Cracking the Show


Excerpted from the book The Making of Major League, © Jonathan Knight. All rights reserved.


As the clock ticked toward midnight on a cool spring Saturday night in 2013—just over 25 years since the day Bob DiBiasio first read the Major League script—the scene inside the Capitol Theatre on the near west side of Cleveland was a bit bizarre. Scurrying between the seats and carrying boxes of popcorn and snacks were similarly dressed patrons, each as excited as if it were Christmas Eve. They wore makeshift jerseys with names on the back that were neither their own nor those of actual big-league ballplayers, and their bellies were still full after devouring the special “It’s Way Too High” melt offered by a neighboring restaurant for the occasion.

When the clock hands joined together, the theater darkened, and as the opening piano chords of Randy Newman’s ballad “Burn On” tinkled through the speakers against a montage of downtown Cleveland, the crowd applauded and hooted, even though they’d seen these images dozens of times before.

Major League had reached a level (and time slot) of cult esteem reserved for such classics as The Rocky Horror Picture Show and was being played for an enthusiastic midnight audience, many of whom dressed up as their favorite characters, nearly a quarter-century after the film’s release.

Not all movies graduate to Saturday-midnight-showing status. Even box-office blockbusters and critical darlings don’t generally know the password into this proverbial cinematic speakeasy. It takes a true cult classic, the type of movie that nurtures a passionately dedicated base and subculture of fans who know each scene and each word by heart. Major League has become one.

Although not everyone is quite zealous enough to stay up until the witching hour for a viewing, many thousands of fans return to the film repeatedly and regularly. Maryhelen Zabas—previously known as Sister Mary Assumpta, and an iconic Indians fan who cameoed in the film—estimates she watches Major League at least once every three months. Like the prayers she committed to memory in her half-century in the church, she can recite every line of the film without hesitation. “Any time I need a good laugh,” she says, “I watch it.”

She’s certainly not alone in her repetitious viewing or rote memorization. In Key West filming a movie with Goldie Hawn, actor James Gammon (who portrayed Tribe manager Lou Brown on screen) was stunned when Hawn’s 12-year-old daughter, future actress Kate Hudson, came up to him and began reciting his lines from Major League. “It happened continually,” his wife Nancy says. “He’d be in the bank or the grocery store and people would come up to him. They’d know all of his lines.” Other members of the cast have experienced the same phenomenon.

“Out of all the movies I’ve ever done,” says Rene Russo, who catapulted from Major League into a fantastic Hollywood career, “that’s the one that more people come up to me to talk about. It really is a cult classic. Not even cult, really. Everybody just loves that film.”

The movie has become part of baseball’s life cycle. As the snow begins to melt in late March (and, all too often, then begins to fall again), fans gather in rec rooms and basements and replay the movie in a cherished ritual that indicates a new baseball season is about to begin.

Like peanuts and Cracker Jacks, Major League has become intertwined with the fabric of baseball. With self-deprecation, strong comedic writing, classic performances, and repeated viewing, the film gradually entered the lexicon of the game. By the early 1990s, sportscasters, particularly ESPN’s cadre of vivacious on-air desk jockeys, were borrowing terminology provided by Bob Uecker in Major League to describe actual game highlights, and the trend began to spread.

When you attend a major-league game anywhere in the country, you’re bound to encounter Major League references and influences, even if they’re so accepted you don’t recognize them.

“Fans bring it into real life,” explains Bob DiBiasio, who today is the Indians’ vice president of sales and marketing. “It’s the way they remember certain scenes and certain phrases from the movie. You’ll be sitting at the ballpark and there’ll be an outside pitch, and somebody sitting nearby will make the Uecker call: ‘Juuuust a bit outside.’ Somebody hits a long home run and you see guys in the bleachers saying, ‘It’s too high, it’s too high.’ It’s morphed into people doing their own play-by-play. And there’s such an age range—you’ve got people in their 50s doing it and kids doing it. You can’t go through a game without hearing that kind of stuff. I feel like it’s a part of us.”

The film has spawned a cottage industry. Sprinkled among the inventory of the sidewalk concessioners outside Progressive Field on game day, you’ll find dozens of different Major League-themed t-shirts and apparel. Once inside the ballpark, you’ll see a handful of fans wearing replica jerseys mimicking the one worn by Charlie Sheen in his portrayal of “Wild Thing” Rick Vaughn, who became the most recognized character of the film.

