It's been 40-plus years (in 1989 at least) since the Cleveland
Indians last won an American League pennant when a new owner, Rachel
Phelps (Margaret Whitton),
takes over the franchise. She's got a plan though for the struggling
franchise. A clause in the city contract allows the franchise to move if
attendance is at a league-low, and Rachel wants to move the Indians to
sunny Miami. With hopes of driving fans away from the stadium, she
assembles a team of past their prime vets, unrecognizable rookies, and
in general, a team of misfits. Among the group is creaky-kneed veteran
catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger), ex-con with a live arm Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen), and speedster on the bases Willie Mays Hays (Wesley Snipes). The team starts off badly enough, but then they figure out Rachel's plan. Can they turn it around in time?
Ignoring the two sequels (entertaining but admittedly mediocre),
Major League is hard to beat as far as sports -- and more specifically
baseball -- movies go. It's truly funny with countless memorable bits
and running gags, but the drama also feels real. From director David S. Ward, 'Major' used Milwaukee's County Stadium
as a replacement home for the Indians. The actual MLB stadium gives an
authentic feel to the developing season, especially late in the movie
during the climactic one-game playoff with thousands of extras packing
the stadium. It's also the little things, the running bits about
different fans from the never-say-die fans in the bleachers (Too high!
being a classic, watch HERE),
the foul-mouthed, doubting Japanese grounds-crew, and then the average
fan on the street, bonding together around their team. As a baseball fan
in real life, it feels authentic.
The misfit underdog is nothing new to the sports genre, but the
assembled group of misfit characters help make this movie a classic
(even making the sequels tolerable in their own awful uniqueness). Some
23 years later, fans typically talk about Sheen's Vaughn or Snipes'
Hayes, but Berenger is the star here. His creaky veteran has in baseball
purgatory, wasting away in Mexico and hoping for a chance to get back
to the majors. While the other characters may be more memorable,
Berenger's Jake ends up being the heart of the movie, delivering a
career-best performance. Sheen and Snipes are scene-stealers as the
youngsters and breakout stars on the Indians. Sheen did his own pitching
and looks like a baseball player while Snipes' infectious attitude
makes it impossible not to like the character who's cocky and confident
without being obnoxious.
Not so fast though, there's more, starting with James Gammon
as gravelly-voiced, no-nonsense, old school baseball manager Lou Brown.
A long-time minor league manager, he brings his gruff manner of
coaching to the Indians, not wanting to put up with any primadonnas or
attitudes. Among the other players are Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), the third baseman more interested in his post-baseball career than showing effort now, Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert
in a scene-stealing part), the Cuban exile outfielder who can crush
fastballs but not offspeed pitches and turns to his voodoo roots, and
Eddie Harris (Chelcie Ross), the junkball, rag arm pitcher who uses every trick in the book to keep batters off balance. Also worth mentioning is Charles Cyphers as Charlie Donovan, the Indians GM forced to keep his mouth shut as the team crumbles.
Now as good as all of these characters are, most people think of one
thing when 'Major League' comes up, and that's long-time Milwaukee
Brewers radio man Bob Uecker
as Indians radio play-by-play Harry Doyle. A review dedicated solely to
Doyle's on-air one liners would be one of the easiest reviews ever
written. He drinks Jack Daniels while on-air and lacks even the
slightest censor as he describes the action ("Indians manage one
hit....one hit? One goddamn hit?"). Doyle's unique spin always
keeps the radio listeners involved, famously describing a pitch seven to
eight feet off the plate as 'Jjjjjjust a bit outside.' His on-air
banter is perfect, his asides to his silent color man even funnier. A
part that makes a good sports movie a great sports movie.
This isn't a perfect sports movie though, Berenger's love story subplot with ex-wife Rene Russo
grinding the movie to a halt. Far too much time is spent on their
backstory, distracting from the baseball action. As a baseball movie
though, it is about as perfect as it gets. It gets the baseball right
though with plenty of laughs, in-game action, and a great finale as the
Indians battle to get into the playoffs. One of the best sports movies
Major League <---trailer (1989): *** 1/2 /****