‘I Wanted to See the Indians Win’: How One Fan’s Dream Became ‘Major League’

UCR: Movies and Culture

The year was 1984. After suffering through another long and painful season of ineptitude, one Cleveland Indians fan had finally had enough.

“I figured I would never see the Indians win anything unless I wrote a movie where they did,” remembered filmmaker David S. Ward. That day, the seeds of Major League were planted.

Ward grew up in Cleveland, witnessing firsthand the agony that came with being an Indians fan. “I remember the 1954 World Series and how upset my father was that the Indians, after such a spectacular season [111–43], were swept by the Giants,” the writer and director recalled during an interview with Sports Illustrated. “That’s when I realized how important a baseball game could be.”

Film school took Ward to Los Angeles, where he attended both the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles. He’d go on to earn an Academy Award for his script to the 1973 film The Sting. Still, the bright lights of Hollywood didn’t dim his affinity for Cleveland’s baseball team. “I wanted to see the Indians win,” the filmmaker admitted to ESPN. “They not only had not won in so long, but they weren’t even close to winning.”

The screenwriter devised a simple movie plot: The Indians’ new owner is determined to move the team to Miami. In an effort to generate low attendance, and facilitate the move, she attempts to put together the worst Major League team possible. A motley crew of cast-outs, has-beens and degenerates is assembled. Somehow, this ragtag crew rallies to win its division. “It had to be a comedy and that pretty much dictated the direction,” Ward recalled. “I invented a group of misfit players who found a way to come together and get it done. That felt like the only way it would ever happen.”

Watch the Trailer for ‘Major League’

Even with the cache Ward had built up among studio executives, getting Major League off the ground was a struggle. “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?” the filmmaker recalled. “We finally brought it to a company called Morgan Creek, and they thought it would be a good re-teaming of Tom Berenger and Charlie Sheen from Platoon. And I was like, ‘Well, they’re not exactly comedians.’”

“When I saw the script, it wasn’t like catnip, it was like crack,” remembered Sheen. “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.”

Sheen agreed to play flame-throwing reliever Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, while Berenger signed on to play veteran catcher Jake Taylor. Their star power helped kick the film’s production into high gear.

Watch a Scene From ‘Major League’

Producers set about filling out the cast, but discovered that many actors stretched the truth when it came to their baseball-playing ability. “I had actors come in and tell me they played Triple-A ball for the Cardinals,” recalled Ward during a 2016 Q&A about the film. Producer “Chris [Chesser] and I would take them outside and we’d play catch with them, and the Triple-A guy couldn’t throw the ball 15 feet; he never played baseball in his life! People will say anything to get the part, so we just took them outside and we tested them out.”

To Ward’s delight, Sheen had a baseball background. “I had a great arm,” the actor boasted. “I was just born with it. I played at Santa Monica High, but because of academic shit, they pulled me off the team.”

“All the actors had to do these tryouts,” remembered Corbin Bernsen. “But I was shooting another film, so I said, ‘Trust me, I can play.’” The actor was cast in the role of prima donna third baseman Roger Dorn.

Wesley Snipes was brought on for the role of Willie Mays Hayes. While the actor certainly looked the part, his own talents didn’t line up with his character’s. “Wesley had never really played baseball,” Ward confessed. “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.”

Watch a Scene From ‘Major League’

Character actor James Gammon was enlisted as the team’s grizzled manager; Dennis Haysbert, who had mainly appeared in small television roles up until that point, was given the part of voodoo-loving slugger Pedro Cerano. Meanwhile, Lynn Wells, the love interest to Berenger’s Jake, was played by Rene Russo. It was her first foray into acting after years working as a model. “I’d been modeling for a thousand years, and I was bored from the moment I stepped into that business,” she confessed to Sports Illustrated. “David took a chance on me. Acting looks easier than it is.”