“When you think about other baseball movies, is there any equivalent to somebody wearing a Vaughn jersey?” DiBiasio asks. “I don’t think so.”

While Vaughn’s is the most commonly spotted, it’s certainly not the only Major League jersey you’ll see. There are jerseys for Pedro Cerrano, Willie Mays Hayes, and Jake Taylor. You’ll even spot a few Roger Dorn jerseys floating around big-league ballparks if you pay attention.

Major League is both baseball’s version of Star Trek and Cleveland’s version of The Wizard of Oz. At its heart, it represents the hybrid of frustration, eternal optimism, and good humor that has defined baseball and its fans for more than a century.

A scene early in the movie encapsulates both the origin and the intention of the film. Dinged-up veteran catcher Jake Taylor has just received one last chance to resurrect his big-league career and, in street clothes, he strolls out to home plate in an empty Cleveland Stadium. Standing alone, soaking in his surroundings, he intones the voice of an imaginary announcer.

“Two down, bottom of the ninth, game is tied . . . ”

He raises his arm and points to the center-field fence.

“Taylor calls his shot,” he says casually, as if this were something he did each time he stepped into the batter’s box. “There’s the pitch . . .”

He swings his imaginary bat at the imaginary ball, and we hear the satisfying crack of solid contact mingled with the ghostly roar of imaginary fans watching the ball follow Taylor’s projected path over the outfield wall.

He jogs triumphantly around the bases, pumping his fist. (He looks not unlike gimpy Kirk Gibson pumping his fist after his dramatic game-winning home run for the Dodgers in the 1988 World Series. Though of course on the day of this scene’s filming, Gibson’s celebration was two months in the future.) Taylor is offered congratulations by an invisible third-base coach and then is greeted by his jubilant, nonexistent teammates at home plate.

The exercise is as ordinary and understood as baseball itself, reflecting the dreams of youngsters who hope to one day make it reality as well as the nostalgic musings of adults on their unfulfilled—perhaps unrealistic—goals.

Although the scene sets up an ironic climax to the film, there’s otherwise not much remarkable about it. It’s overshadowed by funnier, more dynamic scenes that surround it. But in essence, the scene represents how and why this movie was made. Instead of acting out a baseball fantasy with an imaginary bat and ball, David Ward did it with a pencil and a pad of paper.

• • •

When you come right down to it, it was all the fault of Willie Mays.

The seed for one of the most memorable, most beloved sports movies ever made—and a piece of baseball cinema that wound up altering the game itself—was planted when Willie Mays made the most amazing play of his career and provided the game of baseball with one of its most iconic moments.

The 1954 World Series was supposed to be a coronation. The Cleveland Indians had spent the summer accomplishing two seemingly impossible feats: winning a record 111 games in a 154-game schedule and, perhaps more impressively, ending the New York Yankees’ five-year dynasty as world champions. The Fall Classic, which began in the Polo Grounds against the outrageously overmatched New York Giants on a balmy late September afternoon, was essentially the anticlimax to a magnificent season.

Indeed, when Cleveland first baseman Vic Wertz launched a Don Little pitch into the dark recesses of the Polo Grounds’ vast center field with the game tied and two on in the top of the eighth inning, it appeared the Indians had just secured a Game One victory. But anyone who knows baseball history knows what happened next. Mays, who was just beginning to show everyone how special he was, turned his back on the ball, sprinted to a part of the outfield seldom used in the course of a game, made an over-the-shoulder catch 460 feet from home plate for the out, then spun and whipped the ball back into the infield to thwart a rally.

Eight-year-old David Ward, his eyes glued to a minuscule black-and-white television screen back in Cleveland Heights, couldn’t believe it. Even at his age, he knew this was a play that shouldn’t—maybe even couldn’t—have been made. Instead of winning the game as they’d done so many times this golden season, his Indians went on to lose, two innings later, on a chip-shot homer that traveled barely half as far as Vic Wertz’s flyout.

Crazy as it sounds today, at the time, championships were not completely unexpected by Cleveland fans. The Indians had won a world title in 1948 and the Browns had captured three NFL championships in their first six years in the league.

This was the Cleveland that David Ward called home. Technically, he wasn’t a native, having been born in Providence, Rhode Island, in the fall of 1945. But by Christmas of that year, his father, an airplane mechanic during the war, had moved the family to Cleveland to sell piston rings for TRW. In this town, in this era, it didn’t take much to become a sports fan. Even at a young age, Ward could tell from his slender frame that he wasn’t a natural football player, so he gravitated to baseball, and with his dad regularly able to score Indians tickets, Ward quickly adopted the Tribe as his own.

