December 27, 2021
(Originally posted May 27, 2021)
If this is not your favorite baseball movie of all time, you are quite simply not my kind of baseball fan. Hollywood cranked out a lot of baseball movies back when this was still officially America’s pastime, but I don’t think any has ever found the perfect mix of baseball, humor, and story the way Major League did. I was seven-years-old, right in the infancy of my development as a knowledgeable baseball fan, when it came out back in 1989. I’ve probably seen it twenty times since then, and it still resonates emotionally and nostalgically with me as much as any movie of my lifetime.
I caught my first glimpse of it at my Uncle Bronc’s house as he and my cousin CJ, themselves both fans and accomplished high school and college baseball players, were watching it on HBO when my mother and I swung by for some reason. I think we walked in right at the climax, as Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn emerged from the bullpen to face AL triple crown winner Clue Haywood in the top of the ninth of the one-game playoff for the American League East title. Until the day I die, I will always remember that viewing experience as my official introduction to two baseball mainstays:
- The radar gun – Vaughn Ks Haywood with three straight heaters of 97, 99, and 101 mph.
- Epic spit – Haywood launches two legendary Skoal-fueled missives straight into the barrel of his bat during his warmup swings while awaiting the 0-2 pitch. My mom retched beside me as I watched it unfold.
Vaughn’s ejection after Haywood’s opening day grand slam is likely the best sequence in baseball movie history, from the thud of the ball pegging Coleman in the back to Ricky’s crotch grab as he’s being carried off the field. No single movie line has ever made me laugh more after repeated viewings than Vaughn screaming “he was right on top of the plate!!!”
Other than the fantastic characters and R-rated vulgarity, what puts Major League heads and shoulders above the baseball cinema competition is the incredible way that the bottom of the ninth plays out. Under close analysis of the climax, you realize just how much of a longshot those Cleveland Indians were. Manager Lou Brown likely had just as little to work with in Cleveland as he had during his three decades with the Toledo Mud Hens.
While leadoff man Willie “Mays” Hayes could steal bases with the best of them, the guy was a pop-up machine. His on-base percentage in his rookie year, a time where he was still learning to start “puttin’ the ball on the ground and leggin’ em out” must have been atrocious.
Batting second was grizzled, hobbled veteran Jake Taylor, who “couldn’t cut it in the Mexican League.” Despite being an all-star in Boston back in his prime, with those knees, Jake was surely out of the lineup every fourth game or so and could not have contributed much offensively beyond playing the hit and run game with Hayes and some good situational hitting. Regardless, his talents put him in the rarefied air of Thurman Munson and Jason Kendall as catchers who hit second in a big-league lineup.
Then we get to the meat of the order, where in the three-hole we have prima donna/interior decorator Roger Dorn. While packing a lethal investment portfolio, Dorn was a light-hitting third baseman who only managed 87 RBI on the year. Far from the centerpiece you want to build a lineup around. Lord knows how badly he would have been without some thunderous protection hitting behind him.
Pedro Cerrano was a Cuban monster that feasted on fastballs, the perfect cleanup hitter aside from the fact that he couldn’t hit pitches that didn’t go straight. While Cerrano surely improved over the course of his rookie year, Yankee starter Steve Jackson was able to throw eight straight hooks by him in the divisional playoff game. Luckily for Pedro, Jackson threw an 0-2 hanger in the seventh.
The one-game playoff at the end of Major League is a pitcher’s duel, a wise choice by the filmmakers. If this movie were made today, Harris would’ve been shelled and Dorn would’ve committed two costly errors simply because they were jerks that deserved to play badly. Vaughn would’ve pitched five no-hit innings in relief, Cerrano’s game-tying homer would’ve been a grand slam, and Hayes would’ve stolen second, third, and home to tie the game before Taylor popped one into the seats to win it. But you can tell that the people who made this movie love baseball. Not just home runs, strikeouts, and diving plays, but the nuances of the game that make it exciting to us lifelong fans. Everyone on the team overcomes the obstacles that they faced all season in believable fashion, leading to a historic come-from-behind 3-2 victory that is realistic in virtually every way.
Dorn finally does something useful, making a diving stop early on and ripping a two-out seventh-inning single through the hole to setup Cerrano finally squaring up a hanging curveball to tie the game. Brown then rides Harris’ Vaseline balls waaaaay too long before finally going to Vaughn with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth. Considering Haywood is 2-2 with 2 HRs lifetime vs Vaughn, this is clearly a terrible managerial move. But much like Bill Belichick, Lou Brown refuses to coach scared and he goes to his biggest gun to get the biggest out of the season.
