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1994: The Death of Baseball and the Rise of the Baseball Movie December 1, 2010

Posted by dczarum in Uncategorized.
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By Dave Zarum

“Touch ‘em all, Joe!” yelled legendary Toronto Blue Jays radio announcer Tom Cheek, “You’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life!”

Trailing 6-5 in the bottom of the ninth with Ricky Henderson and Paul Molitor on base, Blue Jays first baseman Joe Carter stepped up to the plate against Philadelphia Phillies closer Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams and blasted the second World Series-winning home run in baseball history. Carter’s shot remains one of the most iconic Canadian sports moments, cementing the second of back-to-back titles for the Blue Jays.

Graphic illustrated by Matt Collett

During spring training of that 1993 season, the seeds of a nasty feud between owners and the MLB Players Association had been sown over issues with a proposed salary cap. Within eight months of Carter’s blast the players went on strike, cancelling the latter part of the 1994 season and the entire post-season, marking the first year without a World Series since 1904.

How were millions of fans going to cope with the indefinite suspension of Major League Baseball?  What could possibly fill the void? In anticipation of the lockout and in the face of these questions, one group went into action: Hollywood producers.

The result? Rookie of the Year, Mr. Baseball, Major League II, The Scout, Angels in the Outfield, The Sandlot, and Little Big League. An avalanche of baseball movies, all released between 1993 and the strike-shortened 1994. Seven flicks, ranging from the fairly forgettable (The Scout, Angels, Mr. Baseball) to the sublime (Major League, Sandlot, Little Big League, Rookie of the Year). A savvy business move on the part of Hollywood’s largest studios, baseball fans responded and hit the theatres in droves: the films earned a combined 171 million dollars at the box office in the United States alone. But was this a reaction to the lockout, or simply an unprecedented collection of genuinely great baseball movies?

In Rookie of the Year, twelve-year old Henry Rowengartner breaks his arm and in the process somehow gains the ability to throw a baseball up to 103 mph. He’s spotted by the Chicago Cubs manager, who promptly offers him a spot on the big league club, despite the fact that he can’t learn Henry’s last name (“Runamaker!”, “Rulenfurter!”). Under the tutelage of Chet ‘Rocket’ Steadman (Gary Busey) and pitching coach Phil Brickma (the hilarious Daniel Stern), Rowengartner leads the Cubs to the pennant. Did I mention he was twelve?

Riding the coattails of ROY, Little Big League sees another twelve-year-old, Billy Heywood, hit the big leagues… as an Owner/manager of the Minnesota Twins. Heywood has to deal with controlling a bunch of grown men and (spoiler alert) ends up earning their respect in the process. Little Big League will best be remembered for perfecting the baseball montage, which takes up roughly sixty per cent of the movie.

Mr. Baseball follows the journey of Tom Selleck and his moustache, as the two play professional baseball in Japan. In The Scout, Albert Brooks plays a scout for the New York Yankees who tries to recruit pitching prodigy Steve Nebraska (Brendan Fraser). Angels in the Outfield is a remake of the 1951 film of the same name, and features Tony Danza as Los Angeles Angels pitcher Mel Clark, and Christopher Lloyd as an angel.

Major League II chronicles another season of the dysfunctional Cleveland Indians, featuring familiar characters like Pedro Serrano, Jake Taylor, Roger Dorn, Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes), Isuru Tanaka, and closer Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughan (Charlie Sheen). If there was an All-Star team of movie baseball players, all of these guys would make it.

The gold standard of early nineties baseball movies remains The Sandlot. A lifelong friendship is formed when, in the summer of 1962, the leader of a local backyard baseball team, Benjamin Rodriguez, recruits the awkward new kid in town, Scotty Smalls, to play for his team. When a baseball signed by Babe Ruth goes over the outfield wall and into a backyard patrolled by the slobbering monster known as “The Beast”, the boys must overcome their fears and retrieve it, predictably coming of age in the process.

Major League Baseball resumed play on April 2, 1995, and baseball movies subsequently faded away. There have been a handful released in the years since, but certainly nothing that could compare to what we saw during the cinematic baseball boom of 1993-1994. Except, of course for Ed, the 1996 movie where ‘Joey’ from Friends learns to deal with playing on the same minor league team as Ed, a baseball playing chimpanzee. That movie was awesome.

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