When it comes to baseball movies, let’s remember the ground rules. Players can always divine inspiration from empty stadiums. Bigger men are on the opposing team. The women in white are the good ones. And the loudest cheer comes not when the game is won, but when the hero—battered, disappointed, humiliated, or otherwise proven unfit—reemerges at center stage with all the confidence of Babe Ruth calling his shot.
Writer-director David S. Ward’s 1989 vintage baseball film Major League has such an iconic moment: Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) striding out of the bullpen in the top of the ninth inning to the tune of his theme song/nickname, a chance to close the deciding game against his nemesis Clue Haywood and the dreaded Yankees. Of course, Vaughn is only one of the film’s heroes, and all five—yes, five—get a similar shot at vindication. Contract veteran Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen) can stand tall for his team. Power hitter Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) can hit a game-tying homerun, if, spiting his religion, he finds a way to contact the curveball pitches that have plagued him all year. The wonderfully-named Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes) could use his speed to push the team ahead, though only if catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) can take command of the team and reach for the glory he has only fantasized about as an aging journeyman. In no other sports movie has a set of individuals come together so precisely for the good of a team, only for the opportunity to be individually paid off. Roy Hobbs and Crash Davis have nothing on these guys.
Check that: they have a little. Major League is not the most inspiring of baseball movies; see The Natural‘s baseball fable starring Robert Redford as the greatest there ever was, fictionally, Roy Hobbs. Nor is Ward’s film the best-written or realized baseball comedy; that would be Bull Durham with Kevin Costner as his own journeyman catcher, Crash Davis. Major League‘s sports plot is oddly and at times unconvincingly mixed into a story of hometown pride and economics—the Cleveland Indians’s new owner aims to move her team by driving down attendance through a roster of rejects and has-beens. Unlike The Natural‘s period piece setting or Bull Durham‘s everytime/everyplace mood, Major League feels dated, right down to the panoramic exterior views of Cleveland Municipal Stadium and interior shots of Milwaukee County Stadium (both demolished), the pre-Nike-era uniforms, and the idea that a team’s performance could influence an owner’s decisions in any direction. And yes, in closely following five players, developing them quickly from clear stereotypes but enough to give each a personality and some time in the sun, the film carries a root absurdity: it’s a five-man team, making a regular season tie with the Yankees on the backs of only two pitchers.
Take all that in context, however, and consider Ward’s comic framework and Major League is a top-tier baseball film. One: it’s damn funny and eminently quotable. Two: Bob Uecker as broadcaster Harry Doyle sets the benchmark for all sports commentators real and imagined (he was then and is now the radio voice of the Milwaukee Brewers). Three: more than any baseball movie, it accurately reflects the nature of the game—then and especially now—with its language, atmosphere, and, above all, personalities. In turning sports stereotypes into individual characters for comic effect, Ward alerted baseball fans to the types of egos that have come to dominate sport. Bernsen’s infielder Roger Dorn offered shades of current Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent and a thousand pros like him, who only play well in contract years. Cerrano anticipated the free-swinging, yard-or-nothing mentality that came with the McGuire-Sosa-Bonds home run wars beginning in 1998, as well as the general lack of fundamental skill in some one-tool players regardless the sport. And within “Wild Thing” Vaughn is the young phenom who is all guts and no finesse, a fan favorite who is likely to throw his arm out before his 21st birthday.
Comedy is the lasting virtue here—and more specifically what veteran screenwriter Ward (The Sting, Sleepless in Seattle) got out of a solid comic framework to make Major League continue to work beyond its odd collection of characters and a very specific setting. The film resounds, even foreshadowing what Cleveland Browns owner Art Model did with the real team in 1996, moving the Browns to Baltimore and earning the savage hatred of Clevelanders to this day. Pardoning a few ‘80s hairstyles and Midwestern rust-belt ambiance, the film speaks to the power of a hometown crowd when faced with the threats of owners to relocate teams, such as the Montreal Expos—now the Washington Nationals—the New Orleans Hornets and Saints, Oakland A’s and Pittsburgh Penguins, all moved or talked about as movers in the last two years. And as a baseball film, Major League knows the rules. It just runs with them to a strange, unlikely but lasting excess.