Another notch in Major League’s belt is the fact that this movie pretty much started the trend of closers coming out to their own entrance music. Big props to the filmmakers for going with Joan Jett’s crowd-friendly version of Wild Thing over the original version of the song from the forties or whatever. No offense to The Troggs, but The Troggs kinda suck.
The bottom of the ninth is the scrappy underdog’s guide to win a baseball game, as Willie “Mays” Hayes puts the team on his back and leads them to the division title despite the team not hitting a single ball far enough to reach the infield dirt.
Like Brown, Yankee manager Horton also rides his starting pitcher deep into the ninth, finally summoning closer Duke Simpson after Jackson surrenders a warning track flyout.
I’d like to take a moment here to highlight the Duke’s stats, as seen briefly on the Municipal Stadium scoreboard when he enters the game (0:25 of the video above). In addition to leading the league in saves and hit batsmen, the Duke has a 1.37 ERA, 147 Ks, and 51 hits in 118 innings pitched with a win-loss record of 11-1!!! To put this in context, Kirby Yates, 2019’s MLB saves leader, pitched 60.2 innings with 0 wins. Mark Davis, 1989s MLB saves leader, pitched 92.2 innings with four wins. Has anyone ever seen a closer pitch 118 innings and get 11 wins?! The Duke must have been created in some supervillain’s laboratory. He had Aroldis Chapman’s gas with Tim Wakefield’s durability and Bob Gibson’s lack of regard for human life. But I digress.
From Hayes’ infield hit until he crosses home plate, Major League employs absolutely masterful use of slow motion and soundtrack. The guitar riff during Willie’s steal of second base is so cool and basic. It also shows just how fast Willie is, as he gets a horrid jump on a pitcher that throws hard, yet still manages to beat the throw. The Duke brushing Taylor back after Jake calls his shot is incredibly Goose Gossage-y. He risks getting ejected from a do-or-die playoff game with the winning run on second, but that pales in comparison to being shown up on TV, right?
Taylor beating out the bunt may be the most unrealistic part of the film. He’s old, his knees are brittle, and he grimaces with pain the entire time he chugs to first. Of course, this is also what makes it a brilliant strategic play. It’s the last thing the defense expects. The third baseman’s cuss upon realizing what has happened is perfectly authentic, and the guy makes an absolutely nasty charge and throw to first. Hayes doesn’t hesitate around third base thanks to the balls of Temple, the third base coach, who waves him home the entire way. Then, in an outstanding moment of irony, the AL MVP and triple crown winner costs the Yankees the division crown. Haywood’s split-second of hesitation upon hearing the first base umpire’s SAFE call, combined with his poor throw to the plate, gives Hayes the extra second he needs to make it home, executing the greatest hook slide in recorded history in the process. It is all flawlessly shot, recorded, and acted in a moment of Hollywood magic that I will put up against any closing sequence of any sports movie ever made.
The celebration is a fantastic release. The players and crowd storm the field, Hayes jumps into Taylor’s arms, Dorn knocks out the ex-con that banged his wife before pulling him up off the ground in a warm embrace (bros before hos, am I right?), and then we get the money shot of all the principal characters triumphantly standing together.
I know I’m leaving out a bunch of great parts. Taylor cursing out Dorn for tanking the grounder, Harris and Cerrano’s holy war, owner Rachel Phelps denigrating and feeling up her players in the locker room … it’s all understated filmmaking excellence. Other than The Longest Yard (if you genuinely wonder which version I mean, I strongly dislike you) and North Dallas Forty, it is the only sports movie that manages to be hilarious and exciting without being too cheesy. If you’ve never seen it before, make doing so a priority. I’ll put Major League up against the ham-handed sappiness of Rudy and Remember the Titans, the nostalgia-dependent The Sandlot and Hoosiers, and the incredibly overrated The Natural and Slap Shot.
As for the sequel … well, let’s not spoil the mood.
***Update: When I first published this column, I horrifically forgot to mention the amazing work of Bob Uecker as Harry Doyle, the play-by-play announcer for the Cleveland Indians. He set the standard of what a baseball movie announcer should be, and nobody has come close to matching that effort either before or since.
“KY ball grounded to third …”
“Hey, in case you haven’t noticed … and judging by the attendance, you haven’t …”
“Post game show is brought to you by … Christ, I can’t find it. The hell with it.”
I feel like each time I watch this movie, I discover another Harry Doyle one-liner that I had never properly appreciated before. If aliens ever come to visit us and want to learn about baseball, they should pass right by Ken Burns’ house and go straight to the greatest ambassador the game has ever seen, Bob Uecker.