'Major League' turns 30: How a Dodgers hero helped turn Hollywood stars into a real baseball team

Compared to the other great baseball movies of all time, “Major League” — which was released 30 years ago Sunday — faced a different kind of challenge during its making.

“Bull Durham” was about the minor leagues. “Field of Dreams” was about ghosts playing on a cornfield in Iowa. “The Sandlot” and “Bad News Bears” were about kids. “A League of Their Own” and “The Natural” captured baseball of the past.

“Major League” needed to replicate Major League Baseball in modern times, which is no small feat. Even if the premise of the movie was that these Cleveland Indians were built to lose — that they were tanking before tanking was a thing — the baseball needed to be believable.

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“I just couldn’t cast a guy who wasn’t credible as a baseball player,” David S. Ward, the writer and director of “Major League,” told Yahoo Sports this week, reflecting on the film 30 years later.

Replicating real baseball was important, something the crew of “Major League” went to great lengths to achieve, including setting up a baseball camp for the actors and finding a former World Series MVP to teach these Hollywood stars how to be a believable baseball team.

“Major League” is a comedy first, but there’s a reason it resonates so strongly with baseball fans and players all these years later. It’s rooted in realism — real baseball action, real clubhouse antics. That wouldn’t have happened without Ward’s commitment to casting actors with enough baseball skill to be a believable Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn or Pedro Cerrano.

There were varying degrees of baseball ability and baseball résumés. Charlie Sheen, who played Wild Thing, could throw 80 mph and came to the set a very good baseball player. Corbin Bernsen (Roger Dorn) and Dennis Haysbert (Cerrano) both played in high school. Wesley Snipes (Willie Mays Hayes) didn’t have a ton of baseball experience but was a great athlete. Tom Berenger (Jake Taylor) was probably the least baseball-savvy of the bunch, but as you’ll learn, a catcher’s mask can really help.

“A thing I did with most of them,” Ward said, “before I cast them, I took them outside and we just played catch. I saw who could throw and who couldn’t. As we got further along and we had people who were into the final two or three, we had them do batting practice. I didn’t want anyone who couldn’t throw the ball. It’s very hard to disguise that.

“Tim Robbins in ‘Bull Durham,’ ” Ward continues, “He couldn’t throw the ball 15 feet.”

(Paramount Pictures)
(Paramount Pictures)

How the Dodgers helped

“Major League” is a movie about the hapless Cleveland Indians. It was shot in Arizona and Milwaukee. And it wouldn’t have worked out as well if not one for one particular member of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

When Ward was looking for a technical advisor for “Major League,” he turned to the Dodgers and manager Tommy Lasorda. Ward visited the Dodgers’ clubhouse and was eventually pointed in the direction of Steve Yeager. By then, Yeager was retired but lived on in Dodgers lore for winning the World Series co-MVP in 1981.

“He had a great personality and guys really liked working with him,” Ward said. “He knows how to run a good baseball training camp in a really short period of time. You need someone who knows how far to push the guys when they haven’t played baseball in years.”

As Ward was scouting locations for filming, Yeager put the cast through a two-week training camp in the L.A. area. While baseball realism was part of the goal, so was making sure the actors didn’t get hurt and throw off the shooting schedule.

“Once I cast them, I turned them over to Steve,” Ward said. “Not only to do the baseball stuff, but to do basic conditioning. If you’re not in shape and you’re not able to make baseball moves, it’s very easy to injure yourself — to pull a hamstring or something else that takes a lot of time to heal. Baseball moves are a lot of stops and starts. You go from a stop to a very quick run. If you’re not used to using those muscles, you can injure yourself. If there’s a day when you want to shoot a guy making a throw or running and making a catch, and he can’t run, you gotta find something else to do.”

It wasn’t just a short-term job for Yeager. He eventually had a role in “Major League,” playing third-base coach Duke Temple. He stayed on for the two sequels that followed afterward.

Steve Yeager shown in 2011 with the Dodgers and in the movie "Major League." (AP)
Steve Yeager shown in 2011 with the Dodgers and in the movie "Major League." (AP)

Tales from the ‘Major League’ baseball field

If you look closely, there are a few other times you could see Yeager in “Major League.” He also stood in for Berenger anytime catcher Jake Taylor needed to make a sharp throw from behind home plate.

“Since he had a catcher’s mask on, you couldn’t really tell it was Yeager making most of those throws,” Ward said. “The shot in the movie where Taylor picks off a runner at first — Yeager made that throw. He did two takes, right on the bag both times. That’s when you know you’re dealing with a professional.”

While Tom Berenger didn’t have the best throwing arm, it turned out some of his “Major League” teammates were actually quite capable. And not just Sheen, whose baseball ability has been well documented over the years.

“There is the shot in the movie where Wesley [Snipes] jumps high over the fence and catches a ball, and he actually did that,” Ward said. “It wasn’t a batted ball, the balls were being thrown by Yeager — he was trying to throw them at a height where Wesley could jump and get them. We had to do a little visual effects to enlarge the ball. You almost didn’t see the ball go into his glove his hands were so fast.”

The most impressive baseball feat, however, might have been Haysbert’s power. His role as Pedro Cerrano called for him to have incredible power but also a tough time hitting a curveball. For the real Haysbert, the curve wasn’t a problem and the power was real.

“Dennis could hit the ball really well,” Ward said. “We were shooting in Milwaukee County Stadium and he hit a legitimate home run. He hit the ball over the fence. Those were the kind of things I was looking for.”

That we’re talking about “Major League” 30 years later is a good indication that Ward’s casting techniques combined with Yeager’s baseball IQ paid off. Sure, when we look back at “Major League,” we think about the classic lines (“Juuuuust a bit outside”) and the clubhouse moments and Jobu. But we also don’t immediately roll our eyes at the baseball parts.

“It was really important to us,” Ward said, “to get a group of guys who looked like they could actually play. They’re not professional quality, but you aren’t going to look at them and say, ‘That guy can’t play.’”

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