cardinals. Then I'd take them outside, and they couldn't throw it 15 feet. They just lied.
Chelcie Ross (veteran pitcher Eddie Harris): I was 45, and it had been 20 years since I had thrown a ball. But I had pitched a little at Southwest Texas State, and I thought, I can do this. After I auditioned, Chris Chesser said, "Let's throw a bit." I knew that would have to happen somewhere along the line. He asked if I could throw anything besides a fastball, and I said, "Sure, I can put a wrinkle in one." I threw a couple of big lollipop curves. They were pretty lame, but I was cast.
Ward: The characters were combinations of real players. Willie Mays Hayes, who Wesley Snipes played, was a little Willie Mays with the basket catch and Rickey Henderson on the base paths. Dennis Haysbert's Cerrano character was based on the Alou brothers and some of the Latin ballplayers who were known to be a little superstitious. Wild Thing was Ryne Duren, who I knew as a Yankees reliever, a big guy who wore these Coke-bottle glasses and threw the ball really hard. There might have been a little Al Hrabosky in there too.
Corbin Bernsen (vain third baseman Roger Dorn): All the actors had to do these tryouts, but I was shooting another film so I said, "Trust me, I can play." I always thought Dorn was a good ballplayer but had started thinking too much about fame and notoriety, which wasn't all that far off from [my character] Arnie Becker, on L.A. Law.
Ward: Wesley had never really played baseball, but the shot of him going over the outfield wall to make that grab in the movie, he actually made that catch. The funny thing is Wesley, who plays a speed demon, is not very fast in real life. That's why we always shot him in slow motion. In regular motion he doesn't look that fast. As for James Gammon, who played the manager, I'd seen several movies that he'd done, and he just seemed like the perfect manager type. He had the gravitas and that great voice. He was the kind of person who players would live in fear of.
Dennis Haysbert (superstitious slugger Pedro Cerrano): Jim was the quintessential manager. There was something very sage about him, something very wise, and he held the group together. We all deferred to Jimmy. He was the manager on-screen and off.
Ward: Rene Russo, people forget that she was the Cindy Crawford of her time—she was a supermodel before there were supermodels. Major League was her first movie.
Rene Russo (Jake Taylor's ex, Lynn Wells): I'd been modeling for a thousand years, and I was bored from the moment I stepped into that business. David took a chance on me. Acting looks easier than it is.
Chesser: David and I proposed Dyan Cannon for the role of Rachel Phelps, the team owner. The studio really liked Margaret Whitton.
Margaret Whitton (Indians owner Rachel Phelps): I saw my character as a combination of Marge Schott and George Steinbrenner.
Ward: The last piece of the puzzle was the radio announcer. I wanted him to be funny, eccentric, a bit profane at times. And having seen Bob Uecker on the Lite beer commercials, I thought he was perfect. I didn't even know at the time that he was announcing for the Brewers.
Bob Uecker (radio announcer Harry Doyle): They told me to do whatever you want. You don't have to follow the script. They just said, "The Indians are getting their asses kicked every day; have fun with it." So I did. My stuff was funny.
III. "Hats for bats. Keep bats warm."
Chesser: I remember poor Wesley got pissy when we had to keep shooting him sliding. He was like, "What was wrong with that one?"
Yeager: He had strawberries from all the sliding, and he didn't want to do it anymore because it hurt. I told him, "I know it hurts. I've been hurting for 20 years!"
Berenger: On sports movies and on military movies, you get this attitude together. And I remember a bunch of us in the training room—we were all broken down, Yeager included. Wesley Snipes had a jammed thumb from a bad slide. I had a sciatic nerve acting up from crouching. Charlie's shoulder was falling off.
Ward: Charlie can throw in the 80s, but when we were shooting from behind home I would move the plate up 10 feet to make it look faster, so 82 looked like 94. He never complained. I've never seen Charlie any happier than when he's playing baseball. The only thing he gave me a hard time about was the lightning-bolt haircut I made him get.
Sheen: I didn't like the haircut because it generated so many comments in bars. I've got enough of that already. Add that to the mix and it's a recipe for a fistfight. I was already bitchy because—let's just say that I was enhancing my performance a little bit. It was the only time I ever did steroids. I did them for like six or eight weeks. You can print this, I don't give a f---. My fastball went from 79 to like 85.
Ward: We wanted to shoot the film in Cleveland, but we couldn't because Cleveland was a union town and it was a million dollars cheaper to shoot it in Milwaukee.
Chesser: Major League Baseball pointed out we would need their cooperation. [This movie] would be impossible today. Getting approval to use the Yankees as the enemy in Major League would be a f------ nightmare.
Ward: Milwaukee was great. The night we promoted to gather a big crowd of extras, there were 27,000 people in the stands. We had Wild Thing playing on the loudspeakers, and they were all singing.
Chesser: The idea was to shoot the big-crowd stuff first because when we started shooting in Milwaukee we were a big deal. One of the first sequences we shot was Wild Thing coming through the bullpen gates. But we didn't give those extras food. If they wanted Cokes or hot dogs they had to buy them. By the end of the movie, we were having trouble getting 50 people in the stands.
