Major League (1989)

In 1989, I was seven years old and baseball was king for me. I lived in San Leandro, California and I could see the Oakland Coliseum from my bedroom if I angled my head just right. This made for some awesome summer nights getting to watch fireworks. And there were plenty of them. Led by the Bash Brothers and a stellar pitching staff, the Oakland Athletics was the best team in baseball and were on their way to winning the World Series that year over the San Francisco Giants, though that would be slightly delayed to the Loma Prieta earthquake. I was playing Babe Ruth League baseball on the weekends and collecting baseball cards. And then there were the movies. I would watch Bull Durham, Eight Men Out, Field of Dreams, and The Natural. There were others, but those were some of the main ones on my rotation. I couldn’t get enough. While my love for baseball would wane soon after this time period, my love for baseball movies would always be there. There was one that stood above them all for me: Major League. This might seem like an odd choice for a topic which is about me crying during movies, but hear me out as we explore what makes this movie so great and how it gets Niagara Falls flowing.

On paper, Major League appears to be a raunchy goofball comedy. And there are certainly elements of that. After all, the setup for the film is that the owner of the Cleveland Indians (Rachel Phelps played by Margaret Whitton) wants to do so poorly that she can move the team to Miami, a city with weather more to her liking. To do so, she puts together a ragtag group of baseball players which consists of mostly a bunch of never-weres with a few has-beens sprinkled all led by a former minor league manager (James Gammon as the eternally quotable Lou Brown) who had been working at a tire shop. So, yes, they are assembled to fail miserably. And initially, they do just that. They seemingly are just learning how to play the game and do so in front of a sparse crowd who have no idea who most of them are. We follow these characters through their failures and follies of spring training and the early part of the season. Along the way, we get to know them and we start to like them. These aren’t mere goofballs, but these are men living out a dream and they’re trying their best.

Since this is a sports movie, something magical begins to happen: they start to come together and win. Phelps begins to take away things from the club: hot water for the showers is turned off, the whirlpools are shutdown, and transportation is downgraded from a charter plane to one that barely flies to a bus that looks like its on its last legs. The team keeps going in spite of all this and that’s when the truth about the season is revealed to them: how if they fail by succeeding, they’ll just be replaced. They’re initially crestfallen, but once their leader Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) stands up and says one of the best lines in sports movie history: “Well then I guess there’s only one thing left to do…win the whole fuckin’ thing.” With that, the Indians go on an epic win-streak, naturally shown via montage, and the city of Cleveland gets behind them. As the montage draws to a close, we learn that the Indians do well enough to force a one-game playoff for the division title with the dreaded New York Yankees, a team that has had Cleveland’s number for the entire film. 

Once this happens, the movie switches to a legit baseball movie. Think of what happens with Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz to get a better idea of what I mean. It had begun to do so with the montage, and while there are laughs to be had still, this game puts you on the edge of your seat. We get so many great moments as the characters we love begin to conquer their demons on the biggest stage most of them have ever been on: Pedro Cerano (Dennis Haysbert) who had issues hitting curveballs crushes one out of the stadium; Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) makes an absolutely epic performance out of the bullpen (complete with “Wild Thing” music) to strikeout Yankee first baseman Clu Haywood (real life Cy Young winning pitcher Peter Vuckovich), who had hit home runs in each of his previous appearances against Vaughn, on three pitches and keeps the game within the Indians’ reach. 

Now it’s the bottom of the ninth. Jake Taylor comes up to the plate with Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes) on first. While Major League is definitely an ensemble film, if I’m forced to pick a main character it would be Jake. As stated before, he’s the leader of the Indians. He’s a former all-star catcher whose knees are shot at this point in his career. He’s a broken down shell of a player who had been looking forward to another season in the sun while trying to rectify the regretful end of a relationship with Lynn (Renee Russo) due to his own immaturity and infidelity. On the other side is Duke Simpson (former big league catcher Steve Yaeger), a nasty pitcher who allegedly threw at his own son during a father-son game. The kid shouldn’t have been crowding the plate. With that, the stage is set for one of the best at-bats in any baseball movie.

With the first pitch, Taylor swings and misses, but Hayes is able to steal second to put himself in position to score the winning run. This is when Jake has an idea. He gives the sign to manager Lou Brown and it’s relayed to Hayes on second. Jake gets in the batter box and points to the bleachers like the legendary Babe Ruth had done in 1932. That may or may not have actually happened, but when it comes to baseball, the myth always becomes reality. Duke immediately throws a fastball at Jake’s head, knocking to the ground, but Jake refuses to dust himself off as he won’t be intimidated. He calls his shot again, but this time Duke delivers the pitch….and Jake bunts it to the surprise of all the Yankee fielders. We get a glorious shot of Jake running with all his might straight toward the camera and first base. HIs face red and grimacing with obvious pain. His run is stunted and ungraceful; his silent scream echoes in our brains. It feels like his knees will betray him at any moment. As the third baseman, making a great play, gets to the ball and throws to first, Hayes rounds the bag and heads for home. We go back to Jake, he’s almost there. We’re all willing him at that point. I’ve seen Major League probably 100 times over my life and I still do it. We want him to get to first base so badly. And he barely beats the throw by half a step. He collapses to the ground in a heap….Hayes is almost at home when Haywood delivers the throw to the plate…and he’s… 

“SAFE! SAFE!” proclaims the umpire!

The crowd goes absolutely bonkers! Indians announcer, and secret movie MVP, Harry Doyle (Bob Uecker) belts out one of the best calls, fictional or otherwise, in sports history: “AND THE INDIANS WIN IT! THE INDIANS WIN IT! OH MY GOD THE INDIANS WIN IT!” The wonderfully sweet score by James Newton Howard kicks in. We see shots of a bar full of citizens of Cleveland all celebrating their first Major League Baseball pennant since 1954. This is a blue collar city with little to celebrate in any sport at the time, be it basketball with Michael Jordan standing in their way or football with John Elway doing the same. The monkey is off their collective backs and no one is happier than the Indians themselves. They celebrate as the fans rush the field. Teammates who can’t stand each other embrace. They were supposed to do absolutely nothing. They were largely nobodies. Yet, here they are, American League East champions. Jake is able to spot Lynn in the crowd. She has come back to him, whether he deserves it or not is up for debate, but we’re happy for him all the same. He hoists her up onto his shoulder and the team celebrates around them. 

We find out in the ill-advised and watered down sequel that they would lose in the American League Championship Series soon after, but even with that knowledge, it doesn’t taint the ending of this game nor of this movie. As soon as Howard’s score kicks in, the tears start falling. I know it’s not an obvious choice. If I were to tell you the idea behind this feature and I’d write about a film about baseball, most would assume I’d write about Field of Dreams. I’m sure I’ll get to that one at some point as that one gets the eyes watering for a whole different reason. When it comes to Major League, however, I just end up being so happy for that group of misfits and it won’t matter if I watch Major League another hundred times in my lifetime, I’ll always get emotional. We all love an underdog story, which is why so many sports films take this route. We all dream of being champions. We all dream about being heroes. In this movie, the fictional Cleveland Indians, brought together to utterly fail, were able to do just that .

And it makes me cry every single time.