In turn, cavernous Cleveland Stadium became almost magical to him. Each time he neared the stadium and saw the giant metallic sign with grinning Chief Wahoo posted atop the outer wall, Ward’s pulse would quicken.

“That was one of the first things you’d see walking to the turnstiles from the parking lot,” he remembers. “God, that was great. I felt I was going to a sacred place where only the initiates were allowed. Like you’d actually gone to someplace that exists on a higher plane of reality. I’d just stand there with my mouth open and look at all of it, thinking, This is where the gods play.”

The Indians’ dominance in 1954 came as no surprise to the young Ward as his mania for the team hit its peak. He felt he was simply witnessing the natural progression of greatness. Surely this would be the first in a long line of Indians championship seasons he would experience.

Then Willie Mays dropped an anvil on Cleveland’s head.

“I just couldn’t comprehend it,” Ward says. “As a kid you sort of looked to the adults around you to see how they process this. None of the adults I looked to knew how to process it, either.”

Things only got worse. The Giants won another close game the following afternoon to put the Indians in a two-game hole. Nervousness began to spread around Cleveland like a low-grade fever. “I could just see it in my dad,” Ward recalls. “I could see that creeping dread . . . the Cleveland disease.” Rocked on their heels, the Indians faithful watched in horror as the Giants wrapped things up in Cleveland over the weekend, pummeling the Tribe in the next two games to complete a stunning four-game sweep.

Ward was still three weeks away from his ninth birthday, but he’d just received his first harsh lesson of adulthood: Things don’t always turn out the way you want.

“After that, it felt as if the baseball gods didn’t want the Indians to win,” he says. “When a guy hits arguably the longest ball in the history of the World Series and it’s an out, that’s when you know that being an Indians fan is a real mixed bag. It’s been an uphill struggle ever since.”

Although Ward would continue to follow the Indians on what turned out to be their long descent into oblivion, he did so from outside Cleveland. Just over a year after the World Series sweep, Ward’s father moved the family again, this time to Kirkwood, Missouri, outside St. Louis. Ward adopted the Cardinals as his preferred National League team and envisioned the Cards and his beloved Tribe squaring off in an epic World Series.

And it was that kind of imagination that eventually paved the way toward David Ward’s career.

• • •

He was supposed to be a doctor.

Like most parents of that generation, Ward’s father saw a medical degree as the apex of the American dream, and always pressured his son to get grades good enough to get him into college and get him started on a solid career. After moving from Cleveland to St. Louis, the Ward family then moved to northern California, and finally to Fullerton, just outside Los Angeles, where Ward graduated from Sunny Hills High School.

His grades were indeed good enough, and he enrolled at Pomona College in Claremont, California, then and now one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the nation. It didn’t take Ward long to realize that he couldn’t follow the path his father had planned for him. “I hit organic chemistry,” he says, “and realized I wasn’t going to make it through to being a doctor. It just wasn’t for me.”

He bounced among five different majors over the next three years, finally settling on government because it was the one for which he was closest to completing the credits he needed for graduation. He felt no real passion for the subject, though. So, in his senior year, when he was assigned to write an essay for a political theory class comparing Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he desperately tried to find a way to stave off the crippling boredom the assignment entailed. In an episode of slightly geeky 1960s counterculture rebellion, he wrote an essay comparing Rousseau to musician Bob Dylan and turned it in.

After class a few days later, his professor called him into his office. Ward cringed, thinking he was about to be berated and lectured for his lack of respect for the professor and his course. And that’s how it started out. “First of all,” the professor began, “your political theory is crap.” Then the conversation—and David Ward’s life—made a hairpin turn. “But,” the professor continued, “your writing is really interesting. I was fascinated reading this essay. I don’t get many like this. Have you ever thought of writing?”

In retrospect, he realized that the professor might have just been trying to get an uninspired student out of his class. Writing hadn’t interested Ward before. He had been equally bored by an American literature course he’d taken.

“I’d never done any writing,” he says. “I didn’t go around making up stories or anything like that, and I was probably the least well-read person on the campus.”