Sheen: When Wild Thing comes in to get that final out, it's one of the great sports entrances of all time. It was four in the morning, and I had been in the bullpen nodding off. This is pre-opiates—just good old-fashioned fatigue. I had to throw 150 pitches in a night and turn it around the next day. I was like, "Guys, do you know why they have a five-man rotation? So you can heal!" They said, "Look, we've only got the stadium for four nights with the fans." I would stop at the doctor's on the way to work for cortisone shots and anti-inflammatories.
Haysbert: Running out onto the field with 25,000 fans, I had goose bumps the size of golf balls. I was standing next to Yeager, and he was like, "Yup, that's what it feels like 162 games a year."
Bernsen: I was never a great hitter, and David told me to hit a line drive between second and third for one scene. I finally hit one to the track, and I was so amazed that I didn't even think to run. I blew the shot.
Ward: The scene where Cerrano hits the home run, Dennis actually went yard. Everyone stopped and applauded.
Haysbert: That's my favorite scene, when I said my little bit to Jobu: "F--- you, Jobu!" I hit it out of Milwaukee County Stadium. It was 315 feet down that line in left. I think it hit the top of the wall. I was stoked.
Sheen: Haysbert could hit it a country mile. Big strong guy.
Russo: The first movie scene I ever shot was the scene with Tom Berenger in the library when he tries to win me back. It was three pages of dialogue, and we had to do it over and over again. But you know, for my first scene in a movie, I think I knocked it out of the park.
Berenger: That was one of those 17-hour days. I knew she didn't have the stamina yet. She broke down crying. It's a great scene, though.
Ward: Originally, Major League had a different ending. I was trying so hard to be clever, adding a little twist at the end where the owner—this person who you think has been trying to sabotage the team—actually turns out to have been the architect of the team's success. But when we tested it, audiences were pissed. They enjoyed hating her.
Whitton: I prefer the original ending because I knew more about baseball than most of the guys. Plus, I had a better bat than Tom Berenger.
Ward: A lot of people don't know this but Jeremy Piven was in the movie. He was a bench jockey, and all his bits were him yelling insults at opposing teams. But it didn't really work, and I cut the whole thing. He's done O.K. for himself, although I'm sure he was disappointed at the time.
IV. "How's your wife and my kids?"
Whitton: The thing about Milwaukee is the whole town smells like a brewery at night. It's like some lovely German auntie that crushes you to her beery bosom. Those boys had a blast.
Haysbert: I don't think there was ever a closer cast. We hung out together. We went to bars together. We were a team. James Gammon had these great poker games.
Sheen: James Gammon? You want to talk about an absolute f------ warlock? This guy shows up one morning, and he's so hung over that he has the bar still attached to his head. I've never seen a man in this much pain trying to make a cup of coffee. He was an awesome dude.
Bernsen: Brewers pitcher Pete Vuckovich was in the movie, and he had a bar in Milwaukee that we would all go to a lot.
Uecker: Stormin' & Vuke's. Yeah, I've been there. It's a good place.
Bernsen: And you have Charlie, the ringleader. He was a chick magnet. It was the most astonishing thing any of us had ever seen. He was the Pied Piper of beautiful women.
Russo: I'm sure the guys were having a good time. Why, did you hear they were catting around?
Ward: Charlie had a lot of women flying in and out of Milwaukee. His biggest problem was trying to coordinate the airline schedule so that these women wouldn't run into each other.
Sheen: It wasn't as bad as on Young Guns [a year earlier]. We made that one in Santa Fe, and you would fly into Albuquerque and drive to Santa Fe on this two-lane highway. Literally, the girls that were leaving would pass the ones coming in. Major League was so physically demanding that you didn't have a lot of time for that. You're lying in bed and everything [hurts], and you're thinking, I have to pitch tomorrow?! But there were certain days that we'd look at the schedule for the next day and be like, "Gentlemen, tonight we ride."
V. "The postgame show is brought to you by ... Christ, I can't find it. To hell with it."
Ward: Major League opened on April 7, 1989. Opening night in L.A., the house was packed and people were cheering exactly where you'd want them to. It was amazing.
Chesser: I don't recall the reviews. I don't think they were through the roof. I think it opened at eight or nine million—a really big opening.
Ward: After a screening in Cleveland, Bob Feller told me there was too much swearing. He was upset. He said, "We don't talk like that." And I said, "Really? Did you actually dress in the locker room?" One of the things I love that came out of Major League is, before Wild Thing, relief pitchers didn't often enter to music. That was something we gave to baseball. Then [Phillies pitcher] Mitch Williams took on the nickname Wild Thing, with the song and everything. That was great.
Sheen: Mitch Williams, that f------ guy never gave me credit. Come on, dude; you're coming out to the Wild Thing song... . You changed your number... . Can I get a little nod? I have to tell you, though, Major League became my all-access backstage pass to baseball. Guys like Joe Morgan and Eric Davis would tell me they carried one movie with them on planes—Major League. And I'm like, "Guys, you gotta get bored with it after a while!"