The final key role was that of smart-mouthed Indians announcer Harry Doyle. “ I wanted [Doyle] to be funny, eccentric, a bit profane at times,” Ward explained. “And having seen Bob Uecker on the [Miller] Lite beer commercials, I thought he was perfect. I didn’t even know at the time that he was announcing for the Brewers.” Uecker jumped at the opportunity, especially when given the leeway to put his own spin on the role. “They told me to do whatever you want,” he told Sports Illustrated. “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.”

Watch a Clip From ‘Major League’

With script, cast and crew in place, the production needed just one more ingredient: the blessing of Major League Baseball. Surprisingly, the sport’s governing body was on board. “Back then the league wasn’t quite as image conscious as they are now,” Ward revealed.”The bigger problem was getting the Yankees to agree to be the bad guys. I think what happened was George Steinbrenner is from Cleveland. I think he thought it’s a comedy, so there was no harm. But it took him awhile.”

In hindsight, Chesser believes the timing just happened to be right. “[This movie] would be impossible today,” he said. “Getting approval to use the Yankees as the enemy in Major League would be a fucking nightmare.”

Despite obvious ties to the city of Cleveland, the movie was not filmed there, with the exception of several exterior shots. This was due to issues with the labor unions, along with schedule clashes with the Cleveland Browns NFL team that was using Municipal Stadium for its preseason games. Instead, the production headed to Milwaukee. To say that filming conditions were less than ideal would be an understatement.

“It was one of the most difficult movies to make that I ever had been associated with,” Ward later admitted. “When we started, we had one of the hottest summers in 75 years in Milwaukee where we shot the movie. We started out with six weeks of night shooting because we had to work around the Brewers schedule at the time, and staying up all night for six weeks just kills you. It was an independent movie at the time, and we didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t have a lot of anything.”

Watch a Scene From ‘Major League’

In addition, the actors were soon finding that life as a major-league ballplayer was physically demanding. “I remember a bunch of us in the training room — we were all broken down,” Berengner confessed. “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.”

Plus, Sheen started to use performance-enhancing drugs to improve his pitching acumen. “It was the only time I ever did steroids. I did them for like six or eight weeks,” the actor admitted. “My fastball went from 79 to like 85.”

Despite issues with weather and physical fatigue, the actors became a tight-knit group. “I don’t think there was ever a closer cast,” Haysbert remembered. “We hung out together. We went to bars together. We were a team.”

Watch a Clip From ‘Major League’

To no one’s surprise, Sheen was the No. 1 partier in the group. “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,” said Bernsen. Ward described things in further detail, revealing that Sheen “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.”

For crowd shots inside Milwaukee County Stadium, filmmakers enlisted thousands of local extras. For the film’s climactic game featuring the Indians against the Yankees, 27,000 people showed up. “We taught them how to sing ‘Wild Thing,’” Ward recalled, referring to the entrance song given to Sheen’s character. “We had cameras roaming around all night just picking up people. The girls who came out and danced on the dugout, they just did it! We didn’t ask them to do it, they just got out and did it! I just looked at that and said, thank God!”

Watch ‘Major League”s ‘Wild Thing’ Song

In advanced screenings, test audiences were generally favorable of the film — except for one scene. “Originally, Major League had a different ending,” Ward revealed. “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.” Producers shot a new ending, keeping the team’s owner in her villainous role.

On April 7, 1989, Major League opened in theaters. Critical reception for the film was mixed, with the Los Angeles Times calling it “amiable and amusing” while the The Washington Post decried it as “Shamelessly formulaic.” Moviegoers, however, were clear about how they felt.

Major League was No.1 at the box office its opening weekend, earning more than $8 million. It would go on to rake in nearly $50 million domestically, roughly five times the film’s original budget. It has gone on to be a pop culture phenomenon, for both baseball fans and non-fans alike.

Watch a Scene From ‘Major League’

“The movie holds up because it captures the fun of the game and the characters who have peopled it over the years,” said Ward. “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.”

Major League spawned two sequels, though neither would achieve the original’s level of success. Rumors of a reboot have been circulating for some time, with Ward, Sheen and Berenger all reportedly on board.

 

 

via:: Ultimate Classic Rock