The 1989 sports comedy “Major League” got a special screening at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, and joining moderator and American Cinematheque program director Grant Moninger for a Q&A was the movie’s writer and director David S. Ward and producer Chris Chesser. This screening brought out many excited fans as they consider “Major League” to be the best baseball movie ever made.
Moninger started off by saying that after watching “Major League,” it seemed like the most fun film to make as everyone got to “film and play baseball.” When he asked Ward what the making of the movie was like, we were a bit surprised at his answer.
“It was one of the most difficult movies to make that I ever had been associated with,” said Ward. “When we started we had one of the hottest summers in 75 years in Milwaukee where we shot the movie. We started out with six weeks of night shooting because we had to work around the Brewers (Milwaukee’s baseball team) schedule at the time, and staying up all night for six weeks just kills you. It was an independent movie at the time, and we didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t have a lot of anything.”
Regardless of the production difficulties however, Ward said he did have a great time making “Major League” because of the guys, and he even said that Rene Russo (who played Berenger’s ex-girlfriend Lynn Wells) was one of the guys as well. Ward described the cast as being “magnificent” and said that “everybody pulled together” to make this movie work. It was just the “physical difficulty” of making it which was hard and something the cast and crew hadn’t planned on dealing with.
Ward went on to describe the “red tag” scene in the locker room in which the players discover whether or not they have been cut from the team. That scene ended up being shot in the basement of a high school which had no windows, and it was already 95 degrees when they began shooting there at four in the morning.
“We had two jerseys for each player, and I remember Tom (Berenger) doing a take and he would sweat through his jersey because it was so hot,” Ward said. “We would take his jersey and give him the other one, and we’d blow dry the one that was sweated through with a hair dryer. Well it dried it, but it also made it hot. When he sweated through the other one, he had to put on the dry one which was hot!”
When it came to casting “Major League,” Ward said he would only cast people who could play baseball:
“I had actors come in and tell me they played Triple-A ball for the Cardinals, and Chris (Chesser) and I would take them outside and we’d play catch with them, and the Triple-A guy couldn’t throw the ball 15 feet; he never played baseball in his life! People will say anything to get the part, so we just took them outside and we tested them out.”
The cast ended up having two weeks of training before filming began with Steve Yeager who was a former Major League baseball player himself. That was about getting everybody in shape not only to play baseball but also to do basic physical conditioning.
“If you’re not used to playing baseball every day, you don’t realize how many quick starts and stops there are and you can pull muscles and hamstrings,” Ward said. “If an actor gets injured you can’t shoot with them for a while and your schedule gets screwed up. So everybody got in shape both physically and baseball-wise and that was a big help.”
Players from other baseball teams were also cast such as Peter Vuckovich who was an All-Star pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers and Cy Young award winner. Vuckovich played the New York Yankees’ first baseman Haywood, and Chesser remarked that he was actually asked to read for the part of the Yankee reliever nicknamed “The Duke.” However, he and Davis found Vuckovich to be “so ugly and so menacing” that it made more sense to cast him as the player who insults Berenger and hits home runs off of Charlie Sheen.
But Chesser also said that although Vuckovich looked like he could hit a baseball out of the field, he actually “never hit the ball out of the infield” and never hit a single home run in his entire career.
When it came time to film the climatic game where the Cleveland Indians play against the New York Yankees for the division title, Ward said that he and Chesser promoted a night at the stadium to get extras, and 27,000 people showed up. Looking back, the evening was “an amazing experience” for him and the cast as they had so many cheering people to work with.
“We taught them how to sing ‘Wild Thing,'” said Ward about the people who came. “We had cameras roaming around all night just picking up people. The girls who came out and danced on the dugout, they just did it! We didn’t ask them to do it, they just got out and did it! I just looked at that and said ‘thank God!'”
Ward added that there was a group of about 350 people who came out every night, and he even remembered a couple who had tickets to the Summer Olympics in Seoul that year. That couple debated whether to travel to Seoul like they planned or to stay for the last two days of the movie’s shooting. Ward encouraged them to go to the Olympics, but they ended up staying.
Moninger also asked about the late James Gammon who played head coach Lou Brown, and the mention of that actor’s name got a big applause from the audience. Ward got a bit choked up when talking about Gammon and said he never had any other actor in mind for that character other than him.
“I was just thrilled to get him, ” Ward said. “He was everything I thought he would be; he’s a great gentleman, a wonderful man, nothing bothered him. He was a rock of Gibraltar in every way. I remember going to his memorial service and one of the things that was really moving to me is that they had his jersey from ‘Major League’ hanging up. He gave so many great performances, and yet the one that everyone identifies him with is this one.”
When it came to writing “Major League,” Ward said he was inspired to write about Cleveland as he grew up there. Right now every major sports team in Cleveland is pathetic, and Ward remembered it being pretty much the same way when he was deciding on what movie he was going to write next.
“I was thinking that probably the only way the Cleveland Indians would win anything in my lifetime is if I wrote a movie with them winning,” Ward said. “So what kept me going was I just didn’t want to be another Cleveland failure.”
One big question the audience had that evening was why “Major League” which takes in place in Cleveland wasn’t actually shot there. Ward responded that he knew he was going to get into trouble for that.
“The reason we shot it in Milwaukee was that Cleveland is a big union town, and we couldn’t do independently there,” Ward said. “The other thing was that that they hadn’t built the Jacobs Field (which is now the Progressive Field) ballpark yet, so the team was still playing in Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Also the Browns were playing pre-season games there, and the field had football lines on it. That wouldn’t have looked very good, so it wasn’t feasible to shoot there.”
Another audience member brought up Bob Uecker who played Indians sportscaster Harry Doyle in “Major League” and asked how much of his dialogue was written or if it was improvised. Ward replied that he wrote the character of Harry and his lines, but when Uecker was cast he discovered just how incredibly funny he was. What also helped Ward was that Uecker knew a lot of things about baseball players that he didn’t, and he felt he would have been an idiot not to let Uecker improvise if he wanted to.
When it came to Uecker’s famous line of “just a bit outside,” Ward said he wrote it but that it didn’t sound anywhere as funny in his head as when Uecker said it.
Everyone at the Aero Theatre had a wonderful time hearing all these stories about how “Major League” came to be. After so many years, this movie really holds up as it is hilarious and has a lot of heart. The audience also got a surprise guest in Jo-bu, Pedro Cerrano’s voodoo god doll. Ward and company celebrated the appearance with Jo-bu with some rum, the same kind you don’t want to steal from him like pitcher Eddie Harris (played by Chelcie Ross) did (remember how he got smacked in the back with a baseball bat?).
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