The timeless appeal of America’s pastime has long fascinated filmmakers and filmgoers alike. Some baseball movies have been serious, like “Pride of the Yankees,” which took on Lou Gehrig’s story and his tearful departure after being diagnosed with the disease that now bears his name. Others have played up the romance and fantasy of the game, as in “Field of Dreams.” And then there’s the rollicking good times of a film like “Major League” and its sequels.
The first two films are indeed a lot of fun. The third entry in the franchise, “Back to the Minors,” is far inferior, trading in the superb comedic cast of the first two and generally striking out in its try for laughs.
In the opening of the 1989 original, we are introduced to the hapless Cleveland Indians as they arrive for spring training. There’s Tom Berenger as aging catcher Jake Taylor, Corbin Bernsen as uptight, primadonna infielder Roger Dorn, Wesley Snipes as talented hot dog Willie “Mays” Hays, and Charlie Sheen as Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn, whose punk rock style and attitude and dangerous fastball make him an instant fan favorite. James Gammon is at his scruffy best in a role as the team’s manager. And Bob Uecker is a riot as Harry Doyle, the voice of the Indians.
We meet this motley crew and learn that team ownership is secretly sabotaging the boys in hopes they will finish in last place so the team can be relocated. That sets up this particular bunch of “lovable losers” for a season-long battle to save the franchise. While the general plot that ensues is predictable, what makes “Major League” a hit is its feel-good humor and the all-star lineup of actors in uniform. Some subplots are woven rather well into the fabric of the film. Berenger’s character is pining for his ex, Lynn (Rene Russo), who has moved uptown with her wealthy fiance. Sheen’s Vaughn is trying to get his pitches under control even as his popularity surges. In the locker room, voodoo devotee Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) butts heads with fundamentalist Christian Eddie Harris (Chelcie Ross) over religion.
At no point does the film have an authentic feel to it, in terms of capturing a real MLB clubhouse. But that doesn’t hurt it. The strength of “Major League” is that its only real commitment is to a good time, and it delivers on that.
As the team endures lengthy losing streaks, Uecker’s on-air optimism sinks and he drinks heavily. At one point, he loses track of a list of sponsors for his broadcast’s postgame show. After rifling through the papers strewn in front of him, he finally says, “Aw, hell with it,” disgusted by the Indians’ misery.
Uecker also plugs an upcoming promotion that promises free admission to anyone who was alive the last time Cleveland won a pennant.
Whether the Tribe is winning or losing, however, the film never stiffs us on the laughs or the fun. It’s not the most cerebral brand of humor, and the viewer won’t need to think too much. But then again, sometimes a trip to a ballgame is just a chance to escape reality for a while and have a good time. On that note, “Major League” is a winner.
Dave Kavanaugh is the Optic’s sports editor. “Dave’s Drive-in” is a series on sports films.