New book revisits the making of 'Major League'

July 13, 2015 

Jonathan Knight’s latest book started at an Indians game.

The Columbus, Ohio-based sportswriter was at the game in 2010 the day after the death of James Gammon, who played Indians manager Lou Brown in the Cleveland movie classic "Major League." The team put Gammon’s picture up on the scoreboard and held a moment of silence for the actor, who fans immediately recognized.

"It was really kind of a nice moment, but at the same time, it was kind of weird," Knight recalled. "As much as we look at him that way, he’s not a former manager. But in a way, he is. And it was like, something is going on here. ... This movie has become something else."

After all, when you go to Indians games, there’s a good chance you’ll see people in jerseys for Vaughn and Dorn and Hayes and Cerrano — Indians not from the major leagues but from Major League. When the Indians visit the Milwaukee Brewers on July 21, it will be "Major League" night, marking Milwaukee’s standing in for Cleveland in the movie — and featuring a bobblehead of fictional Indians broadcaster Harry Doyle, played by real-life Brewers radio man Bob Uecker.

So a few years after the Gammon game, Knight began the official journey that has led to the new book "The Making of Major League: A Juuuust A Bit Inside Look at the Classic Baseball Comedy" (Gray & Co., $15.95).

The book follows the 1989 movie — about a struggling Indians team banding together to keep the owner from moving out of Cleveland — from its earliest ideas and scripts through its still-strong status as a Cleveland hallmark and one of the best sports movies of all time. The main sources are interviews with writer-director David S. Ward; producer Chris Chesser; cast members including Tom Berenger, Corbin Bernsen and Charlie Sheen; technical adviser and former player Steve Yeager; famous fan Maryhelen Zabas (formerly Sister Mary Assumpta); and others in and around the movie.

The book details Ward’s own fascination with the Indians; which actors played well for real and which did not; the bits of baseball history reflected in the movie; where you see actual Cleveland and where Milwaukee substitutes; and yet another in Sheen’s long list of classic off-camera lines: "It was just one of those odd things that happen while you’re at work — your gun gets stolen."

Knight is a big fan of the film, watching it every day when he was in junior high school. But he doesn’t hide from the debatable parts of the story, including the change in the original ending and the two misguided sequels ("Major League II" and "Major League: Back to the Minors").

Knight — who has also written books about the Browns, Cavs and Indians — spent about 2 1/2 years on this one, published by Gray & Co. (full disclosure: I’ve been part of two other Gray books). And he knew that he had to get to David Ward for it to happen.

"I had no idea how to do it," he said. "I tried and tried and just couldn’t." He finally turned to Bob DiBiasio, the Indians’ senior vice president for public affairs (and the man who vetted the Major League script for the team). DiBiasio connected Knight to Chesser, who got him to Ward, who listened to Knight’s pitch.

"I think he was kind of excited by it. He knew, obviously, this had taken on a cult following, especially up here. They talked to Bob, and Bob vouched for me, and they looked at some of the stuff I had written." And he thinks it appealed to them that Knight was looking at the legacy of the film as opposed to "what kind of lens did you use?"

The connections to Ward and Chesser opened other doors. "I never thought I would talk to everybody," Knight said. Wesley Snipes, for example, was in prison for income-tax evasion when Knight started the book — but agreed to an interview after getting out "and he was really enthusiastic about it.

"In terms of which one was the toughest to get, it was Charlie. It took about eight or nine months to get Charlie. It was probably scheduled 10 or 12 times ... and kept getting postponed. But once I got him, he was great." Sheen has been boosting the book since, writing its foreword and posting a photo online with the book.

But where does Knight stand on one of the biggest issues about the movie: the ending? The original had the team’s seemingly evil owner, played by Margaret Whitton, turn out to have engineered the turnaround and only pretended to torpedo the Indians to inspire them. A preview audience did not like that, so the twist was junked in favor of the team triumphing over the owner.

"I try to envision what it would be like if they didn’t change it," Knight said. "Would people love it less? ... I think [the original] works on paper. The big reason why is, first of all, it’s smart. And it does in a sense provide a great overall payoff because it explains a lot. ... There’s any number of ways in the story, when things start to turn around, that she could have stopped it in its tracks. And in the twist ending, that’s why she didn’t do it. ... But I think they made the right choice."

Knight is also intrigued by the possibility of a fourth Major League movie, which Ward has written (he did not write the second or third) and Sheen talked up during a Cleveland appearance in 2011. "I’ve read the script, and I think it’s great," Knight said. He also thinks the awful third movie left such a bad taste with audiences that the fourth could do away with that. (Similarly, Sylvester Stallone made the sixth Rocky movie to erase the bad memories of the fifth.) While the financing still hasn’t happened, the movie may yet get made — or someone could just reboot the original, Knight said.

The original, after all, endures. I was smiling again when I watched a bit while writing this story. And what about the real Indians? After Major League, they had a period of success that seemed unimaginable when the first movie came out — including two trips to the World Series. Lately — well, I’d rather see a happy movie ending than a sub-.500 record and a no-hitter broken up with two outs in the ninth.

Still, Knight looks at the current Indians and — in spite of all the World Series talk before this season — sees something reflected in the movie where "they’re not as bad as people thought, they’re hovering around .500, and then they catch fire at the end. The actual Indians are sort of mirroring that."

Then can the real Indians make a Major League-like appearance in the playoffs in 2015?

"I don’t know if I’ll go that far," he said. "Maybe if Major League Baseball between now and October adds two or three more wild cards, sure."




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