But the more he thought about it, he realized that even as a kid back in Cleveland, he’d always loved movies. From the day he came out of a theater swinging an imaginary sword after watching Prince Valiant, he had spent the rest of his childhood begging his dad to take him to the movies. And as it happened, the college class he remembered most fondly was a theater course he’d taken the previous year. Not long after, this convergence of realizations inspired Ward to gather some friends—one of whom was a photographer—and whip up an eight-minute movie just for the hell of it.

“It was the most fun thing I had done in college,” Ward says.

With graduation on the horizon, he contemplated the craziest notion of his life: maybe he should go to film school. He applied to the University of Southern California’s prestigious film school, in the middle of a golden era in which it produced George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, John Carpenter, and Ron Howard. With nothing to show the school but his eight-minute lark of a film, an existential vignette about a guy meeting a girl in an airport, Ward applied anyway and was accepted.

His decision to attend film school wasn’t well-received by his father, who told him if he wanted to take a misstep on his life’s journey, he’d have to pay for it himself. Juggling classes between jobs as a security guard and an assistant editor at an educational film company where he’d put together dental films shot entirely inside people’s mouths, Ward managed to make it through a year at USC before realizing he couldn’t afford to continue. With USC out of scholarships, he went across town and enrolled at UCLA’s film school, where tuition was about one-tenth that of USC’s.

In his second year at UCLA, Ward started kicking around ideas for his thesis, which for most students meant making a longer film. Ward began writing a script, but it took on a life of its own, quickly exceeding the boundaries of what he could produce. Instead of making a movie, he decided his thesis would be a screenplay for a feature-length film. Over an eight-month period, Ward worked on his script—a screwball, counterculture comedy about a group of misfits trying to repair an airplane to fly to a deserted island in order to live life as they wanted, away from the pressures and pitfalls of modern society. He titled it Steelyard Blues.

After scribbling the words by hand on legal pads—a method that would continue throughout his career—Ward needed to package them into a clean, readable format. He took his tattered pages across the street from UCLA to the Venice Skill Center, where he made a deal to have the stenography students type them. He became friends with the man who ran the place, who eventually provided a cleanly typed screenplay. Ward thought it was good enough to shop around Hollywood, even though it was the first effort of a complete unknown. He got nowhere fast. But then, foreshadowing the type of witty, intelligent stories he would later tell over the course of his career, Ward got his first big break by accident. Or more specifically, because of an accident.

Out of the blue one day, his new buddy from the Venice Skill Center stopped by Ward’s apartment with interesting news.

“Y’know what? Strange thing,” he began. “You’ve been looking for an agent, right?”

Ward admitted he had and leaned forward with interest.

“My wife just had a fender bender with an agent a couple of weeks ago. He’s a really nice guy. We settled it and actually had dinner the other night. Could I give him your script?”

And with that began a mesmerizing whirlwind that turned an unknown film-school student into an Oscar winner in fewer than 36 months.

The agent was Stu Miller, who loved Steelyard Blues and sent it to Tony Bill, a successful actor who’d just begun working as a producer. Bill also was enamored of Ward’s script and shared it with his new partners, Michael and Julia Phillips, who were on the brink of becoming the dynamic duo of Hollywood producers. Then the ball really started rolling. They sent the script to actor Donald Sutherland, fresh from his breakthrough roles in the film version of M*A*S*H and Kelly’s Heroes. Sutherland was eager to star in it. Jane Fonda, who was in a relationship with Sutherland at the time and was the up-and-coming star of Barefoot in the Park and Klute, in which she’d starred with Sutherland, also agreed to do it. Warner Brothers stepped in to finance the project, and in the proverbial blink of an eye, Steelyard Blues had gone from a stenography assignment to a major Hollywood production.

And just like that, David Ward had cracked the show.

But it didn’t take long for reality to nibble at the edges of fantasy. The studio balked at Ward’s casting suggestions, and the director seemed in over his head. Fonda refused to play certain parts of the script. Ward frantically rewrote scenes on the fly, but she still wouldn’t cooperate, and her character—and the story—began to change dramatically.

Although this was his first time at the circus, Ward recognized the situation for what it was and quickly decided he had had enough, eventually walking away from the movie. Naturally, when it was released in January of 1973, he was disappointed by the final product. But there was a silver lining to Steelyard Blues’s dark cloud.

“It didn’t hurt me that much because nobody saw it,” Ward admits. “That’s the only break we caught. If a film really bombed badly, especially back then, it didn’t hurt you that much because nobody saw it and nobody even associated you with it. If a movie bombed, it just disappeared.”

