BOOK REVIEW: “The Making of Major League” by Jonathan Knight

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The Making of Major League: A Juuuust a Bit Inside Look at the Classic Baseball Comedy

by Jonathan Knight (@jknightwriter)

Gray & Co.

$15.95 (Available now in print and Kindle via Amazon and in brick & mortar book stores this week.)

*****

There’s an oft-uttered axiom among those who are both bookworms and movie buffs: “The book was better than the movie.” Columbus author Jonathan Knight, then, faced a seemingly impossible task with his new tome The Making of Major League: A JUUUUST a Bit Inside Look at the Classic Baseball Comedy. Especially in Northeast Ohio, Major League is as beloved as a movie can be. It’s been watched, re-watched, memorized, quoted at will, and has served as an annual springtime viewing tradition for many baseball fans in Cleveland and beyond. Knight, however, succeeds in creating a lively, illuminating, and funny companion to the cultural touchstone.

From the moment one reads the laugh-out-loud dedication page, it is apparent that the story has been placed in good hands. In the preface, Knight confesses, “There was a period in my life where I watched Major League every single day. No joke.” Undertaking this mission, his passion for the film is to be expected. What makes The Making of Major League so special is that, more than 25 years after its release, and after many of them have gone on to other successes, the principals involved still love the film as much as we do. They’re all here: Writer/director David S. Ward and stars such as Tom Berenger, Corbin Bernsen, Wesley Snipes, Renee Russo, Bob Uecker, and, of course, Charlie Sheen, who also wrote the foreword. Contributions from additional on and off-camera talent provide a well-rounded look at the production.

Knight shares the right amount of history relating to David Ward and the path to getting the film into production. It’s enough to make see you why Ward cared so much, but it also doesn’t bog down the proceedings with too much backstory. Ward, who spent his formative years in Cleveland Heights and would win an Oscar at age 27 for writing The Sting, dreamed of making an underdog movie about his beloved and beleaguered Cleveland Indians. As Bernsen notes in the book, “The whole movie was born from David Ward growing up in Cleveland and wanting his Indians to make it to the playoffs…It’s such a simple thing. It’s so human. A little boy’s desire to see his team win.” (The sad sack Indians were so central to the very idea of the film that Ward was prepared to scrap the entire project if Major League Baseball did not grant approval to use real teams.) Like most any successful project in Hollywood, powerful people passed over Major League countless times for several years. Readers will learn how an automobile accident and, years later, Bill Murray played unwitting roles in getting the movie from Ward’s mind to the silver screen.

Where the book truly shines, as one might expect, is in the details of the movie’s production. To write too extensively about it here would spoil many of the book’s treasures, but from the broiling summer heat of Tucson, to the wonderfully enthusiastic and cooperative citizens (and something nicknamed “the anus factory”) in Milwaukee, and to the local scenery filming and difficulty of pulling off a shot of a legitimately full Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, the book takes the reader to all three principal shooting locations. These glimpses into the filmmaking process don’t shatter the on-screen illusion, but rather engender appreciation for how well they were able to pull it off in the finished product, especially in those pre-CGI days of the 1980s.

Most riveting are the discussions relating to specific characters and scenes. Ward and the actors are full of intimate insights and revelations. Bob Uecker discussing broadcaster Harry Doyle is every bit the treasure one would expect it to be, and that section shares with the reader several hilarious Doyle quips that never made it to the finished film.

Knight’s book is full of details about scenes that were altered, cut, or never even filmed. Some of the more interesting inclusions are photocopied excerpts of Ward’s original script, plus storyboards that were used to guide the filming. For example, one can read right from the script a never-filmed scene whereby Willie Mays Hayes and Rick Vaughn endure hours of apathetic indifference during an autograph signing at a local mall, in which the pristine baseballs awaiting the players’ signatures “are moving like radioactive toe jam.” A flustered Hayes then tries to drum up some business.

Of all the cut scenes, the most significant and interesting was how the entire ending of the film had to be re-tooled after near-unanimous feedback from test audiences. Viewers loved rooting against team owner Rachel Phelps so much that the original ending sparked vehement dissatisfaction from the crowd, so Ward rewrote it. Margaret Whitton, who played Phelps, makes an impassioned case in the book for the original ending. She admits she was not a fan of the reworked conclusion and called the post-facto reshoot of her scenes “depressing.”  Whitton’s passion for the Phelps character already shined through earlier in the book, in which her multiple character-focused ad-libs allowed Phelps to thoroughly own her famous locker room scene. (*knock knock* “Cups still work.”)

The end of the book takes a rapid-fire look at the aftermath of the movie, whether it be the tepid reviews from the national media, the film’s box office success, or the disappointing sequel and the abominable non-sequel third-sequel. (And much to my delight, Knight singles out a preposterous scene from the third film that I still mock to this day.) Knight also examines the impact of the film, both on and off the diamond, including how the very next spring, Major League may have possibly played a small role in keeping the Indians in Cleveland.

Full of heart, context, quips, revelations, and rare archival material, The Making of Major League is a must-read for any fan of the film. Better than the movie? Impossible. But Jonathan Knight has crushed a long homerun. He can triumphantly carry his bat around the bases like Pedro Cerrano against the Yankees.

(Yes, that is discussed in the book too.)

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