Ward: The movie holds up because it captures the fun of the game and the characters who have peopled it over the years. There's also the underdog thing. These are guys nobody wanted, that nobody cared about. A lot of people feel that way and relate to these guys.
Chesser: It touched this nerve about the perennial loser who wins. It's a formula that's hard to f--- up. Every once in a while someone will quote a line to me that I don't remember. Just the other night I heard on SportsCenter: "Juuust a bit outside."
Uecker: People say that line to me all the time. I was broadcasting a game in San Francisco recently, and the Giants were watching Major League in the clubhouse. And they were laughing their asses off.
Bernsen: A couple years after Major League I saw Wesley. I said, "Hey, man, they're gonna make Major League II!" And he was like, "You're gonna do that?" And I thought, Wow, how quickly they forget. He'd become Wesley Snipes. That rubbed me the wrong way.
Ward: I didn't write Major League II. I decided to direct it at the last minute because I couldn't see someone else taking my characters. But it's not as good as the first one. It tried too hard to be funny. The third one [Major League: Back to the Minors] is a complete mystery to me. I don't even consider that a Major League movie.
Uecker:Major League II was good. I was in it more. The third Major League was bad. I should have never done that. It was terrible.
Ward: I've written a new Major League sequel. It's more than 20 years later, and Wild Thing is out of baseball. It's about him coming back.
Uecker: David called me last year and asked if I'd be in it. Yeah, I'd do it. Why not?
Haysbert: I'd definitely be open to it.
Yeager: I'd like to.
Berenger: Well, sure I would.
Bernsen: We're all hoping it happens.
Sheen: I'm in. F---, yeah. Why not? I think enough time has gone by. Let me tell you a story. We had this party at my place a few months ago to watch Major League. It was awesome. The beard was there—Brian Wilson, from the Giants. We had Eddie Murray and Kenny Lofton. And I got David Ward to introduce the film. Colin Farrell showed up. And when my big strikeout at the end comes on, the place goes nuts like we've never even seen the movie before. I'm in between my two girlfriends, and I look over and there's Colin Farrell giving me a thumbs-up. I reach behind me for a fist bump from Brian Wilson, who goes, "Winning!" I'm telling you, David Ward created a baseball classic, and baseball is all that matters in the world. You know, I always wonder what I'm going to be in the middle of when I die. And I just hope it's not in the middle of the greatest f------ pennant race ever.
An update on the real-life Major League tribe and the movie men and women behind them
TOM BERENGER Oscar-nominated actor has appeared in dozens more Hollywood films, including Gettysburg, Training Day and, in 2010, Inception.
CHARLIE SHEEN After a stream of film roles and rehab stints, found success with Spin City and Two and a Half Men, for which he earned four Emmy noms and became TV's highest-paid actor. His tumultuous 2011 was capped by a dispute with Warner Bros. and CBS, which got him fired from TAAHM.
CORBIN BERNSEN Played L.A. Law's Arnie Becker until the show ended in 1994. Now a regular on USA's Psych, he directed 25 Hill, about the All-American Soap Box Derby.
DENNIS HAYSBERT Went on to play President David Palmer on the hit TV series 24 and brought his authoritative baritone to commercials for Allstate Insurance.
WESLEY SNIPES One of the biggest box-office draws of the '90s, he was convicted of tax evasion in 2008 and is serving a three-year stint at McKean Federal Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania, scheduled for a July 2013 release.
CHELCIE ROSS Completed a classic sports movie trifecta with roles in Hoosiers and Rudy. Still works regularly in both film (Drag Me to Hell) and television (AMC's Mad Men).
RENE RUSSO Starred in hits like Tin Cup and the Lethal Weapon franchise before a six-year break from acting. Resumed her career in this summer's Thor.
MARGARET WHITTON Acted for several more years in movies and theater before starting her own production company, Tashtego Films, for which she directed A Bird of the Air, to be released later this year.
JAMES GAMMON Lent his gravelly, tough-as-nails voice to dozens of TV shows (Grey's Anatomy, Nash Bridges) and movies (Wyatt Earp, Cold Mountain) before dying in 2010 from cancer of the adrenal glands and liver.
BOB UECKER Still the Brewers' radio voice, as he has been for more than 40 years—despite major heart and pancreas surgeries in 2010. Received the National Baseball Hall of Fame's Ford C. Frick Award in '03 for contributions to the game.
STEVE YEAGER Technical adviser on two Major League sequels, he coached in the Dodgers' organization in 1999 as well as from 2005 to '07. Now runs a Jersey Mike's Subs franchise in California but says he would like to return to the dugout.
DAVID S. WARD Wrote and directed several other movies, including the college football pic The Program, and was nominated, along with Nora Ephron, for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 1994's Sleepless in Seattle.
CHRIS CHESSER Independent producer on such movies as the 2003 Dwayne Johnson vehicle The Rundown. Recently completed the teen horror flick Phase One.