Steelyard Blues had come and gone in a puff of smoke. With it, Ward assumed, went his chances of succeeding in Hollywood. “I just thought I’d set a new world record for the shortest movie career in history,” he says.

As it turned out, though, the opposite was true. David Ward, just turned 27, would soon be off to the races—both figuratively and literally.

• • •

You could say that David Ward pickpocketed an Academy Award.

Not that there was any thievery or chicanery involved; rather, Ward took a simple concept and turned it into a beloved legend. And nobody knew he was doing it.

Although Steelyard Blues certainly never received Oscar consideration, it inspired an idea that did. The script included a pickpocket scene, and, knowing nothing about how the practice worked, Ward began researching it. He learned about grifters and a shadowy subculture of street crime in which grifters were at the bottom of the food chain and confidence men were at the top. He was fascinated by their means, motives, and relative morality, particularly the way con men generally didn’t use violence or technically steal anything, but leveraged people’s greed to manipulate them into handing over their money. He thought it would make a great movie.

Ward conceived a tale of an elaborate ragtime plot cooked up by a young grifter who teams with an experienced con man to outsmart a powerful criminal with a fake racetrack gambling operation. When Steelyard Blues was purchased, Tony Bill asked Ward if he was working on anything else. Ward described his new idea, and Bill was fascinated. “Tell you what,” he said. “Why don’t you put together a little story and record it on a tape recorder and I’ll take it up to Redford?”

“Redford,” of course, was 35-year-old Robert Redford, who’d just exploded into prominence with back-to-back hits Barefoot in the Park (with Ward’s favorite leading lady, Jane Fonda) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Bill had already established a relationship with Redford, so when he played the cassette of Ward explaining the story, Redford loved the idea and asked that when the script was done, they bring it to him first. Ward completed the script in late 1972, Bill took it to Redford, and the rest is history.

“That film came together in about two weeks,” Ward remembers. “It’s never, ever happened like that since.”

“That film” was The Sting, and once Redford was on board, things got real in a hurry. George Roy Hill signed on to direct and recruited matinee idol Paul Newman and venerable character actor Robert Shaw to star alongside Redford.

When it was released on Christmas Day 1973, it became a classic almost instantly. The Sting won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and, when Neil Simon opened the envelope for the winner for Best Original Screenplay, it was David Ward’s name he announced. Ward floated onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion unable to quite believe what had happened.

“I didn’t really understand it until I was backstage,” he remembers. “Photographers were taking pictures, and there were all these famous people. Then it started to hit me that this was a pretty big deal.”

The kid who’d never wanted to be a writer had reached the peak of his profession at the tender age of 28. He now had the financial and creative freedom to carefully select the scripts he wanted to write and take his time in developing them.

Yet as rewarding and thrilling as winning the Oscar was, it also became something of a burden. For the next several years, Ward felt that in order to meet expectations he had to deliver a script for another big movie. Eventually, though, the pressure eased. He turned his focus toward finding a smaller film—this time to both write and direct.

He scripted an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row, a book he’d always loved, but this one didn’t come together quickly, ultimately taking four years to make it to the screen. Along the way, the script landed on the desk of a young executive at brand-new Orion Pictures, Chris Chesser.

“I loved that script,” Chesser says. “And that’s how I met David.” Although Chesser and Ward wouldn’t work together on Cannery Row, the relationship they established would ultimately pay off.

Just prior to its release in February 1982, Cannery Row earned incredibly high preview-audience scores, and it appeared Ward had created another critical and commercial success. But on opening night, Ward walked into the cavernous Village Theater in Westwood and counted 20 people in the seats. It was a depressing moment that ranked with the ’54 Series and forecasted what was about to happen. Cannery Row made just $5 million—barely enough to crack the top 100 moneymaking films of the year and a figure that certainly wasn’t going to encourage studios to hire Ward as a director. For him to keep up his promising career path, he needed to be very careful about selecting his next project.

“I’d had a big hit as a writer, but as a director I’d only done one movie, and it was a flop,” he says. “I might get a second chance, but I wasn’t going to get a third chance. The next movie I did had to work. So I started thinking about what kind of movie I’d like to do.”

The concept came to him surprisingly quickly when he figured out a way to fuse two of his passions—storytelling and baseball—and use them to connect his future to his past.

Fresh from adapting John Steinbeck, David Ward decided to adapt the Cleveland Indians.

This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
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